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SEPTEMBER 1, 2013: TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a
Luke 14:1, 7-14

The worst label the gospel Jesus ever gave anyone was "hypocrite." Certainly wasn't a bad title in itself. Even today many of us anxiously await the yearly ceremony in which commemorative statues are given to the prior year's best movie hypocrites: the Academy Awards. The word simply describes an actor or actress: technically, someone who makes a living pretending to be someone they're not.

Jesus wants those committed to imitating him to be real, honest people, individuals comfortable in their own God-made skin, men and women who could symbolically shed the masks worn by actors in the first third of the first century CE to hide their actual identity. This seems to be one of the reasons Matthew's chapter 23 Jesus was so uptight about his followers accepting honorary titles or putting on distinctive clothes. Nothing should get in the way of another Christ being his or her real self. It's in our real self that the real risen Jesus is embedded - not in the false selves we've created for our performances.

The unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews wants his readers to appreciate the special perks they have as followers of Jesus. They don't have to have participated in the Exodus or been present at the foot of Mt. Sinai when Yahweh covenanted with the Chosen People. They've symbolically made a new covenant with Yahweh through Jesus, an agreement which tops anything their faith ancestors experienced. Yet they've done this not in a sacred place or during a sacred time. Their everyday lives have become sacred - "other." The risen Jesus has transformed them into a sacred people, just as they are. No need to pretend they're someone they're not. Their actual identity is much more significant than any hypocritical personality they assume.

Centuries before Jesus' birth, the author of Sirach already understood the value of simply being oneself, especially in our relations with others, and in particular in our relations with God. "My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God." The writer presumed that when we look in a mirror, what we see is what we get, and God gave it to us.

Of course, in today's gospel passage, Jesus presumes what we see in others also comes from God, even when we regard those others as inferior to ourselves. He warns, "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted." The way we serve others will always be an outward sign we've taken off our masks.

I'll never forget December 17, 1964: the day of my "first Mass." But one of the reasons I most remember isn't because of what I did, but because of something Bob Burton, my classmate, did. He rented a bus, rounded up all the beggars in the vicinity of Rome's Janiculum hill, and treated them to a terrific meal after his own first Mass. Unlike most of us priests on that special day, he made others the focus of attention, not himself. Besides never again having to pay the "hill tax" when he walked from and to the North American College, Bob also helped the rest of us look at those "unfortunate" individuals in a new light. They were important because Bob showed us their importance.

Some of us later remarked, "Wish I'd thought of that. No one will ever forget his first Mass." We'd all encountered the same beggars every day, but only he treated them like friends, not beggars.

I wonder where he got such a strange idea.