The Gospel for August 28th, 2016: “Conduct of Invited Guests and Hosts”
Reflection: The Discomfort of Evangelization is Humbling
“My son, 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” (Sirach 3: 17-18).
I begin with this quote from this Sunday’s auxiliary reading from the book of Sirach because I think we are supposed to meditate on the virtue of humility in today’s gospel as the first reading does. So I don’t want to lose sight of that purpose in this reflection. Nevertheless, I find myself distracted by something else in this gospel that I think is worth exploring as well.
If Jesus is, as we hear Him announce in John 14: 6, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” then we must pay attention to everything about Him, not just what He says, but what He does as well. I love what He says in this gospel which is a message of humility and open-table fellowship. However, what He does troubles me a little bit. Here’s what I mean.
Jesus is invited on the Sabbath to dine in the home of one of the leading Pharisees. We are told “the people there were observing him carefully” (Luke 14: 1). I think this means they are suspicious of Him, perhaps waiting for Jesus to commit a critical offense so they could discredit Him. I think He is at the table of an enemy, but I am not entirely sure. Still, Jesus is a guest in the home of another. And yet He does not appear to be the gracious guest I would expect Him to be.
First, He heals a man suffering from dropsy, a potentially very serious condition of swollen tissues due to excess water in the body. This incident (Luke 14: 2-6) is omitted from today’s gospel because it does not speak to humility. Still, the fact that it happens during this incident speaks to the tension during this meal. Jesus’s healing of this man demonstrates the legalism of the Pharisees is not a path to salvation. While I am pleased with this lesson and that Jesus performs this needed healing, I believe there must have been a growing discomfort among the guests at this challenge to Pharisaic tradition.
What Jesus does next makes me quite uncomfortable, and not just out empathy for those at the table. He notices the guests are “choosing the places of honor at the table” (7). In response, He tells a parable of a wedding feast during which gives two pieces of advice. For guests, He says to choose a seat of low esteem to avoid being asked to move from a seat of honor reserved for someone more important. It is better to be asked to move up rather than down. He then gives the moral: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (11). For hosts, He says to avoid invited guests who can pay you back. Rather, He says to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind….” (13). This he says directly to the Pharisaic host of His meal and ends with, “blessed indeed will you be for their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14). Clearly, Jesus is being critical first of the other guests in their choice of seats and second of the host in His choice of guests. Isn’t this a rude thing for a guest to do?
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not criticizing Jesus. Furthermore, I understand those at the dinner need to hear this message of humility and unselfishness, just as we all do. But what bothers me is if I should view this incident as an evangelical model. Do Christians have an obligation to preach the gospel, as Jesus does here, in an openly critical way when we are in enemy territory, if I may use that expression? I don’t know if I can do it; I don’t know if it would be effective; and I don’t know if this gospel is suggesting we should evangelize in this way. I just don’t know.
Now that I have that off my chest, let me return to the theme of humility. What I do know is that I struggle with the inevitable conflicts that arise from evangelization. I have a low tolerance for conflict, and I find it very difficult to imagine braving the tension Jesus surely causes with what He says and does at that Sabbath meal. In admitting that weakness to myself, I realize it is just another place where I am not in control; God is. So I humbly ask the Lord to use me as He will. If I am called upon to bravely evangelize in enemy territory, I pray for the Lord’s strength to do His will. If He spares me this discomfort or sees wisdom in refraining from speaking the gospel truth in moments of conflict, then I pray I will know His will in that intent as well. And in this ongoing struggle to do God’s will over my own, the one grace I lean on every week is being a guest at the table of the Eucharist. I think if we approach that table with humility on a regular basis, Jesus will take care of the rest.