The Gospel we hear on the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is set in the context of a dinner at the home of a Pharisee. Jesus notices that people are observing His behavior, especially after He healed someone on the Sabbath. He notices two things about the guests: who the host has invited and how they are vying for the best seats. Jesus has a word of caution, a word of teaching and a word of warning.
Making an invitation list to a dinner or event usually requires figuring out the event’s purpose. If the purpose is social, then invitations would typically go to people closest to you or to people you want to get to know better. If the dinner is for serving those in need, the guest list would probably change significantly. If the host is prominent, people would be complimented by the invitation.
It seems in this case that the invited guests are trying to take the place of prominence to make sure that their host, the Pharisee, knows how important they are. They are trying to make their importance felt by those in attendance. Jesus notices the clamoring for the best seats. He offers some wisdom about how embarrassing it could be if that most important seat was meant for someone else, and you were asked to move to a lower seat. Jesus would have been familiar with the teaching from the book of Sirach, instructing us to conduct our affairs with humility. He encourages the guests to seek the lower seats, to be satisfied with a seat at the table at all, and to leave the higher seats for those for whom they are intended. Most of us don’t fight over which seat is ours unless we’re playing musical chairs. But this might be a good time to reflect on the places in our lives where we do vie for prominence, position or power. When we have a choice to make, do we keep others in mind or do we just think about ourselves and the positive effects it would have for us? Are we aware of the consequences for others through the choices that we make? Do we ever voluntarily give up a portion of power for the sake of allowing someone else to have a voice or a place at the table?
Because most of us are capable of controlling with whom we spend most of our time, do we experience the variety of humanity or just hang around those who look, sound and act like us or those who agree with us? Do we ever expose ourselves to the lives of others? Do we ever try to experience the interconnectedness with others, some of whom we may never meet? If we are guilty of overindulgence in any way, have we ever examined who is doing without so that we can have more than we need?
Jesus also offers a word of wisdom about the balance between following the letter of the law and taking care of human needs right in front of us, even if taking care of them would violate one of our accepted norms. When He healed the man in front of Him, He violated a Sabbath law. He knew that people questioned His choice, so He asked them a question. He knew that if any of their children or animals were in trouble on the Sabbath, they would break the law to help the child or the animal. But when they saw someone suffering in front of them, probably because they don’t know him or he might be judged unclean, they were not willing to break the Sabbath law for him.
Are we touched by that same convenience of belief and practice of faith? Do we exempt ourselves from laws when we deem it necessary but judge others who do the same?
Isn’t it difficult and troubling how challenging Jesus can be? Doesn’t He sometimes threaten our status quo? Isn’t it true that love calls us beyond our comfort zone?
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.