Summary: Avoid hubris, embrace humility, like Jesus and Mary.
22nd Sunday in Course 2013
The Greater You Are, the More You Must Humble Yourself
“Blazing fire, wind, darkness, gloom, the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken.” The God behind these signs, the God revealed in both Testaments is the kindliest, meekest, most loving Being in the universe, our Lord and God, manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of a New Covenant, a New Law, because His is the blood shed on Calvary, and His precious, Risen Body and Blood are the sacrificial meal we share–the sacrifice that brings us together as One Body. Jesus tells us not to fear, a command that appears more frequently in the Scriptures than any other. But he also advises us to be meek and wise, and makes a very valuable suggestion about the way we live day today.
Let’s picture the scene in the Gospel. Jesus is eating with Pharisees. That’s an important detail, because Pharisees were called the “separated ones.” They were the Jewish upper-crust, men who kept the Mosaic Law down to the smallest detail, and men who looked down at the common folk as being uneducated in the Law and unworthy even to eat with. So Jesus is being scrutinized by these people–He preaches that the kingdom is coming, and that until then His disciples are to keep the Law scrupulously. But is this upstart from Galilee worthy? And, if He isn’t, can they find ways to discredit Him with the people?
Jesus, as usual, refuses to play games. He is training His disciples–that means all of us–for the kingdom, which He constantly pictures as a wedding feast. The Pharisees were all about status. Indeed, they were the original masters of a great self-image. Remember how the Pharisee prayed in the Temple? He kept reminding God of how he kept the Law, how he tithed, and how much better he was than the tax-collector in the cheap seats.
The disciple of Jesus Christ knows that his place is in the cheap seats. We are all like the publican. In fact, we come to Mass every week, to this re-presentation of the heavenly wedding banquet in eternity, and about the first thing we do is imitate the tax-collector. We beat our breasts and say three times that we are sinners, and we don’t blame our sins on anybody else. I tell God and everyone here that my failings are done through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. And I ask all the folks at the real wedding banquet of heaven, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul and all the saints–to pray for me to the Lord. It’s something they are overjoyed to do. There’s more: forgiveness is something that the Lord is happy to give, as long as we are truly sorry and have really want to stop sinning.
When we have allowed the Holy Spirit, through our admission of weakness and sinfulness, to carve a hole in our calloused heart, He can pour His graces into that heart. He can infuse in our hearts or strengthen the Christ-like virtues of faith, hope and charity. He can pour into us prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, which are virtues Jesus exercised every day. He can make us worthy of advancing higher in the wedding banquet, by taking on more responsibilities to serve.
Even the secular world despises those who seize for themselves the best seat at the banquet, whether it be the spoiled scion of a successful family or the politician who because of background or connections rises to honors and high office without actually doing anything. It is especially offensive when such a person has no sense of humor about the good fortune or good will that brought them out of nothingness into poverty. The Greeks called this hubris, and imagined that it offended their gods more than any other human trait. Those of us who have been around the track of life know that the path to glory is fraught with perils. Great fame in this life is at best a warm feeling that rapidly dissipates. At worst, however, it is a head-swelling curse that can drag us down to eternal destruction.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews calls the eternal banquet “the church of the firstborn.” I think that is a remarkable fit between the wisdom of Jesus ben Sira in our first reading, and the wisdom of Jesus ben Joseph in the Gospel. Being an only child married to a firstborn, I can speak to this firsthand. Firstborn means “experimental,” particularly in our culture where so many moms and dads are away from their own families–because they married someone they met in college or are in corporations that move them around, or are in the military service. Moms and dads don’t often have parents and aunts and uncles to tell them how to parent, who can share what works and what doesn’t. So the firstborn gets the awkwardness of the novice parent, who learns frequently from mistakes. We firstborns have no older brothers or sisters to show us the family traditions. We are the ones who make the mistakes, who learn from experience or books more than from watching others fail and succeed. That’s why so many corporations and companies are led by firstborns. Remember, Christians are baptized and confirmed to lead others to Christ in the Church. And we have been redeemed by the precious blood of our Firstborn Brother, Jesus Christ. We remember that; we know our weaknesses, and so as firstborns we are graced by an understanding that taking the lowest place in the banquet is itself a great privilege.