01Sep 1st September 2013. 22nd Sunday of Year C.

Sir 3:17-20, 28-29. A person attentive to God will never reject wisdom.

Heb 12:18-19, 22-24. Mount Sinai compared to our destiny, the future, glorious Zion.

Lk 14:1, 7-14. Places at a wedding banquet: Jesus urges us to act from unselfish motives.

Instead of pushing ourselves forwards, seeking attention or one-upmanship, we should aim to be modest and unselfish. A contrast with rampant egotism!

First Reading: Sirach 3:17-20, 28-29

My child, perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved by those whom God accepts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favor in the sight of the Lord. For great is the might of the Lord; but by the humble he is glorified.

When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing, for an evil plant has taken root in him. The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.

Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”)

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Where is Justice?

Psalm 15 praises the person “who takes no interest on a loan,/and accepts no bribe against the innocent. / Such a one will stand firm for ever.” Back in the Middle Ages, the Church interpreted that verse to mean that charging interest on a loan was morally wrong. However, it is clear from other biblical passages that this condemnation applied only to making a profit from the financial misfortunes of other members of the community. To quote one example, “You may demand interest on a loan to a foreigner, but you must not demand interest from your brother” (Deut 23:21).

All this is a far cry from today’s globalised financial principles, where the law of supply and demand is supreme: the greater the demand for services or goods, the more we are charged for them. In a closed capitalist system the motto seems to be, ” Get as much as possible for every transaction, and if there is no profit from it, have nothing to do with it.” Repayment in the next life for the good deeds of this one has little attraction for the business mind. And – let’s face it – this attitude also has passed over into the spiritual sphere, whereby many of us, in varying degree, attempt to become masters of our own destiny. The great idolatry of our time is the belief that we can save ourselves. We are tempted to think like this: “I’m saving my soul; I’m winning a place for myself in heaven.” We store up credits and merits, towards the day when we can present them before God, and claim our reward on the basis of strict justice, rather like a business transaction.

But if this in any way is a true reflection of our attitude, then we are living an illusion. The problem underlying this is one which is touched upon in the readings of today, namely the problem of pharisaism, the idea of self-sufficiency, the absence of true humility. In other words we do not understand the truth about ourselves, and how we stand in regard to God. The Pharisees in the gospel parable picked the places of honour, which they regarded as being theirs by right, because they observed the Law. We, too, fail to recognise the common lot of humankind, its complete dependence on God’s mercy, freely offered and not merited. The idea of giving a party, not for our friends and relations, but for the poor and the crippled and the blind, does not particularly appeal to us.

Remember that this is a parable, and what Christ is saying is, “Accept others; be open to others. Don’t put up barriers between yourselves and others, as did the Pharisees.” Another possible interpretation is that we ourselves are the poor, the lame and the blind. And God has invited us to the heavenly banquet, precisely because, for himself, there is no possibility of gain or interest by so doing. He has invited us so that his mercy and his bountiful goodness may be shown before all the world. The only way we can deny this goodness of a merciful God is by declaring it to be unnecessary. And this we do whenever we show a lack of humility, a misunderstanding of the role God wants to play in our lives, whenever we say secretly, at the back of our minds, “Lord, I’m a pretty good Catholic. I go to Mass on Sundays. I contribute to collections. I don’t criticise people behind their backs, even though I know a lot of others who do. Actually, Lord, I’m pretty good all round.” But Jesus rejects this attitude, because it is a violation of the truth. It fails to see that salvation cannot be deserved, cannot be claimed, that salvation is a pure gift.

The true Christian spirit is to come as a beggar before God, and make this basic request: “Lord, please help me.” It is being true to Christian practice to face honestly our emptiness and limitations, to realise the need we have for Christ’s redeeming power in our lives, to glory in our infirmities, because the power of God is more evident when the recipient of it is weak. As St Paul himself stated it, “I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9f) in Christ Jesus, my Lord.

With Wisdom as Guide

We are invited to consider what true wisdom means, according to the mind of Jesus Christ. The gospel  sets this challenge within the context of controversy and dispute. We are told that the disciple must stand out against prevailing social mores based on class, status, aggression and dominance. The woman or man who, as a believing Christian, is in genuine relationship with God lives according to a different vision.

If one is truly attempting to follow Jesus, then gentleness, compassion, concern, acceptance of the other, must become guiding values, core values in that person’s way of life. In a society based on ambition, aggression, “going for it” regardless of consequences, being meek and humble can seem like a recipe for social disaster. But this is the point.  What the Gospel presents  the direction we must take in order to build a just society with room in it for all. Violence of whatever kind is a recipe for disaster for humanity. Yet this is a hard lesson  to learn. We are afraid to lose face or status. We connive in an unjust status quo, while  pretending to be Christian.

Jesus wants us to experience life to the full, wants us to hear truth that carries freedom as its gift. Humility is not weakness, meekness and gentleness have nothing to do with cowardice. Humility is the fruit of self-awareness, meekness and gentleness the best expressions of strong compassion. We need these qualities if we are to respect each other, we need these qualities if we are to help each other and be helped, we need these qualities if we are serious about changing the world and orienting all life, all of creation towards the Divine.

Pride and Poverty

In our era of assertiveness training, aggressive marketing and general one-up-manship the call of today’s readings for self-effacement, gentleness and a true concern for non-influencial people seems like nostalgia for a more gentle age, or a romantic picture of a bygone world. Signs of pride are all round us and within us. Pride of place, be it in Church or State, at work or recreation, is jealously guarded. As in Luke’s Gospel, seating positions are carefully arranged and the pecking order carefully observed. If arrangements go awry we feel offended, even slighted. Are these ceremonial positions, then, matters of true significance or are we merely conditioned from within by viewing our gifts as if they were our own, or from without by viewing our temporary achievements or positions of superiority as of truly lasting worth?

In the opening prayer we ask God to bring to perfection our gifts. Whatever we have, talent, wealth or the ambition which enables us to achieve, we have it from God. If “a generous rain” has been poured on us, if we have been given a home to live in, if we are in apposition to exalt and enhance then we hold these things as gifts of God and we should praise and thank him for them.

If pride flourishes in our hearts we insult the gifts of God. We are watchful of our positions, we dine in high places with the right people to enjoy the illusory joy of celebrity. How vain are such concerns with the passing glory of the hour! Side by side with such posturing, others live in want and anxiety.  We may pass them by daily as we rush to some urgent insignificance or other, and our hearts do not go out to them.

But in the city of the living God everyone has the status of a firstborn child.  Can we reshape our values in the light of this? We are not asked to deny our gifts, just to acknowledge them as being from God and to act responsibly towards those less gifted or otherwise gifted.

Pope Francis has called on all Catholics to see our love for Christ in light of how we respond to the  plight of the poor. Indeed, God himself asks us to  convert from stubbornness and pride and listen to the call of the weak, the humble and the voiceless.