Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Salvation as Primarily the Work of God, not Ours

Homily on the 22nd Sunday of Year
(Luke 14:1.7-14)
August 29, 2010

ALTHOUGH we eat and drink to nourish our bodily systems, yet, when taken in a party, banquet or dinner, there is more to food and drink than mere nourishment. In such a context, eating and drinking is a form of communication. It says something about the host, the guest and even the atmosphere in which the dinner is held. As Bruce Malina points out, “just as the material used for communication in speech is language, so the material used for communication in a festive meal is food and drink and their setting. Thus the type of food and drink chosen, their mode of preparation, method of service, and setting or reclining arrangements all say something about eh inviter’s assessment of those invited (cf Luke 14:7-11).” For one to be invited to a party, for example, reflects the importance a host gives to him, for he is clearly set apart from those who were not invited, even if the inviter knows them by name. But even among the invited, it often happens that they are not treated equally. We do mind the dignity society accords to people of note and prominence. Some are seated at the presidential table, others are not. There is always a protocol to be observed. At the time of Jesus, it was customary to seat guests according to their dignity and rank, not according to age. And the most prestigious places in a banquet are those to the right and to the left of the host. The farther one is from the host, the lesser he is in the latter’s eyes.

In today’s Gospel, we are told that when Jesus was invited to dine at a Pharisee’s house, he noticed how the Pharisees chose the first places for themselves. According to Luke, these people were rigorous when it comes to the law (Luke 6:2), and sometimes did more than what it required (Luke 18:12). Precisely because of their effort to strictly keep the law, they had reasons to think that they had a great dignity before God and of course before men. If the Gospels portray them as lovers of the first seats in the synagogues, craving for the special greetings in public places, this should be thought of as a natural consequence of the dignity they claimed for themselves. It is thus natural on the whole that they sought the best places in the banquet to which a Pharisee invited them together with Jesus. In our society of unequal wealth and status, one could always find sympathy with the Pharisees. At our formal dinners, we more often than not have a list of guests to be seated at the presidential table. We know that the seating arrangement provides much indication of the social standing not only of the guests but also of the host himself. Tell me who are your visitors, and I will tell you who you are. Of course, social climbers have been known from Adam. Indeed, how often we emphasize the importance of knowing the right people, especially because what is of consequence nowadays in not so much what you know as who you know. Unlike the Pharisees, though, we do consider dignity not in terms of following the law, but in terms of power and wealth.

In the Gospel, Luke portrays Jesus as setting rules for guests and host at a banquet. At first blush, it would seem that Jesus was giving the invited Pharisees and their host a worldly wisdom with regard to seeking out position of prestige, meant at the same time as a warning against embarrassment in social functions. As it appears, Jesus’ teaching about seeking the lowest place at a banquet echoes an Old Testament wisdom: “Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of great men; for it is better that you be told, ‘Come up closer,’ than that you be humbled before the prince” (Prov 25:6-7). We do not know if historically Jesus was concerned with proper decorum in this episode; but there is much reason to think that the intention of Luke is not limited to social etiquette. For one thing, Luke clearly states that this is a parable (Luke 14:7), and in Luke a parable is usually about theKingdom of God. For another, one finds it strange that in the entire gospel, it is only in these sayings that Jesus concerns himself with social etiquette. One may not be mistaken in regarding the gospel text not as rules of etiquette or social graces but, most likely, as matters on social behavior used to teach us two important points about the Kingdom of God.

The first lesson concerns the composition of the Kingdom of God. From his observation on guests competing for the best places at table to show their status before other guests and the host, Jesus draws the lesson that membership in the community of the Kingdom does not depend on one’s merits, social standing or economic status. Unlike in many marriage banquets, these count nothing in the Kingdom of God. We do not save ourselves by these means. Salvation is the work of God in the first place. Hence, those who consider themselves worthy of high places in the Kingdom, like the Pharisees inJerusalem who expected the best seats as reward for their meticulous observance of the law, will find themselves humbled to take the lowest places. After all, they have received their reward in the honor that banquets brought them. Rather, membership in the Kingdom, which can be identified with one’s salvation, is given as an unmerited gift to those whom God in Jesus calls. He invites those who acknowledge their unworthiness before him. It is these who will ultimately find themselves raised up to high places. This reversal of fortune is best expressed in Mary’s canticle: “He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raise the lowly to high places” (Luke 1:52).

Second, in the Kingdom of God, fellowship is of great value. After all, salvation is about living in fellowship with the Triune God and the saints. But this will not be realized without having to cultivate fellowship with those who are in the lower brackets of society. It may be recalled that the Pharisees refused social contact with those who could not fulfill the requirements of the Pharisaic piety. This gave the impression that, if the Pharisaic practice was an indication of the Kingdom of God, those who formed part of the lowest rung of the Jewish society, were to be excluded from the communion in the eschatological banquet. But it is precisely against this tradition that Jesus’ words about hosts at banquet are directed: “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Indeed, merely to associate with those who belong to one’s social circle or standing, or with those whom one wishes to be with reinforces the inequality of society. For Jesus, to be generous toward those who are excluded by standard piety constitutes a required behavior in a community that reflects the Kingdom of God. This recalls Jesus’ sermon: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32). He illustrates this by saying that those who belong to the Kingdom of God cannot but show solidarity with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind by sharing with them the festive table. When they do this, the Pharisees would show that they have been converted to the values of the Kingdom.

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