“Merciful Like the Father,” Part 49 – The City of the Living God

Forty-ninth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12:18-18, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Two places – or at least two metaphors of places – with which most of us are familiar are “the top of the mountain” and “rock bottom.” At the first place, there’s nowhere to go but down; at the other, nowhere to go but up. These are the extremes that the merciful Father asks us – quite explicitly through today’s readings – to keep in balance for ourselves. He Who exalts the valleys and lays the hills low, Who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, is always cautioning us to think neither too much nor too little of both ourselves and everyone else. It is not for us to level the playing field (God will do that), but rather not to allow our own presumption and despair to tear it up and make it a hazard.

The passage from the Book of Sirach, from which our First Reading is taken, advises us to be humble in all that we do. The one who is humble, the one who thinks not less of himself but of himself less, is “loved more than a giver of gifts,” and “will find favor with God.” This almost absent-mindedness of self also helps us to know our limits, to keep us from searching out things “too sublime” or “beyond [our] strength.” Knowledge, philosophy, science – like any earthly treasure or heavenly virtue, these are good things until they becomes obsessions, until they become means of lording over people, over ourselves even – and yes, in our own minds, over God, Who is the source of all charity. Humility, used properly, helps us keep ourselves in check, helps us maintain the balance that keeps the bonds of charity strong between us and God and neighbor.

This view of humility is reinforced in the Gospel reading as Jesus – the God-Man, the Incarnation of the source of charity – once again kills the mood at a house party. As the guests are keeping on eye on Him and another eye on the best free seats at the table, Jesus takes the opportunity to remind them all that if you are not humble you run the risk of being humbled. As an example, He speaks of taking a seat at a wedding feast that belongs to a more distinguished guest – perhaps a member of the family or the wedding party. “[T]hen you would proceed with embarrassment to the lowest place” once the hosts asks you to move. (I’m sure today He might use the example of taking floor seats at a concert or sports event, hoping that the ticket-holders don’t show up and get you kicked back up to the balcony.) But Jesus also turns His attention to the host advises him to invite, in the future, not his friends or relatives or well-to-do compatriots, but instead people whom he’s not certain can pay him back – the poor, the sick, the social outcasts. Such an idea might upset our worldly ideas of balance and reciprocity, but what good is charity if it is not freely given and with an expectation of like return? Is that impartial? Is that reconciliation?

Such actions on our part are supposed to transform us and the world with us, to create an earthly image of our heavenly home. That is, after all, the reality of the Church Jesus created and entrusted to us and sent His Spirit to guide and to govern. It is to be the material realization of a spiritual pattern, the “city of the living God” mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews. It is, as Pope Francis has said, not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners. It is not “blazing fire,” “gloomy darkness,” lofty unapproachable idealism and booming proclamations that make people run in the other direction. That is not how the heavenly Jerusalem is described, and the earthly one should not be like that either. The angels congregate there “in festal gathering;” our Masses should reflect similarly joyous solemnity, particularly at the Eucharistic Prayer. God sits there enthroned as the sole Judge of all creation, and Jesus is there too as the “mediator of a new covenant;” our conduct and relationships here should similarly reflect our own lack of authority over eternal life, should remind us that we are not judges but pilgrims. The “spirits of the just” – those who have been justified by faith – live there in full spiritual life with God; our physical lives on earth should chase a similar sort of perfection, allowing God to dwell with us. That is the goal of the Church on earth, the Bride of Christ Who seeks to draw all the world to Her Spouse, and Her constant lesson over the last 2000 years is that that goal can only be achieved in humility.

“[E]veryone who exalts himself will be humbled,” says the Lord, “and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” No one wants to end up at rock bottom, but we shouldn’t be so quick to climb the mountain either. It’s truly unsatisfying to reach the top and realize that there’s nowhere else you can go – and that you left behind you everyone who would say “Well done.”



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