Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 3:17-29; Heb 12:18-24; Lk 14:7-14

Today’s gospel passage gives us two parables of Jesus about attendance at wedding feasts. At first glance they can seem almost contradictory. In the first parable he tells the wedding guests, "Take a lower place, so you may be invited to a higher place. Then you will receive the esteem of everyone." It seems like it’s almost a tip about successful glory mongering. But then in the parable to the host, he says, "Only invite those who are poor, crippled, lame and blind." There aren’t going to be many of those who are looking for great public esteem. It’s confusing to the average listener today.

We should be aware that the whole parable tradition of Jesus’ teaching is notoriously hard to interpret. That’s because there are so many levels of interpretation and re-interpretation that they go through. There’s what the parable meant in Jesus’ original teaching. That’s one level, and a very hard one to ascertain. Then there are the ways that the parables were remembered, assembled together and used in the early Church. That’s a second level. Finally, there’s the way the parable gets used in a particular gospel. That’s a third level. Trying to work your way through all that is daunting----even for a scripture scholar.

I got some help in trying to unravel this from a very unusual source. It’s a book entitled, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament. The author, who is a Jewish scholar named Samuel Tobias Lachs, shows the parallels that exist between the Synoptic gospels of the New Testament and various Jewish Rabbinical writings. There is, in fact, a Rabbinic teaching which is very close to Jesus’ words. This is a teaching of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai: "Stay two or three seats below where you feel you should sit and sit there until they say to you, ‘Come up.’ Do not begin by going to a higher place because they may say to you, ‘Go down.’" And this whole passage in Luke’s gospel Lachs entitles, "On Humility." The evangelist Luke may therefore be putting into Jesus’ words a teaching on humility for both wedding guests and the host of the wedding dinner. That interpretation seems to be supported by the first reading today from Sirach, which was all about humility in our relations with others.

This presents a modern problem. In our current English language usage "to be a humble person" almost takes on a derogatory meaning. In fact, most of the meanings of "humble" listed in a standard dictionary are primarily negative. In my Random House Dictionary of the English language the following meanings are given for the word, humble: a. Not arrogant; modest; b. Having a feeling of insignificance or inferiority; c. Low in rank; d.(Verb) To lower in condition; e. To destroy the independence of. Humility gets much the same treatment. It’s hard to encourage people today to a practice of humility with common understandings like that. And yet that’s what Jesus does and we should take it seriously ourselves. But we need to understand humility and "being humble" not in the sense of current English usage, but the way it’s intended in the Scriptures.

We have to rehabilitate a proper Christian sense of being humble and the virtue of humility. In the Old Testament "to be humble" is, first and foremost, to know one’s place before God. It is to recognize that all we are and all we have received comes from the hand of God. As we pray in the first Children’s Eucharistic Prayer: "We thank you for this good earth, for the people who live on it, and for our very lives which are your gift." (I think it’s my favorite Eucharistic Prayer.) To be humble is to acknowledge who one is before the Mystery of God. In that sense humility becomes an act of worship. If we keep that in mind, then we will know our place in regard to other people. If we go back to those parables of Jesus that we began with, the key to understanding them is about recognizing one’s proper place. And if we have it fully in mind that all we are we have received from God, then there’s no need to promote one’s self-importance. That’s the virtue of humility. Let’s seek to live it.

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