Sunday, September 01, 2019

The Importance of Prepositions

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc TheeErin

My dear friends, do any of you still remember the late Fr John Wood? As you may recall, this much beloved Irish Jesuit was a former parish priest of St Ignatius Church. There is a story about him that is still sometimes told among us Jesuits. I don’t know if things happened exactly in this way, but according to the story, Fr Wood once had a fall on the third floor of Kingsmead Hall, which was where his room was located. Some concerned parishioners found out, and immediately began frantically calling the house, because they had heard that Fr Wood had fallen from the third floor.

There’s a big difference, isn’t there, between falling on and falling from the third floor? Possibly even a difference between life and death. So it’s no wonder that people panicked. Which goes to show the crucial importance of those little words to which we often fail to pay enough attention. Words like on and from and with. Words that we call prepositions. The importance of prepositions. I think this is also what our Mass readings show us today.

As you may have noticed, the readings help us to answer an important question. The first reading, for example, advises us to be gentle, to behave humbly, not to be proud. Why? For then you will find favour with the Lord… To find favour, to become God’s favourite. This is what we are being taught to do. But don’t we already know how to become someone’s favourite? If I want to become my boss’ favourite, or my teacher’s favourite, I know what I need to do, right? I need first to get myself noticed. According to the ways of the world, to become a favourite I must first be outstanding. I need to stand out from the crowd. This is our first preposition: from. 

At first glance, this also seems like what Jesus is helping his listeners to do in the gospel. Finding himself at a feast, the Lord notices that his fellow guests are picking the places of honour. They are trying to get themselves noticed. Trying to stand out from the crowd. So he shows them a better way. He tells them to take the lowest place instead. Why? For two practical reasons. First, so that they might not get demoted if somebody more important arrives. And, second, in the hope that they will be invited by their host to move higher.

But isn’t this just a subtler and more effective way to stand out from the crowd? Is this really what Jesus intends to teach us? Not quite. The scripture makes it clear that the Lord’s aim is not to teach his listeners how to attract attention at a feast. For the reading refers to the instruction as a parable. Meaning that it is not to be taken literally. It has a deeper spiritual meaning. It is less about how to chope a seat of honour at an earthly meal, and more about how to secure a surer place at the heavenly banquet. How to gain God’s eternal favour. But if this is true, then what does it mean to take the lowest place?

We find the answer in what Jesus tells his host immediately after the parable. When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… This is the spiritual meaning of taking the lowest place. This is how I find favour with God. Not so much by constantly struggling to stand out from the crowd. But rather by consistently choosing to stand together with the lowliest of all. And this is the second preposition. Not from, but with. The first is the strategy of the world. The second is the way of the Spirit.

To win God’s favour by standing together with others, especially those most in need. This is not easy for me to understand, let alone to practice. Especially because mine is such an attention-seeking and media-saturated society. Where even from a young age many are taught to dream of stardom. Where so-called media influencers measure their celebrity as much in advertising dollars as in the number of their followers. And where even preachers like me may be sorely tempted to draw undue attention to ourselves.

And yet, there is a reason why God’s favour is won not so much by standing out from the crowd, as by standing together with the lowly. For this is what God himself delights in doing. In the words of the first reading, great though the power of the Lord is, he accepts the homage of the humble.

We see this also in the very striking contrast described in the second reading. The contrast between two different appearances of God. The first appearance, on Mount Sinai, was so awesome and terrifying, that all who heard God’s voice begged that no more should be said to them. The second appearance, on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, is far gentler and much more inviting. Comparing this second appearance to the first, it’s as though God were making allowances for the timid and fearful people to whom God wishes to draw close.

For here, in this heavenly place, no one is scared away, but everyone finds a welcome at the festival. Here, the  people of God stand shoulder to shoulder with the choirs of angels, and everyone is a “first-born son” and a citizen of heaven. Here, no one stands out from anyone else. But everyone stands together with one another. Here, everyone is a celebrity in God’s sight. For, through the Dying and Rising of the only Begotten Son, God has forever chosen to stand together with us, lowly though we all may be. In the words of the psalm, here God has prepared a home for the poor.

And isn’t this what we celebrate at this Eucharist? Here, even if some may be better dressed, or more famous, or earn more money, no one is meant to stand out from anyone else. For here, at this altar on earth, we joyfully anticipate the warm welcome we hope to receive at the heavenly table. And here too, we will courageously allow ourselves to be sent out into the world, to walk in some way with those most in need. Such as those for whom working beyond retirement age is not a choice but a necessity. Or those who may be sorely tempted to choose the dark jaws of death over the daily trials of life.

Sisters and brothers, just as there is a sharp contrast between falling on and falling from the third floor, so too is there a big difference between standing out from and standing together with others. A difference between life and death.

So which preposition will you choose to live today?

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