SPECIAL FEATURE “If we do not listen to Moses and the Prophets…”A Reflection for the Celebration of National Bible Month (January 2020)

And [the Rich Man] said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Lk 16:27-31)

The celebration of National Bible Month in January (formally declared by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017 as an annual celebration) becomes especially significant when viewed as an invitation to treasure the spirit of the recently concluded Christmas celebration. To remind people to turn to the reading of the Bible after so many festivities evokes the Christian’s proper response as demonstrated by the first witnesses to the Nativity.

In the Gospel of Luke, where I wish to concentrate this reflection, we have three sets of responses after the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child” (2:17) and these are shown by (1) “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (cf. 2:18); (2) Mary who “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (2:19); and (3) the shepherds themselves who “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (2:20).

The pedagogical flow of these responses — from amazement to pondering to glorifying God — can serve as a paradigm for understanding the process that a disciple undergoes towards maturity in faith in Jesus. Most crucial to this process is the middle stage since it acts to bridge ‘amazement’ with ‘glorifying God.’ In Luke’s infancy narratives, the Blessed Virgin Mary enacts this crucial stage on three occasions when she grapples with the words she heard. In the Annunciation, Mary was “perplexed” (διεταράχθη) by the words of the Angel and so “pondered” (διελογίζετο) what sort of greeting that might be (1:29). Listening to the shepherds during the nativity, Mary “treasured” (συνετήρει) the words “by pondering” (συμβάλλουσα) them in her heart (2:19). Finally, unable to understand Jesus’ words when they [Joseph and Mary] found him in the temple (“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, 2:49), Mary “treasured” (διετήρει) the words in her heart (2:51). 

This ‘pondering,’ which we may also call ‘discipleship of the word’ continues in Luke’s Gospel as a challenge to the disciples in their journey with Jesus. When Jesus calls the first disciples, we find Peter responding to Jesus’s command to put down the nets for a catch: “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word (ἐπὶ δὲ τῷ ῥήματί σου) I will let down the nets” (5:5). Peter’s response evokes the words of Mary during the Annunciation: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word (κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου)” (1:38). We see here how the disciples follow a similar process of growth towards maturity and their recognition of Jesus Christ will depend on how they took account of his words as revealed in the Scriptures.

For the disciples who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem, he will explain the Scriptures through three predictions of his passion, death, and resurrection (cf. 9:21-22, 44-45; 18:31-34). When they fail to understand these words, Jesus will allow them to witness his Transfiguration where, after having seen Moses and Elijah who “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31), they will enter the cloud where they will receive the command to “listen to him” (9:35). 

To those who have not accompanied the apostles “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them],beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from [them] (Acts 1:21-22),” recognition of Jesus Christ will also be through the Scriptures. This is dramatized in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Initially stuck in the first stage of perplexity and amazement, they were able, nonetheless, to project the right attitude of openness to the word by allowing Jesus to join their conversation. Their openness leads them to present a tentative outline of their gospel. Jesus will upbraid them for their failure to understand the Scriptures: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (24:25-26) By interpreting the Scriptures to them, Jesus will make their hearts burn with desire leading them to invite him to stay with them. Finally, their hospitality towards Jesus will lead to the breaking of the bread and their recognition of the Risen Christ. 

The discipleship of the word reveals to us that after his Resurrection, Jesus will be recognized only by disciples, as Fred B. Craddock explains beautifully: “Faith is not coerced or overwhelmed by revelations to the unprepared. Notice that in the Gospels the risen Christ appears to disciples, not to unbelievers on the street and in synagogues to frighten them into an acquiescing faith.” (Luke [Interpretation; Louisville, KY 1990]: 285)

Those who may not have been with Jesus physically (which includes present-day Christians), will fail to recognize the Risen Christ unless through the Scriptures which Jesus himself will (re)open to them. As in the case of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures (cf. 24:27) will urge them to invite him to stay longer. Their recognition of Jesus in the ‘breaking of the bread’ will, finally, cause them to remember how Jesus’ opening the Scriptures set their hearts aflame urging them to return to Jerusalem immediately to proclaim the message of the Resurrection. 

It is important to see in Luke’s account that while the message of the disciples in Jerusalem focused on the confirmation of the Resurrection event (“The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”, 24:34), the message of the disciples from Emmaus points to the process that led to anagnorisis: “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35).

The succeeding narrative (24:36-49) will further emphasize the process of recognizing Jesus through the Scriptures. Indeed, by reading through Luke’s Gospel, one may have the (correct) impression that St. Jerome’s famous quip —“Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”— should apply primarily to the disciples gathered on the day of the Resurrection. When Jesus appears finally to greet them “Peace be with you” (24:36), they will initially think of him as a ghost and will need a more powerful reassurance than their perception of his hands and feet (“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”, cf. 24:39) or his eating broiled fish in their presence (cf. 24:41-43). Only the Scriptures will reassure them: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (24:44-47).

Returning now to the pedagogical paradigm set by the infancy narratives, the third stage of glorifying God will be properly enacted by the Blessed Virgin Mary as a fruit of the discipleship of the word (treasuring and pondering). It is interesting to note that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Magnificat (1:46-55) is introduced by Elizabeth’s praise: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (1:45). Remarkably, at the height of his ministry, Jesus’s praise for her mother will be couched as an invitation for a discipleship of the word: 

“While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (11:27-28)

Fr. Wenifredo V. Padilla III, O.P., STL-MA, SSL, teaches Sacred Scriptures at the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Theology (Manila), at the Institute of Preaching of the Dominican Province of the Philippines (Quezon City), and at the Divine Word Seminary (Tagaytay). He is working toward obtaining a Doctorate in Biblical Studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He can be contacted at: wenifredopadilla@gmail.com.

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