Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Homily by Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A..

Sir 3:17 18, 20, 28 29
Ps 68:4 5, 6 7, 10 11
Heb 12:18 19, 22 24a
Lk 14:1, 7 14

“Where are you sitting?”

Anyone who has ever attended a wedding has heard this question. A group of family or friends gathers at the table with the place cards, everyone running down the alphabet to find his or her name. Once the cards are in hand, the question is asked: “Where are you sitting?” Sometimes there is disappointment that a group has been split up, and sometime happiness that everyone will sit together. But hanging over both situations is another, unspoken question: “How high is your number?” Has the group been given a high number? Or, if split up, who has the highest number? Who is sitting higher up? Who is more popular?

What does a table number mean? It means love. The higher the number, the more the bride and groom must love you.

That sounds absurd, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that some people see it just like that. A higher table number means they are special; and not just special, but more special than all those less popular, not-so-beloved guests with low table numbers. In a contest, some win and some lose; and some folks look at wedding receptions as a contest to see whose number is higher, who will get served their meal first, who will be seated closer to the wedding party.

And if you have ever been involved in planning a wedding, you know that such considerations make table arrangements a nightmare. Parents and children already have to spend long hours trying to make sure that feuding relatives aren’t seated together, that an unmarried guest doesn’t wind up at a table with only couples, that children are seated with their parents. But they really sweat over the table numbers. Of course, parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters are expected to rate a high number. But what then? Can friends be seated higher up than distant cousins? What do you do if you have many aunts and uncles? What about business associates? There are always a few guests who must be treated with kid gloves, because if they don’t like their table number, everyone will hear about it, especially after the bar opens.

I have known couples try to avoid the problem by using non-numeric systems, usually pictures of flowers. It’s a nice idea, but in practice it really doesn’t work. The contest continues, because some guests want the rose and the lily. They are not happy to be seated at the petunia table.

Not surprisingly, Jesus counsels humility. Whether you are given a seat or allowed to choose your own, be modest. Do not take part in the undignified jostling for pride of place, or complain about your table assignment, or compare your table to others. Christ did not cling to his own seat in heaven but emptied himself into our world, accepting the humility of Mary’s womb, the cradle of Bethlehem, the company of sinners, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. None of these were places of honor for the Son of God, but he accepted them for our sake, and he commands his followers to imitate his humility. Jesus says: The Father and I are one, yet here I am with you, living as you live, suffering as you suffer and much more, in order to establish a new covenant through my death. How can you make a fuss about where you sit at a banquet?

This is Christian humility: not a good deed we proudly give to God, but the virtue of imitating God.

That’s the easy part of today’s gospel. It’s hard to argue with humility. Non-Christians see the value of humility. Few of us enjoy spending time with the non-humble. People who must always trumpet their accomplishments and demand constant recognition either have incredibly patient friends, or no friends. So when Jesus says, “Be humble,” although that is a lesson we all need to hear, no one is likely to disagree with him. We may not always act with humility, but we all agree it is a good thing.

But then, as usual, Jesus unveils the stinger, that part of being a disciple which is not simply hard but reasonable, like humility, but something impossible, not just hard but completely unreasonable. Jesus says, “Be humble; and be so humble that you invite people to your wedding who are too poor to bring gifts, too crippled to dance, too blind to appreciate the beautiful flowers, the bride’s dress, and the tasteful decorations. Invite people so hungry that your wedding meal will be their only meal that day.”

That does not sound like a party. It sounds like trouble twice over. Not only is your reception going to look like a cross between a hospital waiting room and a soup kitchen, but your friends, relatives, and wealthy neighbors are going to wonder why they weren’t invited. If figuring out where to put everyone was a problem, imagine how much of a headache it will be to explain why blind strangers got the rose table and old friends got the air.

Is Jesus offering advice on how to plan a successful wedding? I don’t think so. He is doing what he often does, saying something so extreme and unthinkable that he gets the attention of his audience. When speaking of the dangers of sin, Jesus says, “If your hand is your problem, cut it off; and if your eye is your problem, pluck it out.” We would be wrong to take this to mean that Christians must perform surgery on themselves. So, too, today’s gospel is not, I think, a prescription for how to draw up a list of wedding guests. What does it mean, then?

Recall how the passage begins: “On a sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.” Jesus is not speaking in general terms, throwing out proverbs about how to live a happy life. He is at a reception, watching people jostling for seats, and watching the host take pleasure in the display. Christ is there, but no one is rushing to make him comfortable, provide him with a place of honor, make sure he is made welcome. The host has welcomed the Son of God into his home, the guests have been given the gift of sharing a meal with the Messiah, but the age-old contest goes on. They don’t recognize who is with them.

Here, Jesus Christ is our host. Here, we have been given the gift of sharing a meal with the Messiah. Here, the host is the meal. We are sinners, yet all of us have been called higher, out of the darkness of original sin and out of the isolation of our personal sins. Here, we are given a higher table number than we have any right to expect. Here, we are seated with the bride’s immediate family.

So perhaps Jesus does not want people to ignore their family and friends and invite only poor strangers to their wedding. Perhaps he does not expect our receptions to look like a cross between a hospital waiting room and a soup kitchen. But if we are given Christ’s body and blood, if our sins are forgiven, if we receive an undeserved place of honor here and are promised an even greater place of honor in the life to come, a place among the angels and the firstborn - if Christ gives us all that, but we, in turn, never see the inside of a soup kitchen, never make our way to the hospital bed of a sick neighbor, never find ourselves offering a poor stranger food or clothing, then we have not recognized who is with us here. We have accepted our high number, sat at the head table with the host himself, heard him speak and shared his life and taken him into ourselves. But nothing has changed. The contest goes on, the contest for a comfortable seat at a table of honor in a worthwhile reception. We don’t win that contest by sitting with the poor, consoling the lost, sitting by the side of the sick.

But the real contest, the Christian contest, the race we struggle to finish and the fight we strive to win, is a contest we can only win with the poor, with the lost, and with the sick. Christ humbled himself to become a man. Christ humbles himself to come among us today in the sacrifice of this altar. God makes a home for the poor in this church.When we invite the poor and the sick into our lives, all we are doing is imitating the host who has welcomed us here today. And the privilege of imitating Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, is the greatest honor any of us can be given.