Readings for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; PS 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11; HEB 12: 18-19, 22-24A; LK 14: 1, 7-14.
[What follows is a dramatic re-creation of Luke’s rather abstract account of Jesus’ dinner at a Pharisee’s home. (See the narrative here.) While Luke seems to have the Master recommending impossible (for Jesus) hypocrisy and self-promotion, the re-creation seems more probable and gets at Jesus’ real message about the Kingdom of God and its preferential option for the poor.]
In this morning’s gospel episode, Jesus finds himself invited for dinner to the home of a Pharisee. All present, Luke tells us, are watching Jesus closely. No doubt, they’re keeping an eye on his disciples too. And they don’t approve.
After all, like Jesus, his disciples are mere riff-raff. But at least Jesus is the reputed peasant-rabbi. Everyone’s talking about him. And investigating Jesus is the whole reason for this dinner. So for the moment at least, the Pharisees are willing to cut him some slack. He’s sitting near his hosts towards the head of the table.
His hangers-on however are a different story. They’re rough. They smell of fish and sweat, and have no manners. And yet, as Jesus’ friends, they’ve been granted a place at table — down towards the end. Even there, they feel out of place, but for that very reason they are enjoying themselves tremendously. You can imagine their rough jokes and loud laughter.
Yes, the Pharisees are watching Jesus and his friends. But obviously, Jesus has been watching them as well. He knows they are expecting some words of wisdom. So . . . he tells them a joke. And the joke’s on them. It contains a sharp barb.
“Thanks for inviting us to this banquet,” Jesus begins. “Unaccustomed as we are . . .” He pauses and smiles. “That’s quite generous of you. After all, none of us can repay your kindness. We are homeless people, as you know. We’re unemployed too, so we are in no position to return your kindness.
The best I can do is offer you some wisdom. So let me tell you what I’ve been observing here.
“Evidently,” Jesus goes on, “it’s your custom to adopt the humility recommended in the biblical Book of Sirach. I can’t tell you how impressed I am; I’m edified by your piety. I mean, you have clearly taken to heart the words of the sage, Jesus ben Sirach – what he said about being humble, especially if we are ‘great’ as all of you are here, I’m sure.”
Jesus eyes his listeners. He can tell that they are waiting for the penny to drop. So he drops it.
“I can see that when you come into a place like this, you take the lowest place available — down there where my friends are.” With this, Jesus stands up bows his head, stoops his shoulders and slumps towards the lowest place at table. He laughs.
“That way,” the Master continues, “our host, of course, is obliged to publicly invite you to a more honored position at table. ‘Friend,’ he’ll say, ‘come up higher, and sit in the place you’ve merited not down there with the unwashed and poor.’”
Now Jesus is standing. He throws out his chest and strides towards the seat right next to his pharisaical host. He chuckles again. “That enables you,” Jesus continues,” with great protestations of unworthiness, to take your ‘rightful’ place at table. Your stock has risen in everyone’s eyes.
“So congratulations are in order,” Jesus says. “All of you have learned your lessons well. You’ve just created a show, and have actually exalted yourself by pretending to be humble. In a sense, you’ve received your reward.”
Jesus is seated again and looking intently at everyone. Their mouths are open with shock.
“So here’s my wisdom, friends. . . . Your ‘humility’ is not what Sirach was recommending. In fact, it’s a form of pride and self-promotion.
“Instead, real humility is this: when you throw a party like this one, invite the poor, the lame and the blind, and then serve them. Place them at the head of your table and treat them as honored guests. People like that can’t or won’t repay you. But in fact, YOU OWE THEM.” Jesus fairly shouts those last three words.
“I’m telling you the truth,” he says. And humility is nothing but the truth.”
Jesus pauses, but he hasn’t finished yet. “You see, those belonging to what you consider the Great Unwashed — like my friends — are actually God’s favorite people. Recall what the psalmist said about them in Psalm 68. He said God is the Father of orphans; he’s the defender of widows, of prisoners, of the homeless, and of farmers without land.”
Jesus is quiet now; his smile is broad and friendly. He searches the faces of his table companions one-by-one.
Then he turns to his host and adds.
“To be fair, my friend, you yourself are on the right track. By inviting us today, you’ve shown that you already understand what I’ve been saying. As I say, none of us can repay you, and yet you’ve invited us to this abundant table. We are sincerely grateful.
“But don’t think that you’ve somehow performed an act of charity by your invitation. No, it’s an act of justice – of compensation to make up for what you have stolen from the poor by underpaying them and taxing them heavily. In supporting the poor and even the “lazy,” you are simply imitating our generous God.
“I mean the earth and its produce are all gifts from God. No one has earned them. No one owns them but the creator. If you have food, then, you are obliged to share it with the hungry – even with those unwilling to work. As difficult as it might be to understand, that’s simply the divine dispensation.
“The earth and the life it supports have been freely given to everyone – even to people like me and my friends who refuse to work and live from the alms of people like you. No one deserves life or food more than anyone else. So in effect, you are obliged to do what you’ve done.”
(Homilist’s note) None of this needs commentary from me.
What’s your commentary?
P.S. You might be helped in formulating your thoughts by this short interview of scripture scholar, Reza Aslan, by Russell Brand. In the exchange, Aslan explains how Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed were more interested in economics than in theology. They were economic radicals intent on turning their societies upside-down. None of them intended to found a new religion.