Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 28, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Sirach 3:17-18;20;28-30 | Psalm 68:4-7;10-11
Hebrews 12:18-19;22-24a | Luke 14:1;7-14
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Greenwich is the East Coast equivalent of Indian Wells, California. I attended both private and public high schools, but the attitude of the students at both schools could best be described as “achievement ethic” on steroids. The school environment, and indeed, the entire town, pressure-cooked them in stress to get good grades, excel in sports, and endlessly pursue popularity among their contemporaries. The last one was extremely important to them.
The prize at the end of this pseudo-rainbow was admission to a prestigious four-year college which, supposedly, would lead to a high-status job with a big paycheck and a good life filled with luxury and membership in prestigious country clubs to be part of the so-called “in crowd.” To say I was overjoyed to leave Greenwich, Connecticut, over forty-five years ago and move to California would be a substantial understatement. I could not wait to leave. Having suffered my share of country-club banquets, I do not care if I ever go to another one. The best banquet for me is the Holy Eucharist.
Today’s Gospel is about a Sabbath Banquet. In the days of Jesus, Sabbath Banquets included members of the surrounding community as well as friends and family. This explains why Jesus was present. Furthermore, such gatherings were times for theological discussion and, in the case of Jesus, an opportunity for the religious leaders present to test him.
Social status mattered in the days of Jesus, just as it does today. Where one sat at a banquet was significant. Honor and shame were part of the social structure that prevailed at the time. One’s place at the table was indicative of the degree of honor with which the host regarded the guest. The story in today’s Gospel shows the folly in presuming one’s importance at a public banquet. It may be that another guest will arrive and be given a higher place of honor, and then one will be shamed into taking a less significant seat.
Jesus does not criticize this practice. Instead, he finds fault with the arrogant attitude of those who think they are more important than they really are. Societies that are driven by questions of status seldom advocate humbling oneself. In fact, the contrary is usually true; insecure people humble others to exalt themselves. What Jesus advocates, however, is just the opposite. He would have people humble themselves and refrain from self-exaltation so they can be exalted by God rather than by others.
The sociologists and anthropologists among us prattle pure drivel that goes something like this: Human Nature always tells us to win, to be first, to be on top, to strive to be better than the next person.
Today’s world sees many people working hard to be better than others at their jobs, trying to get a promotion trying to get paid more, so they can move to a bigger home in a more desirable neighborhood or buy a more prestigious car. However, most of these goals lack utilitarian value. They don’t make your life any better. A house is a house. A car is a car. Those on that rat race treadmill pursue those things purely to impress other people.
Despite the lessons of today’s Gospel, a substantial number of people in this world are incurable status chasers at the various banquets of our lives. This is just as much true in the church as in secular life. Since churches are composed of human persons, they are not immune from individuals craving the top of the totem pole and the power over other people that often goes with it. Priests aspire to become pastors at larger and larger parishes and to become bishops. Lay people aspire to join the parish and diocesan councils and rise to other positions of power in the church.
I don’t fit in that category. My reaction to all that is simply, “Be who you are. Be the person God meant you to be, not what others want you to be.” So simple, yet so difficult.
We see earthlings laboring under the mistaken assumption that success on earth, on earthly terms in the world as it is now, particularly material success, is how everything will be forever. God, however, has something else in mind. The way God does business is not how people do business.
Today’s Gospel is ostensibly about banquets, but banquets are a metaphor for the world as a whole in which we live and our relationships with the people who are part of our lives. It focuses on who’s invited by whom and who’s not, and it highlights pecking orders among the invited. Some merit an invitation; others do not. And many people insist on sitting at the head table.
I am not like that. When I’m invited to a banquet, I want to be seated with intelligent people, and I want to get enough to eat. I don’t care where I sit as long as my needs for companionship and nourishment are met. What others think of my choices doesn’t count.
That’s what Jesus is talking about today in the Gospel. How you look to other people and where you are on the social ladder are not important to Jesus and should not be important to us. The thoughts of Jesus on this subject are echoed in today’s First Reading, which invites us to conduct the affairs of our lives with humility.
What is humility? It is not the self-abasement of underestimating one’s worth but healthy self-esteem. It is forming a just estimate of yourself. To quote the Book of Sirach, “Glorify yourself with humility, and ascribe to yourself honor according to your worth.” To paraphrase Saint Augustine, humility is knowing that you are human and knowing who you are. Humility is the affirmation of a realistic self-concept that accords with objective fact. For example, I can no longer run as fast as I could when I was thirty years of age. Humility is accepting both your strengths and your limitations.
But humility also means accepting that your worth as a person is the same as every other person. No matter what each person’s station in life, whether President or pauper, all human persons eat, sleep, urinate, defecate and copulate. But all of humanity was created by God in God’s image, even people we dislike or despise. That is why as part of our baptismal covenant, we promise to respect the dignity of every person, as difficult as that might be sometimes. Where we are on earthly pecking orders in relation to other people does not matter in God’s eyes. As Christians, what should matter to us is what matters to God, not what matters to us.
Today’s Second Reading invites us to focus on what really matters in God’s eyes. To understand what’s going on here, you have to dig deeper into the twelfth chapter of Hebrews and know the story behind it.
The first part of the reading, though not explicitly stated, refers to the Mosaic covenant that arose from the appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai. There, Moses experienced a blazing fire, gloomy darkness, a storm, and a trumpet blast. All of that characterizes a theophany. That’s a fancy name for God’s sudden appearance. What happened on Mount Sinai was coupled with distress generated by the message delivered during the theophany. The unknown author of Hebrews claims that this entire scenario discouraged access to God. After all, love does cast out fear.
Mount Sinai looms large in the theological landscape of the Old Testament. It is “the mountain of God” identified in the Book of Exodus and the first Israelite sanctuary. It is where the law is revealed and where the incipient nation of Israel was set apart for God.
By contrast, Mount Zion, which is expressly mentioned in the Second Reading, is God’s eternal dwelling place. That is what is meant in the Reading as “The New Jerusalem.”
While the Second Reading does not name Mount Sinai, it does identify Mount Zion. The author of Hebrews draws significant contrasts between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, which both played a major role in the old covenant. For the author of Hebrews, the former mountain, Mount Sinai, only had limited significance with respect to the new covenant, whereas Mount Zion manifested continued significance in the new covenant. Mount Zion was viewed as a shadow of the heavenly reality, s the true destination for the Christian community on its pilgrimage to God.
In the lives of the People of Israel, Mount Sinai only played a transitory role, whereas Mount Zion had perpetual significance. One cannot help but conclude that, in God’s eyes, the permanence of Mount Zion matters more than the transitory nature of Mount Sinai.
What God is saying to us is that which is eternal is that which matters. What is eternal, however, does not include social status judgments heaped on people in this world. Human leaders, whether formal or informal, whether democratically elected or not, are, by nature, transitory. All leaderships eventually end. No human person serves in perpetuity in any role. In other words, in the grand scheme of God’s universe, where you sit at the earthly banquet table does not matter. That is true whether you choose your own seat or the host chooses it for you.
Life, in the larger sense, is not a purely earthly endeavor but an ongoing transformative process whose aim is union with God. Through what’s called theoria, that is, an illumination with, or direct experience of the Triune God, human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human as the created image of God because, as you will recall from the first creation story in Genesis, God created humanity in God’s image.
Through our communion with Jesus Christ, God shares Godself with the human race, conforming humanity to all that God is in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Thus, the Second Reading reminds us of the true purpose of our lives, which is not to accumulate toys and to win a popularity contest but to be one with God.
Nonetheless, all of us, being the imperfect humans we are here in our earthly lives, still engage in some less-than-desirable behaviors that are characteristic of humanity. People tend to be selective about who they invite into their lives, and they classify those in their lives into an order of relative importance. What this means is other people don’t return your phone calls or accept your invitations because you aren’t high enough on their priority list. Predictably, we get upset if someone doesn’t invite us into our lives, or if they do, we don’t sometimes feel right about where we are on someone else’s list of priorities.
But, again, the way we see the world is not how God sees it. A world where people compete with other people to survive means some people go hungry, and that’s not right.
When we think of banquets, we think of food. What if we imagined the earth’s food supply as one big banquet table and all of us as guests? The fact is, the world produces enough food to feed everyone. The problem is one of distribution, often obstructed by the politics of power. Look at the grain grown in Ukraine that until recently was not going out to the rest of the world because Russia was more concerned about trying to conquer and dominate Ukraine than feeding hungry people in Africa and elsewhere.
The fact is poverty and inequality cause hunger, not the scarcity of food. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than one and a half times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by twenty-fifty.
But the people making less than two dollars a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food. What is happening is that humanity distributes food on the basis of who can pay the most for it. That kind of system, based on supply and demand in a market, produces the kind of behavior that Jesus condemns in the first part of today’s Gospel. The wealthy and powerful strive for the best seats at the table so that they get the most to eat, at the expense of others who are literally starving.
God’s justice requires that the situation be reversed. When the Kingdom of Heaven brings about the Great Reversal, we’ll see a very different kind of banquet. Last-First and First-Last are recurring themes throughout the Gospels. So is humbling the exalted and exalting the humble. It is an ongoing contest of pride versus humility. Simply put, there is a very big difference between God’s banquet and those of human persons.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus not only criticizes the status-seekers crawling all over each other for the seats of honor but also the way the host chose the guests. If status is important to you, and you invite others who think the same way, you should not be surprised if they compete against one another for the best seats. But Jesus made another point as well: don’t be self-serving in making your guest list. Don’t invite only those from whom you can expect a return invitation.
The guest list for God’s banquet will use the exact opposite criteria we, as humans, do. God will put those at the bottom of the social ladder at the head table. And God will not expect anything in return. Grace from God is unidirectional. It flows from God to us for us to accept or reject. That’s part of what makes God be God.
In God’s eyes, our food supply is truly a “Table of Plenty,” the song we will sing this morning during the Preparation of the Gifts. We, as Christians, should be working to make the Table of Plenty a reality. We should not be serving only those others who can or will do something for us. Jesus is asking for gratitude and our self-sacrificial love flowing from a humble heart.
What does that look like in the world outside the church?
For example, what if poor people were not prosecuted for stealing food from a grocery store? Yes, that would increase the store’s cost of operation and increase the price we pay for food, but hungry people would get fed. Yes, I know that offends the law and order types and the property rights people, but what’s more important? Upholding the law or feeding hungry people?
Or, what if grocery stores started pricing food based on the ability to pay instead of charging everyone the same price? Yes, I would be among those who would pay more for food, but that might be a good thing for me, as I would eat less of it and be healthier.
And what about reclaiming wasted food? In San Francisco, an organization called Food Runners picks up leftover food from restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and grocery stores for delivery to organizations serving people who can’t afford to buy food. Food Runners provides more than two and a half million pounds of free food annually to families in need, and in any given week, the Food Runners organization delivers over fifty-thousand meals.
In doing things like this, we are fulfilling what Jesus tells us to do in the second part of the Gospel: to invite to our table the least among us. The God we worship tells us: “When you have a reception, invite beggars and the crippled, the lame and the blind.” The Food Runners organization is going out into the streets and doing it. God calls us to do the Gospel of Jesus, not just sing it or read it.
The teachings of Jesus on humility were a challenge to the social conventions banquets when he lived. Those teachings continue to challenge us today. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave his contemporaries advice on banquet etiquette, as if God’s Kingdom were already realized. The Eucharist represents the banquet of the Kingdom. Hence, the advice he gave then applies to us now.
The Eucharist creates unity. Christ unites himself with his followers. His followers unite to form the Church. In the Eucharist, there is no reason for social climbing or displays of power. All are one in Christ.
More importantly, the Eucharist empowers us to act for others. It strengthens us against the self-centered nature of sin. It directs us to serve others, especially the poor. If we truly celebrate Eucharist for what it is and should be, we honor the weakest among us, for they represent God with us. God’s Kingdom is their Kingdom!
Humility, especially exercised by the leadership, gave the lowest of the community seats of honor. Jesus made service to the lowly a top priority, and so should we. As leaders, we are called to be humble to inspire those we lead. Leadership exercised with humility does not gather power, but it empowers those who are led. Jesus empowered us because he humbled Himself by becoming human and all that such entails.
So when you go to a banquet, be like Jesus. Don’t sit at the head table unless you’re invited. And when you host a banquet, think about inviting a few homeless people. God will love you for it! AMEN.