Sunday, September 02, 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Preparing for the Party

Readings: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Sisters and brothers, it’s quite easy to miss the point of today’s readings. Certainly, we will not be too far off the mark if we were to think that it has something to do with humility. As we heard in the first reading just now: the greater you are the more you should behave humbly. And Jesus reinforces this message in the gospel, when he speaks about the importance of taking the lowest place.

But isn’t it possible to follow Jesus’ instructions literally, but for less than honourable reasons? For example, isn’t it possible for us to choose to sit at an inconspicuous spot at a party simply because we don’t really want to talk to the other people who are there, or because we don’t want to be called upon to help in the serving? Worse still, isn’t it also possible for us to deliberately choose the lowest place only so that we can enjoy the feeling of having others see us promoted? Is this subtly manipulative sort of behaviour really what humility is all about? Or is this not rather a thinly veiled egotism, a false humility that seeks to draw attention to itself through reverse psychology?

What then is Jesus talking about? What does he mean? Here is where we need to pay attention to the setting of the gospel story. Finding himself at a party on the Sabbath day, Jesus uses what he sees in his physical surroundings to speak about spiritual realities. His words about the proper conduct at a feast are not meant to be taken literally. As the gospel tells us, they are meant as a parable.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus is not a self-help guru. He is not a writer of those ever-popular how-to books. You know, books such as that old classic: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Jesus’ concern in the gospel is not to teach his listeners how to secure places of honour for themselves at every party they attend. Instead, his desire is that everyone might be able to find a place at the most important party of all, the final wedding feast thrown in his honour in the kingdom of his Father. In the words of the second reading, this party into which Jesus is teaching his listeners to gain entry is nothing known to the senses. Instead, he is teaching them, and he is teaching us, the way to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where millions of angels have gathered for the festival… Jesus is teaching us how to get into the heavenly banquet.

The first thing to realize, and this is probably where humility begins, is that there is really nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of being invited to this party. Our attendance here is a privilege that God our Divine Host delights in according us. Here, unlike even some of the major celebrations and processions in church, we don’t need to jostle with others for the best places. Neither do we need to camp out in the rain for several days to get in. For, again, as the second reading tells us, here every one of us is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven. Here we do not perfect ourselves. Here we simply need to humbly accept God’s invitation to join the ranks of the saints who have been made perfect. And Jesus teaches us the way to do this, the way to gain entry, the way to accept the invitation. We become honoured guests at this heavenly party by taking the lowest place. But what does this mean?

Again, the second reading is instructive. It tells us that this party is a celebration of a new covenant of which Jesus is the mediator. If we want to know what it means to take the lowest place, we need to look to him. We need to follow him. We need to imitate him. And, in the gospels, Jesus teaches us not only through his words but, more importantly, also through his actions. Jesus himself takes the lowest place, the place of the suffering servant. He does this by preaching and also by healing. We notice, for example, how in the passage left out of the gospel story for today, Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath, and suffers the consequences of his actions. But even more significantly, we need to remember too that Jesus’ work of healing is only an expression of a deeper reconciliation that he is in the process of bringing about in the gospel today, and at great cost to himself. We need to remember, for example, that the gospel story takes place while Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem and all that awaits him there. So that when he speaks about taking the lowest place, Jesus is also referring to what he himself is doing. He, the beloved and only-begotten Son of the Father, humbles himself even unto death, so that we might all be granted seats of honour at his party.

How then are we to imitate Jesus? How then are we to be humble and to take the lowest place? The answer will be different for each one of us. As we said at the beginning, the first reading tells us that the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. And Jesus gives us some indication of what this might mean in each case. One becomes an honoured guest at the final feast in the Father’s kingdom by first learning to be a good host here in this world. One must take the lowest place by serving those who are least able to return the favour. For Jesus, these are the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… In other words, these are the people on the margins of society, the people who most need our help. Again, exactly who we help and how we help them will depend on our particular circumstances. We may be called to reach out to people as far away as Africa or as nearby as the room next door in our own home. But in each case, it will involve us learning to lower ourselves in humble service, learning to be generous hosts to those most in need, as Jesus did for our sakes.

This then, sisters and brothers, is the meaning of humility that our readings present to us today. This is the way for us to secure our respective places in the heavenly kingdom. This is what we need to do to prepare for the party.

How prepared are you?

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