Aug 27, 2016

22nd Sunday -"Is there room at your table?"

(Pieter-Bruegel - peasant wedding)

"Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind"

Next Sunday at the Vatican in Rome the Church and the world will receive a new Saint declared formally by Pope Francis: St.Teresa of Calcutta, India.  It comes as no surprise, I think, to anyone that this extraordinary yet simple “saint of the gutters” was a saint before her death in 1997.  Her visible humility, generosity, holiness and charity were obvious. She had her critics to be sure, especially those who favor abortion, but like all saintly figures, it never stopped her from doing what she was convinced God had asked of her: to humbly with mercy and love minister to the poorest of the poor. She, whether intentionally or not made many comfortable people very uncomfortable. It just took time through the usual procedures of canonization to formally proclaim what we have all known about her.   

There is no doubt that St. Peter Square will be a sea of blue and white dominated by her founding order the Missionaries of Charity in their simple Indian saris along with what will be an enormous crowd from around the world.  What made this extraordinary woman so attractive?  It wasn’t her physical beauty or eloquent speech or her power or riches.  It was undeniably her Christ-like humility that constantly won the day.  In this Year of Mercy what better example can we find than this inspiring icon of mercy? Many honors were given to her but she deflected their benefits of personal fame always in favor of the poor. 

Our readings this weekend teach us about seeking honor. Honor given not by our higher ups but honor bestowed upon us by God.  How does God honor us and ask us to behave? - To do all things with a true humble spirit. Our story in the Gospel this Sunday (Lk 14: 1, 7-14) uses once again a familiar image of Jesus, that of a community meal, a wedding feast. 

The first reading from Sirach states: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.” (Sir 3: 17-18). That seems crystal clear yet how best to achieve that without drawing attention to ourselves, going through the motions with no real inner conviction, or to put aside our natural desire to seek affirmation or honor is not always easy.

We may feel that humility includes some level of self-loathing or walking around with our head bowed and to speak in a soft and quiet voice.  Yet, humility is to know who we are in relationship to God and to carry out our mission as Christian men and women in selfless charity.  But, it isn’t just about table fellowship – it goes to the core of who are and how we live in this world.  That being said the banquet Jesus describes in our Gospel is clear.   

Luke uses Jesus’ wedding banquet image to reveal an important moral lesson about table behavior which symbolizes our place before God.  In this case it is a lesson about pride and humility in place of viewing oneself as somehow entitled or privileged to sit “in a place of honor.” Who has a place at our “table” – our lives?

If our whole life is focused on honor, attention, surrounding ourselves only with others who can pay us back or if our parish life is focused on only one class of parishioners or those who keep us comfortable, then we have a misguided sense of who belongs at our table. 

In Middle Eastern culture and certainly in Jesus’ time, places of honor were very important and sought after.  Why would you invite anyone besides your friends and the prosperous to your table or into your life?  They, at least, can return the favor. 

But in this scene with Jesus and the influential “leading Pharisees” we hear our Lord advising:    “  . . do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . . for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  We can just hear, as likely was at least whispered before Mother Teresa’s challenging remarks by some of the wealthy and powerful, “The poor and crippled at my table? I think not!”

However, in Jesus’ view, “think yes.”  So it begins with the invitation to not just those in your own societal class but this invitation to the “wedding feast” is a feast for all, in particular to those on the margins.  They too are welcome and they too may enter the kingdom unexpectedly before those who assumed privilege due to status or even to their good behavior. In the end we know that humility should be a part of every disciple’s life. Pay back is not at all the issue but to offer charity to those who truly need it.  To not forget that they too have a very special place at God’s “wedding banquet.”

Further, Jesus advises, “when you are invited go and take the lowest place . . . for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  What can we say except that we must check our own pride; our own desire for recognition and attention; our own ego basically not to become simply a dish rag but to become Christ-like in our humility and selfless service to others.  Like the attraction of Mother Teresa’s humility so too will God honor anyone who practices the same. If we want to seek favor from anyone, it should at best be from God.  This, once again, is a further reminder of how we must be in this world of ours – how I choose to be Christian and show Christ Jesus to others around me.

There are many applications here indeed.  Yet, this is not a complicated process or some over the top theological reflection which causes us to scratch our head in comprehension.  It is pure and simple about how we must view the world in which we live and our place in it with mercy towards who has a place in our life. Very soon to be St. Mother Teresa embodies the visible answer to that question. We all still have room in our lives for others.  Our table is not full.

Our Holy Father Pope Francis indeed has become identified completely both with mercy and his clear, unbending option for those on the margin, in whatever form. 

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Guadium (The Joy of the Gospel) from his first year as our Shepherd in 2013, he writes: God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself became poor (2Cor 8:9).  Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. (EG187). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the ‘yes’ uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. (EG 197).

Our Eucharist gatherings can only be authentic as Jesus intended when we always scoot over and admit there is still room for more.   

Renewed by this bread from the heavenly table,
we beseech you, Lord,
that, being the food of charity,
it may confirm our hearts
and stir us to serve you in our neighbor.
Through Christ our Lord. 

(Prayer after Communion)