Homily: Banquet Etiquette

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The Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24A
Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I put together this homily, I approached it a different way than I usually do, which is that, I knew how I wanted to end it, so I wrote that first, and then waited to see what space I had left for the rest. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the ending took up about 80% of the homily. So, before I get to that, here’s the 20%, which I guess is basically just an introduction to the ending.

In our Gospel, Jesus makes two statements. In his first statement, to the guests, his message is about humility. Don’t be narcissistic, thinking you’re the most interesting person in the room, always promoting yourself. As the comedian Brian Regan says, don’t be a “MeMonster”, the one who’s conversation is, “Me, myself, and I, and me, me and mine, my story, about me…”. Jesus said, be humble. Take a low, unimportant position, and maybe you’ll be invited to a better seat. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, but if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. That’s the thrust of the first reading, too. “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.”

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The second part of Jesus’ message, he directs to the host of the banquet, and Jesus shifts his focus from the virtue of humility, to the virtue of charity. When you give a banquet, don’t just invite your friends and family and those you want to honor; invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, those who cannot return your hospitality and generosity. Why? Because we shouldn’t think of them as strangers, but as our brothers and sisters, like ourselves. Spiritually, we are poor (we foolishly amass useless trinkets, but are not rich in the things of God), we’re crippled (we fail to go and do what we ought to), we’re blind (we don’t see things and others as we ought to), we’re lame (broken with the sins we’ve committed against our own human dignity).  

Jesus frequently uses the metaphor of a banquet to refer to the joy of heaven, the Supper of the Lamb, which we share in, even now, as the celebration of the Eucharist. Our participation is meant to inspire us to go invite others, the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame” to this communion banquet that is healing us, so they may be healed also. And as you may know, those who have suffered humiliation and poverty, often become the most humble and generous people toward others.

So now the super-deluxe ending. As some of you may know, I went to Saint Vincent Seminary, which is run by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe. Image result for saint vincent seminarySaint Benedict, who lived in Italy in the 6th century, is widely regarded as the father of Western Monasticism. In his Rule of Life that he wrote for his Benedictine monks, one of the most famous chapters in the book is on humility. Benedict anchors his teaching on humility in today’s gospel reading. In the beginning of the chapter, he says [paraphrasing for brevity], “Brothers, the sacred Scriptures cry out to us and say: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Brothers, if we wish to reach that heavenly exaltation which is attained through humility we must set up that ladder which appeared in Jacob’s dream and by which angels were shown to be both descending and ascending; as descending by exaltation and ascending by humility. For that ladder set up is our life in this world which, when the heart has been humbled by the Lord, is set up to heaven. And we say that the rungs [are those] of humility and discipline by which we may ascend.” St. Benedict goes on to give 12 steps. You thought the twelve step program was invented in the 20th Century for people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, but St Benedict invented the first 12 step program, and it’s for those of us who are addicted to ourselves. Here are the steps that St. Benedict gave, in brief:

Step 1: Obeying all of God’s commandments. He says: “To set the proper fear of God always before our eyes, to keep from sins and faults of thought, of the tongue, of the eye, of the hand, of the foot, or of self-will.” In other words, act like God is God and you’re not.

Step 2: Don’t bother to please yourself. In other words, don’t take the best seat (at church, at dinner, anywhere). Don’t take the biggest slice of pie. Look for opportunities to grow in self-denial. (Of course, in church, it seems a bit reversed… the most coveted seats are in the back… so to grow in humility, everyone should move toward the front… and to have the humility to leave only when mass is finished, not to decide on their own to leave when they want to leave…)

Step 3: Obedience to your superior. Obeying parents, teachers, supervisors; obeying the laws, etc. If we always agreed with what they say, it wouldn’t be humility and discipline. But to bend our will to their proper authority over us can teach us humility.

Step 4: Patient and quiet perseverance in suffering. In other words, no complaining. If you meet somebody who complains all the time, you can basically rest assured that they’re not humble. The reason people complain is they think they don’t deserve it. “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this.” The wages of sin are death. We have all sinned, what we deserve is death, and then separation from God. We don’t want what we deserve! Enduring suffering without complaining, and even showing gratitude for God’s mercy that we deserve much worse than what we’re suffering, is to grow in humility and holiness. The fallacy of liberation theology is that those suffering unjustly have the right to rise up with violence against their oppressors. But the Church says that we may not sin as a response to sin. Yes, we should resist injustice, but we can also grow in humility while we suffer it.

Step 5: Humble and thorough confession of your sins and faults. The more you go to confession, the more your conscience is attentive to sin. I know it’s humbling to go to Confession. And what a blessing comes from that trust and humility!

Step 6: The acceptance of crude and harsh tasks. No grumbling. Grumbling is also a sign of pride. Related imageYou have to do something you don’t want to do, that’s beneath your dignity? Watch Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs.” There’s a saying, “If serving is beneath you, leadership is beyond you.” Get down in the muck and do what has to be done.

Step 7: Don’t only confess that you are inferior to others but believe it in your heart. Look for ways that others are better than you, and praise them, especially to others. Start to see everyone else’s virtues as greater than yours. Pray the Litany of Humility. Instead of judging others as less than you, exalt them above you. That’s the cultivation of real humility. Don’t just seek the lowest place at the banquet, seek the lowest place in your own eyes.

Step 8: Strict observance of a Rule of Life. The monks have this code of rules to follow. It’s obedience. The same thing could be true in our lives: certain rules for the household, or workplace. Or even a personal code of rules. No internet after 9, lights out at 10. No meat on Fridays. Exercise 3 times a week, pray 30 minutes every day. Follow a rule of life as a way of conquering your will and improving yourself. I love the quote that “Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now.”

Step 9: The practice of silence. People who never stop talking are usually not very humble, because they think what they have to say is so important that everyone needs or wants to hear it. The Me-Monster. Also, being in silence. Turn off the TV and music, have some silence in your life. Wrestle with the big questions, the big problems in your life. Learn to listen for the gentle voice of God.

Step 10: Restraint from laughter and frivolity. This one might be more fitting to a monk in religious life, and maybe not even then; I’ve met a lot of very jolly and laughter-prone monks. Certainly though in the matter frivolity, which the dictionary describes as being self-indulgently carefree and unconcerned about any serious purpose, we don’t want that. We don’t want to waste the gifts and opportunities we are given, or not take into account that we will answer to God for how we live and make our choices. Laughter is healthy and good. We’re called to celebrate the Mass. We honor the mysteries and saints of our faith as Feast days! We’re called in this life to participate in the joy of the heavenly wedding banquet! It’s good to be joyful. Just don’t be stupid. 

Step 11: Speaking few words, simply and seriously. Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Or as the 80’s song goes, “why don’t they do what they say, say what they mean, one thing leads to another.” Or as the bishop says in the Mass of Ordination, “Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” So being a person of few words, being simple and direct, is also an act of humility. Not just talking to talk. And finally…

Step 12: Showing humility in your heart and in your appearance and actions. In other words, being a visible reminder to others of humility and simplicity. Living below your means, paying off your debts, dressing simply and inexpensively, etc. It’s not only humble, it’s also very freeing, and we are made to be free. But first we have to humbly submit to God’s wisdom and mercy in getting free from our earthly captivity, both morally and materially.

So that’s Saint Benedict’s 12-step program for humility. I just thought it was fascinating, because here’s a simple saying of Jesus: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And the Church Fathers, our Sacred Tradition, draws out the deep meaning of just this very short saying, to teach us how we as disciples of Jesus, can live this out so that we can grow in the virtue of humility. And if just this short saying can yield all this wisdom, what a feast the entire word of God can be for us. And if we do those things (hopefully), we’ll get a good seat at the banquet table of Heaven.

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