Sep 1, 2019: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29

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.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, was composed in Hebrew between 200-175 BC and translated into Greek by the original author’s grandson sometime after 132 BC. The grandson wanted his Greek-speaking contemporaries to benefit from the wisdom of his grandfather, Ben Sira. (Sirach is the Greek form of Sira.)

Ben Sirach wrote in the wisdom tradition; that is, he used reason to teach people both how to be in right relationship with God and others, and how to be successful in the world.

Today’s first reading is a short discourse on humility.

My child,

Possibly a term of endearment, or a simple indication of teacher addressing student.

conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

Initially it seems that the motive for humility is purely utilitarian: to be loved more than those who give gifts.

Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.

Here, the religious motivation: to find favor with God.  One’s humility should increase as one’s status does; the high and mighty have a greater need to be humble than the lowly and weak.

What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.

The author admonishes the reader to be content with things within the realm of possibility.  Since the focus here is on humility, the implication is that one might seek things beyond their grasp in order to promote one’s reputation in the eyes of others.

The value of this advice, as with all Wisdom teaching, depends on the circumstances.  In some situations, this advice is exceedingly wise; in others, it might curtail creativity.  In many cases, the only way we discover whether we are attempting the impossible is to try.  It is precisely in these types of ambiguous situations that we exercise our wisdom, and in so doing, gain more.

The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the wise man’s joy.

A proverb is a concise poetic form that succinctly describes an aspect of reality and is exhortative in function.  Good proverbs are works of art.

Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.

The reading ends somewhat abruptly with a proverbial phrase that introduces a new theme.  As stated before, proverbs are meant to be exhortations; this one appears to promote the giving of alms.  A wise man, out of kindness, will be constantly attentive to the needs of the poor.

Taken together, the advice in this passage directs the student to develop an attitude of humility and meet the needs of the less fortunate.  Good advice for all, regardless of social standing.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24

Brothers and sisters:
You have not approached that which could be touched
and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness
and storm and a trumpet blast
and a voice speaking words such that those who heard
begged that no message be further addressed to them.
No, you have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.

Today we end our study of the Book of Hebrews. This remarkably beautiful passage contrasts two great assemblies of people: the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai for the sealing of the old covenant and the promulgation of the Mosaic law, and the followers of Jesus gathered at the transformed Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the assembly of the new covenant.

Note: Any time we contrast the old and new covenants, we must be careful with our interpretation lest we find ourselves with any anti-Judaic sentiments.

Brothers and sisters: You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast

Although the first mountain is not named, the description of the activity that transpires on and around it clearly points to Mount Sinai, the place where God established a covenant with Israel.  The darkness, the fire, and the storm are all universal characteristics of a theophany, and they attended the experience of God as described in Israel’s earliest traditions (Exodus 19:16-19; Deuteronomy 4:11-12).

The trumpet was probably the summons that called the people first to the experience of God and then later to its liturgical reenactment.  These sensory perceptions created an atmosphere of dread for the people.

and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.

There was a certain level of distress generated by the messaged delivered during the theophany.  When God delivered the commandments the people were so afraid that they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die” (Exodus 20:19).

Considering also that the people were also forbidden to advance too closely, it becomes clear that the author is outlining elements that discourage access to the divine.

No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,

This mountain is not simply the literal Mount Zion, which was associated with King David and upon which Solomon constructed the Temple.  This is “the heavenly Jerusalem,” the special dwelling place of God on earth, the mount upon which, in the age of fulfillment, all people would eventually gather to worship — an eschatological scene.

and countless angels in festal gathering,

Unlike the experience on Sinai, the theophany on Zion is surrounded with festive celebration.

and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,

Probably those who preceded the letter’s readers into the presence of God.

and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect,

“Spirits of the just” is a reference broad enough to include the ancient heroes of the Old Testament.

and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,

God is here as judge and Jesus is here as mediator of the new covenant.

and the sprinkled blood

This scene of the new covenant, marked by the presence of countless angels and of Jesus with his redeeming blood, is reminiscent of the celestial liturgies of the Book of Revelation.

that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.

Recall that in Genesis, the blood of Abel (who, in a sense, was the first martyr) cried for vengeance from the ground (Genesis 4:10).  The blood of Jesus, however, “speaks a better word” — it cries out for reconciliation, providing cleansing and access to God.

Note that the efficacy of the blood of the innocent Christ is compared to the blood of the innocent Abel, and not that of the Passover sacrifice.  This suggests that the scene is not so much a repudiation of the first covenant as it is a description of the eschatological fulfillment accomplished by means of the second.

Gospel – 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.”

Today’s gospel reading is a sabbath banquet scene found only in Luke.  It showcases Jesus’ teaching on humility and displays Luke’s interest in his attitude toward the rich and the poor.

On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,

All of these details are important for the lessons that will follow. Sabbath dinners were occasions for inviting guests who were not family members, which explains why Jesus was present.  Furthermore, such gatherings were times for theological discussion and, in the case of Jesus, an opportunity for the religious leaders present to put his orthodoxy to the test.

Jesus didn’t refuse invitations, even from Pharisees, who were his enemies.  You can’t make enemies into friends if you refuse to meet with them and talk.

and the people there were observing him carefully.

Jesus was watched by the other guests, but as we will see, he also observing hem.  He is the one who will find fault and deliver two ethical directives; one for the guests and one for the host.

He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.

Proper seating at banquets was an important issue for a society preoccupied, as was Israel of the day, with questions of honor and shame.  One’s place at table was indicative of the degree of honor with which the host regarded the guest.

We already know what Jesus thinks about seeking prestige. Earlier the disciples were having an argument over which of them was the greatest.  Jesus placed a child beside them and said “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is greatest” (Luke 9:48).

“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.

Jesus does not criticize the practice of proper placement at the banquet table; instead, he finds fault with the arrogant attitude of those who think they are more important than they really are.  In fact, he seems to uphold the practice, admonishing the guests to take lower seats so that they can glory in the public acclaim of being moved to a seat of higher honor.

This is the society of which Jesus is a member, and he uses its social practices to make his points.  He is gently correcting the guests for their constant concern about their own honor and prestige.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

His instruction to the guests ends with an admonition that turns their normal priorities upside down.  Societies driven by questions of status seldom advocate humbling oneself; in fact, they often humble others in order to exalt themselves.  Here, Jesus advocates the exact opposite: people should humble themselves and avoid self-exaltation so that they can be exalted by God rather than by others.

Jesus isn’t just commenting on table manners, however.  Being a parable, we know that this story has another, higher meaning.  Jesus is drawing theological conclusions about the kingdom.  The Pharisees took for granted that at the heavenly banquet they would have places of honor; they never thought it possible that God might have a different seating arrangement.  Jesus is teaching them that God invites into membership those who are humble enough to recognize their need for salvation.

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.

Jesus then turns to the host.  He criticizes the practice of inviting only those who are able to reciprocate in kind; there is no generosity in giving to those who can repay.  (Luke 14:3, not included in today’s reading, tells us that those present included Pharisees and scholars of the law — distinguished guests.)

Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;

Rather, Jesus would have them give to the poor and those in need, the very people who could in no way advance one’s sense of honor.  In fact, having them present at a banquet might actually undermine one’s reputation.

blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.

The only real way to give is the way God did it: he gave because he so loved the world, and no one can ever repay him.

For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Pharisees may not have agreed with the admonition to open themselves to the poor and needy, but they would have clearly understood his statement about reward at the time of resurrection.  Unlike the Sadducees, who only accepted what was written in sacred Scripture, Pharisees believed in the resurrection.

By insisting that the behavior he is advocating will be rewarded at the resurrection implies that one’s status is determined by God, not by some biased social convention.

Connections and Themes

The overarching theme for this Sunday is generosity in giving.

God’s bountiful generosity. The exquisite nature of God is seen in the extravagant generosity with which God gives gifts.  In the second reading, all are invited to approach the heavenly city.  Unlike the Sabbath dinner at the Pharisee’s home, the eschatological banquet will be open to the poor and those who have no way of repaying.  Neither status nor worldly possessions nor accomplishments is an adequate coin of recompense; the only recompense acceptable is a heart open to receive.

Only God can give gifts in this way, because only God has an infinite supply of blessings to give and no need to receive in return.  Yet we are admonished to be generous in a godly way.  In the gospel, we are instructed to open our tables and our hearts to those who are unable to respond in kind.  There are to be no restrictions on our openness to others, on the generosity with which we give of ourselves and our possessions.  We must be as prodigal in our generosity as God has been toward us.

A humble heart.  Only those who are humble can receive the gifts of God.  Only those who can acknowledge that they are in need possess the openness necessary to realize that God’s blessings are gifts freely given, not compensation for a job well done.  Without humility we are unable to receive gifts as gifts — either because we are too proud or we do not know how to receive with the open hearts of children, who never think they must return in kind.  This is the kind of humility recommended by Sirach, and the kind of humility possessed by the disadvantaged pictured in the gospel.

It is very difficult for most people to be humble receivers of gifts: we have such need to return the favor!  These readings do not encourage a kind of selfishness that only wants to get without giving.  Rather, they are calling our attention to a fact that is very difficult to admit, which is this: because of our finite natures, we need more than we can give.  Despite our magnificent accomplishments, we are really dependent on the goodness of others.  While the exchange of material gifts may be a common and noble practice, in the most important areas of life we must be humble receivers.  We receive life, love, and forgiveness, all because the other is generous, not because we deserve it.

We give as we have received.  As we have received from the bounty of God, so we are called to give to others.  Only those who have received with a humble spirit can give with the generosity of God, for they know they do not deserve God’s goodness, so they do not require anything from those to whom they give.  There is no quid pro quo, no “this for that.” Everything is freely given and humbly received.  The blessings of God are given to us so that we in turn can give them to another.  We live within this paradox of receiving and giving, and we are transformed as the process unfolds.

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