Reversing the world's values
(Readings: Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday the gospel passage continues with the theme of last Sunday's: the difference between the values and priorities of God's Kingdom and the normal or typical values that mould our relationships with each other, individually and more widely in society as a whole. According to Jesus, the person who genuinely wants to worship God and live in communion with God doesn't promote him- or herself in regard to social status, but deliberately aims for the lowest place and the company of those who live at the bottom of the scale.
To begin Mass letís think of the ways that we tend to ignore this aspect of Christ's message, and ask God to forgive us, to clarify our vision of what he wants us to do, and to give us the strength to do it.
The gospel reading last Sunday finished with Jesus' words: "There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last".
In the Kingdom of God, to use Jesus' image, all the values and motivations which shape human society - the pursuit of wealth and power and status - are reversed. It's the poor, the humble, the insignificant who will be welcomed into God's company at the end of time while those who achieve a great deal for themselves in worldly terms, will be excluded.
This conviction that God's Reign involves the reversal of ordinary worldly priorities was central to Jesus' preaching and this Sunday he goes about illustrating another aspect of God's Reign in relation to another very recognisable human motive: the desire for superior status and having the sense of being above others.
The Pharisees in the incident are watching Jesus closely - monitoring him for his reactions - but it turns out that he's also watching them, and he observes people at this social gathering competing for the "places of honour" - the more prestigious seats. He makes his point first of all by poking fun at them, and then finally says in conclusion: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the person who humbles himself will be exalted".
Again, commitment to God's Kingdom or placing ourselves under God's Rule involves overturning the self-promoting motives that arise naturally from human nature and shape our relationships with each other.
I think it would be true to say that no matter what the period of history, or whatever kind of society or culture, we might look at, we would find that human beings like to create pecking-orders: relationships of seniors and juniors, and different grades of importance - and all the symbols and rituals that go along with that. Doubtless we can all think of our own examples, either from the places where we work, or from some group or organisation that we belong to, of all the ways that communities establish different grades of rank or position for its members.
But the question here is: why does Jesus take the attitude he does? Why does devotion to God involve humility and seeking out the lowest place?
One reason is that exalting ourselves - to use Jesus' language - usually involves diminishing other people. Enhancing our own importance usually means looking down on others. In that sense, it offends against Christ's definition of love of our neighbour, which always involves recognising that it's precisely when people are weak or suffering or in need that we're summoned to establish bonds of solidarity with them.
It's also true to say that, in terms of moral character, an exalted or superior social status doesn't necessarily lead to strength of character; it usually panders to the moral and spiritual weaknesses of our nature.
What actually happens very often with people who get used to being treated as superior - people with power, maybe, in politics or business, or individuals who carve a niche for themselves in the world of fame and glamour - is that, behind the swagger and the air of success, they become emotionally dependent on being able to issue orders and on being treated in a reverent way by their inferiors or their fans. They lose an accurate sense of perspective about themselves and they start to believe their own fictions.
Very often, when a powerful person gets ill or has to retire, or when a celebrity starts to lose popularity, it's then that their spiritual underdevelopment gets exposed. They have to confront the fact that they're not invincible and they're just ordinary like everyone else. And sometimes that causes individuals to break down completely. So they illustrate the fact that glorification is always misleading - it panders to the weaknesses in our nature rather than the strengths.
Jesus rubs in this point in the second half of the gospel reading.
"When you give a lunch or a dinner," he says, "don't invite your own friends and neighbours - invite the poor, the lame, the sick, the blind". In Christ's day, especially, that meant people of inferior status - the type of people who would reduce the host's status in other people's eyes.
Like so many of Christ's parables, the image here isn't supposed to be taken literally. He's exaggerating to make his point again about the difference between the standards of the world and the standards of the Kingdom. And yet of course this image of giving a dinner for all the people who lack social importance - touches on a theme that runs all through Jesus' preaching.
Whenever there was a choice between the rich, the powerful, the influential, and the poor and lowly and insignificant Jesus was always apt to say that the Reign of God is to found among the second group rather than the first. He always made out that God as present and active - and more concerned for - those sorts of people than he was for the successful and the self-assured.
So his advice to his hosts on this occasion was that these people who lack prestige or status of any kind, and are looked down on by the majority - actually have an attitude to life that brings them close to God: their natural humility - their lack of pretensions, their realism and honesty about the weakness and the smallness of their position.
And if you want to be close to God, or pleasing to God, Jesus is saying to his hosts, start to practice that quality of humility - most of all by not exalting yourself whenever you get the chance, but by showing solidarity with the people at the bottom, showing generosity towards them and gradually assimilating their perspectives on life.
What Christ says to the individuals in the gospel is also what he has to say to us. Our society is also unequal and divided and stratified, because all human societies are.
The modern cult of informality and the absence of traditional forms of pomp and ceremony from the lives of the powerful, has only resulted in more refine or subtle means of enforcing different grades of importance, and calling bosses, politicians or pop singers by their first name, for example, probably actually helps to disguise the real and even greater divisions of status that exist.
Today's gospel shows us the aspect of the Christian message which criticises and even subverts the patterns and pecking orders that we create, and invites us to practice the way of God's Kingdom instead, where, as Jesus points out again, the first of this world are last, and the last first.