Sunday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Commentary on Sirach 3:19-21,30-31; Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24a; Luke 14:1,7-14

The whole passage from which today’s Gospel is taken deals with people eating together. The Kingdom of God, the perfect society, which is the goal of the Christian message, is often pictured as a banquet. As such, it is a meal for everyone, not just a private dinner for two by candlelight. All the dishes on the table are for everyone equally. There is enough and more for every single person’s needs. It is an occasion of sharing and joyfulness.

And in the New Testament, the meals in which Christians share – and the Eucharist is among them – are meant to be a true sign of that yet-to-be-realised banquet and Kingdom.

That is exactly what we do not find in today’s Gospel. A rather sinister atmosphere is established by the opening sentence. “On a Sabbath day Jesus had gone for a meal to the house of one of the leading Pharisees.” It should have been an occasion of fellowship. Instead, we are told, “they watched him closely.” They were not watching him out of admiration or curiosity (the way a young child might for the first time watch a stranger at the family table). No, they wanted to see if Jesus on this Sabbath day would put a foot wrong so that they could accuse him. He was, in fact, judged before he even opened his mouth.

Accessible to all
For his part, we might notice the impartiality of Jesus. He raised many eyebrows when he was seen eating with tax collectors and sinners. But he was no inverse snob: he also accepted invitations from the rich and powerful. God’s love is for all – the sunshine and the rain fall equally on all. So it is with God’s love of which Jesus is the visible sign.

From this meal situation Jesus gives us two parables. It has been pointed out that in one Jesus speaks directly to the guests and in the other he addresses the host. In this way, Jesus involves them directly in what he is saying. As we watch and listen, we need to hear Jesus speaking to us also. The lessons are still totally relevant for our time and our society.

Being in the right place
The first parable was a response to the way the guests took their seats. Jesus “had noticed how they picked the places of honour”. In most formal dinners in our city, the seating is a very delicate matter. Those regarded as important are put near the host and the rest lower down. Elegantly printed cards at each place indicate exactly your status on this occasion. At a wedding dinner, only a few can share the top table with the married couple and their immediate family. Others will find themselves tucked away in a corner feeling the heat of the kitchen!

As Jesus spoke, did some of his fellow guests begin to feel uncomfortable? Were some dissatisfied because others had a higher place than they? Where was Jesus sitting? Do you think he cared very much? If you were there, would you have cared? Do you feel your worth as a person depends on how you are treated on such occasions?

Reversing the procedure
Jesus reverses the normal procedure. Do not go to a higher place, he says. You might suffer the indignity of being asked to sit lower down. Rather, go first to a lower place and you may be asked to move to a “higher” place and so gain great face in front of everybody. It is a risky thing to do, of course. You might be left sitting in your lower place! For some, that could be a social disaster.

Jesus, of course, does not mean us to behave that way literally. What he does mean is that in the Kingdom of God such things have absolutely no importance. Someone with the spirit of the Kingdom knows that human status, that is, the status conferred by fickle society, does not mean anything at all.

The only status that counts is one’s relationship with God and with other people, irrespective of their classification by race, religion, profession or class. Our real status is measured not by our rank or occupation but by the level of love and service offered to God through our relationships with those around us. What counts is not how we are looked on by others but the degree of care and compassion with which we look at them. This calls for a strong inner security, which is independent of arbitrarily conferred status or position, so that one can say easily to another, “Why don’t you go to the top table and sit with the host?”

Those who find their security in their bonds of love with other people know that no status whatever is lost by having to sit near the kitchen. It gives them an opportunity to talk to the cook and the staff. It is put somewhat differently in the Second Reading (from Hebrews) today: “What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God … with the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born’ and a citizen of heaven’”.

Who to invite
In the second parable Jesus talks directly to his host, a “leading Pharisee”. When you throw a banquet, Jesus tells him, don’t invite your friends, colleagues and other rich and influential people, who will outdo themselves in returning your invitation. A look at the social pages of a newspaper reveals a merry-go-round where the same people eat the same dinners in different venues night after night. On a lower level, most of us do more or less the same. And how many dinners are arranged as a bribe or a gentle form of blackmail? How many principals of “good” schools have the experience of being invited out to expensive eating places only to find in their mail soon after a request for a son or daughter to be accepted into their school. It happens all the time. It is even regarded as “normal”, “everybody does it”.

Jesus has rather different advice. When you organise a dinner, he says, invite rather the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Invite those people in particular who will be able to give you absolutely nothing in return, who will be able to do absolutely nothing to further your career or your status in the community.

As an image, life can be seen as a ladder or a circle. Many of us live on a ladder, desperately trying to climb to the top. In so doing we often find ourselves climbing on the backs of others and even kicking them to the bottom so that we can reach the top. To be in the first place is deeply ingrained in many of our societies today – whether it is in business, in an examination, or even getting on to a bus. We are by and large a ladder society.

Circular living
The Gospel is proposing that we rather try to work towards creating a circle society. In a circle, there is no top or bottom. All are equal. All are facing each other. All are in a better position to know and respect each other. (How can you respect the person you are climbing over to get to the top of the ladder?) All are in a better position to share what they have with those who have less. Put a round table between these people and everything is ready for a banquet. And, as the story goes, provide each person with a chopstick too long to be used by oneself but just the right length to offer food to the person opposite and you have the Kingdom in the making.

Is that possible…is it too unrealistic? Certainly it will not be achieved in a day or even a generation. But we could begin in our own homes first of all. And then in the small groups to which we belong. Our parish with its small communities would be a very good place to start.

And right now we are attending a Christian banquet, the Eucharist. What links do we see between sharing together the bread and wine that is the Body and Blood of Jesus and the sharing together of food and conversation that takes place at our own dining tables or the tables of others? Should not our Eucharists have more of the characteristics of good family meals and should not good family meals be, in their own way, a living out of the Eucharist? In the early Christian Church, both the Eucharist and family/group meals were put back to back as part of one single experience.

Is it not about time we started trying to do the same?

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