Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 1 September 2013
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Psalm 68:4-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14;
Ben Sira, our Old Testament sage, is concerned with being well thought of. His ethic is very much one of working to gain (or retain) honour and avoid shame. We should be humble because that will put us in the good books of both God and people. The sage also advocates giving to the poor as a way to atone for sins. His idea of humility before God is about knowing our limits and not seeking to understand what is beyond us. Giving God due honour and avoiding hubris, he informs us, requires intellectual humility.
Jesus’ words at the Pharisee’s banquet also deal with matters of humility, honour and shame, and giving to the poor. He combines them differently though. What appears at first to be conventional wisdom about behaving in a way that does not bring shame at banquets, ends up being a deconstruction of the whole honour game in favour of genuine hospitality.
I was surprised at first to see that Jesus’ teaching about not taking the place of honour is called a ‘parable’ – I’ve always read it as sage advice. Parables disclose the reality about the Kingdom of God. Where God’s will and God’s way is evident, the humble and the marginalised are those who are sought out for honour. According to the psalm, it is the forsaken who are given a home, and the prisoners who are led forth, not to execution, but to prosperity. In Jesus’ parable, the host seeks out those sitting in the ‘poor seats’ to bestow with special honour. If that is how it is in the Kingdom of God, then there is something seriously wrong when the people of God play the honour game as if there is not enough to go around, as if we need to advance ourselves at the expense of others. People are immensely valuable in and of themselves, and they should never be used as pawns in a social game. In the Kingdom of God, grace and love are given freely. Hospitality is genuine welcome, freely bestowed, and not a way of creating obligations.
God has offered us hospitality, powerfully described by the writer to the Hebrews as a welcome to the feast in the city of the living God. If we think we have earned that privilege, we’re likely to want others to earn it too. But when it dawns on us that we are feasting at the table of a Host whom we could never repay with a return invitation, and truly sense the love and the welcome that we have here, how can we play silly games of power and status with others? The grace that floods our lives just has to overflow.
It’s not about pretending to be last as a strategy for gaining the first place. The Kingdom of God subverts the honour game by proclaiming that there is enough to go around. Hospitality isn’t about honour and status – it’s all about grace.
Here is the reading from Sirach, which isn’t found in all Bibles:
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
My child, 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.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.