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Friday, August 30, 2019

“The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" - 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 14:1, 7-14
On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully. ...
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor. 
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
'Give your place to this man,'
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place. 
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest 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. 
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." 
Then he said to the host who invited him,
"When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. 
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."


The Pharisees are always playing games with Jesus, always trying to trap him and prove his untrustworthiness. This week’s Gospel recounts a story that takes place on the Sabbath ― the day of rest. Before this day, the Pharisees had clashed three times with Jesus over the correct way to live out the Sabbath. So the tension is high when, on this particular Sabbath, Jesus is invited “to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees.” It’s anything but cordial; the text says they were “observing him carefully,” waiting for him to do something objectionable.

Jesus, ever the controversialist,  immediately obliges them. Though it’s left out of the Mass reading, as soon as Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house, he heals a man there with dropsy ― a disease that causes painful swelling. Now, according to the overwhelming majority of ancient rabbis, healing on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden. But think about what the Pharisees have done: in order to catch Jesus contradicting Jewish law, they’ve used a very ill man as bait. Let’s note that the man was not invited to the dinner ― the text says that, after he was healed, he left the party and went home. He was bait and nothing more. Immediately after this scene, the Pharisees begin to take their seats for dinner. And this is the moment ― when he sees them all taking “places of honor at the table” ― when Jesus offers his teaching about humility. 

Let’s look closely at Jesus’s words. As he watches the Pharisees file hierarchically into their places of honor, he suggests they do otherwise. But why? Here’s the reason he gives: “A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited… and the host … may approach you and say, ‘give your place to this man.’ …. Take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “my friend, move up to a higher position.’” This is actually a common bit of advice within the Jewish tradition. In fact, Jesus is alluding to a passage from the Old Testament that every Pharisee at that dinner would have known. It’s a passage from the Book of Proverbs that outlines the proper etiquette should you find yourself dining with a king: “do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence…. It is better to be told, ‘come up here’ than to be put lower (Pr 25:6-7)....” For the Jews, these are simple manners, and up to this point, Jesus has not really said anything provocative. He’s simply reminding the Pharisees that there are certain counsels that mark a wise person. They would not have been too offended.

The original and more interesting teaching Jesus offers at this dinner comes near the end of our reading: “When you hold a ... dinner, do not invite your friends, or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors.... Rather … invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Think about the context of this very dinner! Now things have become provocative! Who was the one person whose lack of an invitation to this dinner stands out vividly? The poor, disabled, broken man with dropsy who ― not invited to the dinner ― had been called upon to entrap Jesus! The Pharisees would very much have grasped the message.

So what, in total, has Jesus done with this little teaching about inviting people to dinner? He began by reminding the Pharisees that there are certain manners that mark proper Jewish dinner decorum. You should be careful not to overestimate your place in the hierarchy, lest you be embarrassed and are asked to step down. The Pharisees know this and would not have been provoked by such a comment. It’s what Jesus said next that was revolutionary: he reversed the order of the hierarchy. Instead of honoring the leaders among the Pharisees, the people who get seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” those who are not even welcome to stay on for dinner in the world of the Pharisees. Over and over Jesus insists that, in the Kingdom of God, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” At this dinner party, he provides a concrete example of what he means. 

Jesus has reordered the universe. He has instituted “manners” for the Kingdom of Heaven. For Christians, it must be the last who come first. Even if this doesn’t always literally refer to seats at a dinner table, it’s the broken who get places of honor in our lives. The poor, the displaced, the forgotten, those who have nothing with which to repay us, are the privileged recipients of our honor and our generosity. This is Christian “etiquette” ― simple manners. The modern world has been profoundly interested in overturning hierarchies, in flattening out social strata so that everyone is equal. Jesus’s vision is far more radical. He keeps hierarchy, but insists those at the bottom — the poor, broken, and disenfranchised — are the elites. Can I ask you to visualize for a moment the most broken person you know? Visualize the person in your life you’d most readily describe, to use Jesus’ words, as “poor, crippled, lame, or blind.” More than likely their poverty is not monetary. Perhaps it’s someone with an eating disorder, someone with acute depression, someone who’s terminally ill. Perhaps it’s someone who’s lost their job, or lost their family, or has been alienated by those around them. Hold this person in your mind for a moment. Where are they as you’re reading this? What is your role in their life? At what tables do they have seats of honor? Where do they sit at your table?

Friday, August 23, 2019

I Do Not Know Where You Are From - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 13:22-30
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. 
Someone asked him,
"Lord, will only a few people be saved?" 
He answered them,
"Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough. 
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
'Lord, open the door for us.'
He will say to you in reply,
'I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
'We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.'
Then he will say to you,
'I do not know where you are from. 
Depart from me, all you evildoers!'
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. 
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last."


Something to bear in mind about the question Jesus received ― “will only a few people be saved?” ― is that the questioner is asking Jesus to weigh in on a common dispute among Jews from that time. Remember that the Jews understood themselves as God’s “chosen people,” his special nation among all the nations of the earth. In the mind of the person asking this question, only Jews could be saved. Their real question is this: were all Jews part of the chosen people? Even the adulterers and murderers who called themselves Jewish? Would they too be saved? Not all rabbis agreed on the answer to that question. In the scenes leading up to this moment, John the Baptist and Jesus had been warning people about the dire consequences to some of their actions. It makes sense that the crowds would wonder if these consequences included exclusion from God’s chosen ones. 

The first thing to see in Jesus’ response is his insistence that one’s Judaism ― in a purely ethnic sense ― will not admit them into the Kingdom of Heaven. Insofar as the questioner presupposes that only Jews can be saved, their question is the wrong question. And so Jesus’ response insists that not only can Jews “attempt to enter [the Kingdom] but [then] not be strong enough,” but people from all the other non-Jewish Gentile nations, “from the east and from the west and from the north and the south, will recline at the table in the Kingdom of God.” It is important to see that, in this passage, Jesus is not really commenting on the population of heaven as much as he’s commenting on the kind of people who end up there. And his basic point is not that heaven is crowded or empty, but that it’s populated by more than just Jews. This helps explain the little parable Jesus offers. When “the master” comments that he does not know these people who are knocking and expecting entry into the Kingdom, notice that they insist they “ate and drank in [his] company.” This is their way of saying, “We are Jews like you! We ate the Passover with you! You taught in our streets! What do you mean you don’t know us?!” Let’s set aside the irony that the same people who accused Jesus of being “a glutton and a drunkard” for dining with sinners and tax-collectors (Lk 7:34) are now eager to recall their meals with him. Jesus’ broader point is clear: Yes, the Jews are God’s chosen people, but that is not the sole criterion for entry into the Kingdom. 

So then how does one enter through the narrow gate? What does it mean to participate in the Kingdom? Jesus’ parable insists that those in the Kingdom are known by the master of the house. He recognizes them, like you might recognize your friend unexpectedly in the market. This is a claim that is, in one sense, frightening and, in another, exciting. It’s frightening because we can be just as naive as the person who questioned Jesus to start our reflection. We don’t really believe that, just because we come to church, just because we “eat and drink in his company” each Sunday, that the Lord necessarily knows who we are, do we? The frightening theme to this week’s gospel is the possibility that, when all is said and done, when I meet my maker, we might not recognize each other. 

But the flip side to that warning includes a marvelous invitation. Namely that being familiar with the Lord ― speaking with him from my heart, opening my wounds to him, revealing my fears to him, dining with him in the Eucharist and not just mechanically receiving him, confessing my weakness to him, meditating upon his life ― these acts of familiarity with Jesus mean that he knows me ― he’s heard my voice and my story ― and this familiarity is already the beginning of my participation in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It’s a very homely image for Jesus to use ― Jesus says the master will recognize us. Think of seeing your close friend after many years. Think of the familiarity and excitement you feel at their sight. This is how Jesus describes the first look between God and the person who’s just died ― they recognize each other even though they’ve never fully met, and not because of their human ancestry, and not merely because he or she was in the pew each Sunday, but because they are somehow old and familiar friends.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Not Peace, But Division - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 12:49-53
Jesus said to his disciples:
"I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing! 
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! 
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? 
No, I tell you, but rather division. 
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."


Jesus is often saying disconcerting things. Luke’s gospel in particular, from which this week’s reading is taken, reports many of his most unsettling sayings. “I have come to set the earth on fire…. Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. A household will be divided; a father will be divided against his son; a mother against her daughter.” In light of everything else Christianity has to say about the goodness of peace and the family, it’s normal for Christians to be a little unnerved by this. So what is Jesus doing here? 

It helps to know that, in this scene, Jesus was actually alluding to a set of famous Jewish poems from the Old Testament. Those listening to Jesus would have recognized in his words the similarity to what they’d heard recited in their synagogues. One poem, from the Book of Micah, was meant to depict how broken a generation can become: “the son treats the father with contempt / the daughter rises up against her mother / the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mc 7:6). By alluding to this passage, Jesus indicates that these days Micah had predicted are happening right now, and have come to pass on account of Jesus’s own life and message. But how does that make sense? Isn’t Jesus the “prince of peace,” the one who said “blessed are the peacemakers”? Certainly Jesus brings peace, but not every kind of peace. There is an indifferent or complacent kind of peace - a way of “making peace with the way things are” - that Jesus has not come to establish. Consider this: the world is filled with evils - Jesus spent considerable time identifying and cautioning us against them. It is not enough to stand peacefully by, say nothing, and ascribe our silence to a peaceable Christian nature. In fact, in these circumstances, Jesus invites us to incite division, even if that unsettles the peace of our households. 

Certainly it is painful - as many can attest - when the tranquility of our families is sacrificed in preference for the Gospel. But the Jews listening to Jesus would also have recalled a second poem from his words, one that introduces a note of hope into the family unrest he’s describing. The poem from the Book of Malachi describes a giant fire that will someday initiate “the great day of the Lord.” Here’s the interesting part: on account of that fire, it was said that God would turn “the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Ml 4:6). It is a fire that heals the division within families. With all this in mind, look again at Jesus’s first words: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” The Jews standing by would have understood the allusion. Jesus is saying that the “great day of the Lord” is here, and it’s here in his very person! Jesus brings a fire that both divides and heals. Yes, his words are meant to stir people into action and out of their sleepy and indifferent forms of peace. Yes, sometimes this will disrupt the tranquility of families. But he unsettles the heart so that it may come to rest on something more worthy. And even if families are sometimes stirred against each other, it is only so that their hearts can be drawn toward each other again in a more perfect peace. 

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