Aug 31, 2013

22nd Sunday: "It's your meal too"

(James Tissot: Jesus and the Pharisees)
 "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted"

Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a
Lk 14:1, 7-14

We are naturally impressed when someone of great importance or power performs a compassionate act of genuine humility.  Our Holy Father Pope Francis is an obvious example of one who looks beyond his position to be a true humble servant of God as he reaches out to wash the feet of prisoners, spontaneously calls people on the phone, dresses in less elaborate vestments for Mass, visits a slum in Brazil, and speaks about the need to never forget the poor and so on.

Or the British Family under King George VI, the father of the present Queen Elizabeth, who did not run from London during the bombing of World War II but stayed in the city with the general population, putting his own life and that of his family in danger,  in order to display a certain sympathy with the suffering.

There may be other examples from each of our lives of people we’ve known who hold certain positions of power and prestige but are humble and not filled with themselves or their own importance. Such examples of human compassion win the esteem of others and gain respect for our leaders.

The readings this Sunday speak to us of the importance of humility as Jesus uses the example of who sits where during a banquet at the home of a leading Pharisee.  These dinners were not just a casual get together. These dinners were places for debate and clear social ranking.  Notice in the Gospel that “the people there were observing him carefully . . .” This was not to see where he sat but rather to trap him in some blatant break of the sacred Law through his teaching or some other bold pronouncement which these law keepers would consider offensive. Rather, Jesus turns the tables on them.

In ancient culture, the meal was a place to gain favor from others.  If one accepted the invitation to a meal those invited were obligated to return the favor.  To not return a favor with a favor would have been considered insulting. Thus, it was not unusual to turn down an invitation if one knew they could never equal the banquet of their hosts.  So, it was obviously a place to invite your equals and to shun others who just didn’t measure up. The poor, blind, crippled would not even be considered as guests.  That Jesus was at least invited by one of the leading Pharisees shows that he was held in some esteem, though suspicion as well, by the religious leaders of his time.

Despite this, Jesus speaks about “places of honor” at the banquet and those who vie for such positions in order to emphasize their own prestige in the social order. As always, he turns the social order of his time on its head and advises: “. . . when you are invited, go and take the lowest place . . .” and to invite, “. . . the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .” who cannot repay your hospitality. How dare he suggest this! How insulting actually.

Is this proper meal etiquette? What would the neighbors think? What would your esteemed friends think? Who wants to sit next to the crippled and blind? What would you ever talk about anyway? In challenging the red lines drawn between who is righteous and acceptable in religious society and who is to be shunned, Jesus challenges his audience to reevaluate their own prejudices and positions about who’s in and who’s out.

Here he implies that we are made righteous before God not by the power of the law, by cultural norms, or by arrogant self-promotion.  We are made right before God by our inclusiveness and in particular by our position towards those who are welcome to the feast God has prepared for us – and those who are welcome is everyone. For those who come to believe in the Lord Jesus and embrace the call to conversion of heart and life, it's their meal too. Tit for tat or the ability to grant a favor for a favor means nothing to God.  What means everything is our humility as we reverence the dignity of each person: the child in the womb, the mentally or physically limited, the frail elderly, the troubled and disturbed in particular.

At the sacred banquet of the Holy Eucharist we find a God who sacrificed not just for a chosen few but for all who would come to believe.  Where we find ourselves seated in the banquet of life, if we want to truly be Jesus’ disciple, must not be about competition or self-advancement.  Rather, it must be about the interest of another.  As Christ has been for us so we must be for each other. 

As the first reading from Sirach reminds us: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God . . .”

What a plan for life that is. 
God of might, giver of every good gift,
put into our hearts the love of your name,
so that, by deepening our sense of reverence,
you may nurture in us what is good
and, by your watchful care,
keep safe what you have nurtured.

(Collect of Mass)