TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME Sept 1, 2019
In the Gospel today Jesus gives the Pharisees, and us, some good advice on how to behave at banquets and social functions. “When you are invited, go and take the last place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.”
What is this all about? Is Jesus just dispensing some good advice about manners? Is he acting sort of as an early Emily Post? Is this just ‘appropriate social behavior’ Jesus is talking about?
Obviously, I think not. Part of the problem is that our reading leaves out 5 verses. We hear verse one and then jump to verse seven. What about verses 2 thru 6??? // Would you like to know what happens in the missing verses? Of course! We’ve been gipped!
Our first verse states that “the people were observing him carefully.” Why? Because this was a set up. It was a trap. Because they invited Jesus on a sabbath, the holy day when work was not allowed. And in the missing verses it turns out there was a man also invited who had dropsy, what today we can endima, a painful swelling of the limbs, that would be pretty obvious. They planted this man right in front of Jesus on a Sabbath to see what Jesus would do. This was a trap.
In the missing verses Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath or not?” When they refuse to answer, Jesus heals the man, then asks: “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the sabbath day?” But they were unable to answer his question.” AND THEN Jesus gives this advice about where to sit at a banquet. What is going on here? //
In the Gospel Jesus constantly preaches a theme of reversal: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Whoever saves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it produces much fruit. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Over and over again Jesus teaches us that the way forward involves going backward. That to go up you must go down. To truly live you must die. This theme of reversal is very close to the center of His preaching and His life.
This is also what Jesus Himself did. His whole life was about emptying Himself so that the Father could completely fill Him. In the beautiful hymn from the second chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians, read every Palm Sunday, St. Paul poetically expresses this:
“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
What Jesus is instructing the Pharisees about where to sit at table is a concrete specification of what His whole life was about, about all Jesus lived and all Jesus preached: go down in order to be brought up.
We see this also in the life of Mary, Our Blessed Mother. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s Son, Mary did not seek her own advantage, but empties herself of all of her plans and desires, in order to make herself totally and completely available to God’s Will for her. “I am the handmaid, the maidservant, the slave, of the Lord God” she stated. “Let it be done to me according to YOUR Will.” Mary let go of her own desires to place herself fully at the disposition of God’s Will, just as her Son emptied Himself totally, to be completely filled with God’s power and God’s plan.
So instructing the Pharisees in today’s Gospel about where to sit at banquet and social functions, Jesus is doing much, much more than giving them good advice on etiquette. He is giving them instead a concrete example of the spiritual principle of self-emptying, of dying to self, in order to allow God to fill us with God’s grace and love.
This way of Jesus is radically different from what our society teaches us daily about self-promotion, about how to get ahead, about maximizing our influence, power and benefits. Jesus’ way is profoundly counter-cultural. And it is not easy.
The way of Jesus is about dying to selfishness and ambition, to open ourselves to God’s Will for us. As Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “not my will, but Thine be done.” So we, as Jesus’ disciples, are called to work, pray and open ourselves to the grace to deny our self, to take up our cross, and to follow Jesus.
Maybe that means accepting a call to religious life or priesthood. Maybe that means taking care of an aging parent even though you will have to forfeit a great job opportunity. Maybe that means giving up vacation time to spend time helping with refugees at the border. Maybe that means stifling our tongue, swallowing the quick, cutting comeback, and bearing insult in silence. Maybe it means working for compromise and cooperation rather than scoring a hit on political enemies. Maybe it means taking the last place, at a banquet, or in line, or selection of desert, or whatever, because you are certain and secure in the knowledge of God’s tender love for you.
Jesus shows us the way. To win life we must die to self. To gain we must loose. To be filled we must become empty. To have the higher place we must choose the lower. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
Such is the wonderful, counter-intuitive, topsy-turvy world of the Spirit. God bless!