SEPTEMBER 2, 2007: Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year
I learned in my grade school religion classes that to be humble simply means to be honest. God never expects us to deny the gifts or talents we have. We're just not to think more of ourselves than we should. This concept of honesty coincides not only with the first lines of our Sirach reading, but also with our two other scriptural passages.
"My child," Sirach writes, "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 sacred author insightfully reminds his readers that "greatness" can be a cause of "blindness." The glare of our own personal gifts can obscure the gifts of others.
Jesus makes this very point in our gospel pericope. He first cautions his fellow dinner guests not to value themselves more than others value them. Those who make that mistake might end up being publicly embarrassed. Then he zeroes in on one of his most demanding teachings, one we conveniently forget. "When you hold a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers, sisters or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors . . . ." Rather when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and 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."
Embedded in this command is one of Jesus' fundamental beliefs: We're all in this together. One of the things which most bug Jesus' enemies is his insistence that there are no "ins or outs." For him, everyone is in. The limits which separate one from others are almost always human inventions, not divine creations. Remember how harshly he condemned the priest and Levite in his "Good Samaritan" parable for refusing to help the Jew mugged and left to die alongside the Jerusalem-Jericho road? According to the pair's religious restrictions, their "in" position in the clerical hierarchy required them to cautiously pass by the man, who, because of his bloody condition, was "out." Ironically, it was another "out" person who came to his aid.
Scholars remind us that even Jesus' habit of traveling with "The Twelve" was meant to be an inclusive sign to his Jewish audiences, demonstrating that all Jews were included in God's kingdom, every member of the twelve tribes, not just those from a small handful of "pre-eminent" tribes. (This explains why the Twelve were all men; the original twelve were Jacob's twelve sons. Its Jewish inclusive symbolism is also why John rarely refers to the group in his gospel. By the time he writes, almost no Jews are converting to Jesus' faith.)
When Jesus tells his followers to invite society's outcasts to be one with them in sharing a meal, he's simply reminding them that their prerogatives should never stop them from being one with those who don't share those same privileges.
After all, the Hebrews author contends, those who follow Jesus all share in the same privileges of faith, no matter their individual gifts, or lack of gifts. "You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God . . . the assembly of the first-born in heaven, and God the judge of all . . . and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . . ."
In the author's theology, Yahweh's powerful Sinai appearance turned some Jews off. "They begged that no message be further addressed to them." But that's not the case with the presence of the risen Jesus, either at the end of the world or in the day by day lives of his disciples. All share equally in this wonderful experience.
Those who think they're in and others are out, should probably reflect on their personal humility.