We all love to listen to stories, even if it is mere gossip. But we all recognize that the best and greatest storyteller who ever lived was Jesus the Teacher. His parables are metaphors with hidden or clear messages that forced his listeners to think. Whether it is the parable of the Good Samaritan, of the mustard seed, or of the prodigal son, or any of the more than 30 parables recounted by the Gospel writers, all left His audience wondering, “What did He really mean by that?” Those parables continue to challenge readers till now. And if the Panunuluyan were a parable it has a deeper meaning.
Jesus as the Greatest Story, is reflected in the way He lived his life, but the Story is overshadowed by the story of Jesus the Redeemer or the Atoner. The crucifix with His crucified body on the cross hanging in big churches and cathedrals, in classrooms, in chapels, in homes, is meant to remind all that Jesus suffered for the sins of mankind and saved us from eternal damnation. Whether the crucifix has succeeded in impressing upon the minds of Christians, be they political, corporation, or organization leaders, not to harm others and to be accountable is easily answered with a loud, “No!” In the past, nations and tribes were even colonized in God’s name by dominating political forces and armies. It is not Jesus’s fault that the message behind his suffering is lost in translation into everyday life. Our minds just cannot fathom the gravity of wars, rapes, murders, brutalities, and slavery committed against others through thousands of years nor the lacerating and searing punishment imposed on one person (Jesus) through the cruelest form of execution to compensate for all these sins.
There is, however, a bigger story behind Jesus’s sacrifice that has sustained devotion to Jesus all these years and which should inspire us to live our lives with fuller meaning and aligned with the deep significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.
If we remove from our minds’ filter the fact that Jesus was divine and instead focus more on His being human, then we will be able to “feel” and “understand” Jesus better and what a great example His life was for other humans like us. We must see Jesus as a historical figure living a simple life in the Jewish homeland of Judea in the years between 5 BCE and 33 CE under the Roman Empire.
Recent archaeological diggings show that Nazareth was not a rural village. It was a mere 6 kms to Sepphoris, the grand capital city in central Galilee under Herod Antipas. The level of culture and riches of Sepphoris and the area around which Jesus lived was not only mainstream but high end. This area around Galilee, as recent archaeological findings show, was quite rich, but it was also not peaceful. It was a hotbed of political activities against Roman oppression
Jesus was born at the time Sepphoris was raided and destroyed by Roman centurions. The raid against Sepphoris was still very much in the minds and conversations of the Jews living around it, when Jesus was growing up. Joseph and Jesus himself were thought to be artisan carpenters who earned a living in Sepphoris which had many satellite villages like Nazareth. So, Jesus grew up knowing about his countrymen’s political restiveness under the Romans and the heavy hand of the Roman centurions inflicted years earlier on the residents of Sepphoris many of whom were Jews. From our readings of the New Testament, we also know that the Jews were not monolithic. Various critical views on how the religious leadership should behave and how the Temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Israelites returned from the Babylonian captivity, should be run by the priests abound.
The national situation at that time explains why questions being raised by those around Jesus were always about Caesar, the Jewish law, temple activities and the rivalries of Jewish groups. We could sense the rivalries among the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Levites including that between the Samaritans and the Jews (just refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan). The political climate in which Jesus lived was like the current political climate in the US (Republicans vs Trumpians, and vs Democrats) or in the Philippines (Red vs Pink or vs Yellow) the leftists and the far right (or the autocratic) especially during election season.
The Temple was the center of Jewish life and a unifying symbol. The first temple, built by Solomon was destroyed by Babylonians before leading the Jews to their captivity in Babylon. Released hundreds of years later by the Persians, the Jews returned to Jerusalem and built the second temple (the destruction of which in 66 AD/CE was prophesied by Jesus). Without counting the Egyptians (Israel’s liberation from them is the center story in Exodus), the Jews had suffered under Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians/Greeks, Seleucids, and the Romans by the time Jesus was born. It was therefore expected that the Jews developed an “eschatological mindset” which made them yearn for the end of times (not “the end of the world”, for the people then did not know how the world would end as we know now through either nuclear war or climate change; these developments were not yet realities in the Roman times). For the Jews, eschatology referred to the end of their oppression from various dominating powers. And for the Jews, the Messiah they were waiting for was someone who would liberate them from their oppressors and restore the unified Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The Jews thus went through the long history of conquests and man’s inhumanity to man through the millennia.
Jesus entered public life knowing that the political climate around him was heating up. He taught a new way of living and thinking: “build the Kingdom of God” on earth as it is in heaven to counterpoint the Kingdom of Caesar which was all about power and glory; build a life around the rule of “love thy neighbor as thyself” not the rigid rules on behavior during Sabbath, share resources which come from the earth (there is enough to go around if only we learn to share and not hoard) as shown in the multiplication of loaves and fishes, give fair wages, treat women the way men are treated (Jesus confronted those who were judgmental about the woman who anointed his feet before a group of male followers.)
But the most important example that Jesus taught us was standing against dominant or dominating powers who dehumanize those under them, who deprive others of their rights and of their access to nature’s bounty, who reduce human dignity to the level of animals’. It is this message for justice and love that people like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero understood and lived for. MLKing was assassinated in Memphis fighting for civil rights for Black Americans, Romero who fought for peace and justice was shot in the heart in El Salvador while celebrating the Holy Eucharist; Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in a concentration camp in Germany. Their deaths increased citizens’ political involvement. We need not be martyred like them, and there are those who start movements with big grassroot followers like the desparecidos movement in Chile during the Pinochet regime. There are on-going mass movements in Iran and China against political repression, without any known leaders, sparked by specific incidents involving deaths of innocent people, like the Arab Spring in 2010.
It is sad that innocent ones have to go through so much suffering when the vigilance of ordinary citizens and a free press can impede abuses at the top by calling attention to such abuses.
After more than 2000 years, Jesus still cannot find a place in the hearts of the people He loved and stood for. Meanwhile, the suffering in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh, in Kurds’ areas, in hamlets in Afghanistan or in small towns in the Philippines, etc. continue beyond our comprehension.
As we watch the Panunuluyan or think about the Holy Family’s search for an inn, let us remember those who live in areas of conflict, those who suffer from hunger and exposure to the elements, those whose bodies are being violated, those whose loved ones have been tortured or killed. In short, let us be mindful of the parable of Panunuluyan―of why there was, and there is still, no room at the inn for Jesus.