Aug 28, 2010

22nd Sunday - Who has a place at God's table?

Sirach 3: 17-18,20,28-29
Hebrews 12: 18-19,22-24a
Luke 14: 1,7-14

You may be familiar with the phrase, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” That line alone would be a great country western refrain. But, I think most of us would say such lines with tongue in cheek and hopefully not take ourselves so seriously – or so arrogantly. The flip side of pride is of course humility.

Humility is still one of the most valued qualities in our day. When we find such a prized virtue in our leaders, our friends, in married spouses, we find ourselves more respectful and we grow in admiration of them. In fact, we may even want to imitate their behavior.

The opposite would be people who seem to be among the “know-it-alls.” Constant bragging in another makes for a very dull person, the opposite of what they may intend. Those who might feel they are just too important and influential to care much about “the little people,” as one executive from a noted oil company tagged the common man, often repel rather than attract others. A lack of humility has been the downfall of executives, movie stars and sports figures. When you perceive yourself at the top of life, the only way is down.

Our readings for this Sunday, the 22nd in Ordinary Time, clearly urge us to be a humble people. The Book of Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29, begins: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts . . .” How can one disagree with such a beautiful statement? To find greatness before God, Sirach advises, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are . . .” Do you think the Pope or the President have to clean their own bathrooms? I doubt it but, with all due respect, they likely put their pants on the same way I do. St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ.” I don’t think that is simply sentimental piety. It may well be the path to holiness and perfection; we can all do little things with love and humility.

In the Gospel of Luke 14: 1, 7-14, we hear Jesus offer more practical advice on the value of humility; advice that may not be so easy to apply. After all, while humility may be attractive in someone else, I may find that I much prefer to be noticed. I would rather not take the place of a potted plant or a wall flower, unless there is some payback for me. However, such mixed motives may be the problem itself.

So, Our Lord, gathered at a meal as he often was with the rich, the influential, and the morally questionable, which raised more than just the eyebrows of Jesus on various occasions, offers both his hosts and the other guests a parable about taking the lowest place. Such observation offered to a group of the common citizen might not have the same impact for they were accustomed to being on the outside. They knew they had no place at a gathering of, “one of the leading Pharisees.” So, Jesus turns it all around and challenges the artificial social order of his time.

He is watched carefully by “the people.” Why? They were already suspicious of his orthodoxy; his understanding of the law and its application so if he should trip up, in their estimation, they would be justified. Does that sound like humility and respect?

So, Jesus offers one piece of advice to the guests and another to the host. That given to the host is the core of the parable about the “wedding feast” in the Kingdom of God. To the guests, Jesus says, after he observes what must have appeared a near comical vying for position:

“When you re invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor . . . Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend come up to a higher position’. . .” Such an appeal to their sense of esteem was genius, albeit their motivation was less than perfect. Such a desire for flattery on the part of the guests at this august banquet may have been fueled by Jesus observation but at least it broke the ice. It challenged those who heard it to think differently about power and prestige and it caused those present to see that Jesus was not going to accept the status-quo.

But then Our Lord spoke to the host himself with more radical advice. And herein lays the new vision of the Kingdom of God – the wedding feast and the banquet to which we are invited by God; the Church as those called to be disciples of Jesus in his Kingdom.

To his host, Jesus comments, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends, brothers, relatives, or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back . . .” What kind of advice is that? Shouldn’t anyone who takes the time to throw a party be free to invite anyone they want, especially my friends, neighbors, and family members? Of course but this is a parable about membership that Jesus reveals. Who is invited? Who has a place at God’s table?

“. . . the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind . . .” for we too are called to welcome all as Christ himself has welcomed us. To be humble servants after the example of Jesus himself, regardless of our position in life, is to live and see as God sees. As Blessed Mother Teresa once said, “Let the people eat you up.” Now there’s a Eucharistic sign if I’ve every heard one.

Jesus offers his hearers and every generation of Christians to follow a new way of viewing society and God’s intent. It was more than proper table etiquette that night as he gathered at the home of a leading Pharisee. It was a vision of the Church, of family life, of social interaction between the rich and the poor, between the loved and the unloved, between the unborn and the born, between humanity in its fullness.

Political parties, the economy, what side of town we live in, language and culture are often cause for division. We are more likely suspicious of strangers than choose to welcome them with open arms.

Yet, our Eucharist has a place for everyone. The next time you attend Mass, look around you. Not just at those you know but everywhere throughout the Church. Sit in a different pew than you normally do and you will likely have a new perspective on more than just the place of the altar. Our Eucharistic gathering foreshadows what is yet to come for those who put their faith in the risen Christ.