Luke 14: 1, 7-14
22nd Sunday Ordinary Time
1st September 2013
This Sunday the gospel passage continues with the theme of last Sunday: the difference between the values and priorities of God’s Kingdom, and the normal or typical values that mould our relationships with each other, individually and more widely in society as a whole. According to Jesus, those who genuinely want to worship God and live in communion with God don’t promote themselves in regard to social status.
The gospel reading last Sunday finished with Jesus’ words: “There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last”. In the Kingdom of God, to use Jesus’ image, all the values and motivations which shape human society – the pursuit of wealth and power and status – are reversed. It’s the poor, the humble, the insignificant who will be welcomed into God’s company at the end of time, while those who achieve a great deal for themselves in worldly terms, stand a good chance of being excluded.
This conviction that God’s Reign involves the reversal of ordinary worldly priorities was central to Jesus’ preaching and this Sunday he goes about illustrating another aspect of God’s Reign in relation to another very recognisable human motive: the desire for superior status and having the sense of being above others. Jesus observes people at this social gathering competing for the “places of honour” – the more prestigious seats; and He makes his point first of all by poking fun at them, and then finally says in conclusion: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the person who humbles himself will be exalted”. Again, commitment to God’s Kingdom or placing ourselves under God’s Rule involves overturning the self-promoting motives that arise naturally from human nature and shape our relationships with each other.
No matter what the period of history, or whatever kind of society or culture, we might look at, we would find that human beings like to create pecking-orders: and doubtless we can all think of our own examples, either from the places where we work, or from some group or organisation that we belong to, of all the ways that communities establish different grades of rank or position for its members.
But the question here is: why does Jesus take the attitude he does? Why does devotion to God involve humility and seeking out the lowest place?
One reason is that exalting ourselves – to use Jesus’ language – usually involves diminishing other people. Enhancing our own importance usually means looking down on others. In that sense, it offends against Christ’s definition of love of our neighbour, which always involves recognising that it’s precisely when people are weak or suffering or in need that we’re summoned to establish bonds of solidarity with them.
It’s also true to say that, in terms of moral character, an exalted or superior social status doesn’t necessarily lead to strength of character; it often panders to the moral and spiritual weaknesses of our nature. What actually happens very often is that, behind the swagger and the air of success, we can become emotionally dependent on being able to issue orders and on being treated in a reverent way by our inferiors or fans. We lose an accurate sense of perspective about ourselves and we start to believe our own fictions.
Very often though, when for whatever reason that power of superiority is taken away from us, that is when our spiritual underdevelopment gets exposed. We have to confront the fact that we not invincible and we are just ordinary like everyone else. And sometimes that causes one to break down completely; illustrating the fact that glorification is always misleading – it panders to the weaknesses in our nature rather than the strengths. Jesus rubs in this point in the second half of the gospel reading. “When you give a lunch or a dinner,” he says, “don’t invite your own friends and neighbours – invite the poor, the lame, the sick, the blind”. In Christ’s day, especially, that meant people of inferior status – the type of people who would reduce the host’s status in other people’s eyes.
Like so many of Christ’s parables, the image here isn’t supposed to be taken literally. He’s exaggerating to make his point again about the difference between the standards of the world and the standards of the Kingdom. Whenever there was a choice between the rich, the powerful, the influential, and the poor and lowly and insignificant Jesus was always found to say that the Reign of God is to be found among the second group rather than the first. So his advice to his hosts on this occasion was that these people who lack prestige or status of any kind, and are looked down on by the majority – actually have an attitude to life that brings them close to God: their natural humility – their lack of pretensions, their realism and honesty about the weakness and the smallness of their position.
And if you want to be close to God, Jesus is saying to his hosts, by all means be successful, powerful and influential; but start to practice that quality of humility – most of all by not exalting yourself whenever you get the chance, but by showing solidarity with the people at the bottom, showing generosity towards them and gradually assimilating their perspectives on life. What Christ says to the Pharisee in the gospel is also what he has to say to us. Our society is also unequal and divided and stratified, because all human societies are.
There are times though when we do merit and receive a place of honour or a reward of some kind because of something we have said or done. Rather than pretend to have false humility, it is our place to be grateful to God for whatever talent was bestowed upon us to receive such an honour. To downplay the reason for the honour, I think, is to relegate God’s gifts to us as unimportant in building the kingdom.
Jesus suggests a difficult way to live. The Gospel message is a challenging one for us; and the first and most basic challenge is that of conversion (metanoia), a lifetime process for everyone. Those of us, who dine with Jesus at this Eucharist, must be willing to be transformed by his presence. We must become like him as he became like us. No one is excluded from the challenge of metanoia. No one is righteous. We all are in need of repentance for the forgiveness of sins….
Again recalling last Sunday’s Gospel reading; we were told that when the Lord returns, it is not enough to claim that we ate and drank in his company. In addition, when he does come, the final banquet will include surprising guests at the table, those who “come from the east and the west and from the north and the south”.
The late American Bishop, Fulton Sheen said that we will have three surprises in heaven:
- There will be many there whom we never expected.
- There will be many absent whom we expected to see.
- We will be surprised to find that we ourselves have gotten in!