Last Sunday, we read how Jesus was asked if only a few people would be saved, and Fr. Neil used that Scripture to remind us that hell is real, and it is a real possibility for everyone. This week we move forward a chapter in the gospel of Luke, and we get a parable on what you might call “dining room etiquette.” Last week, we got reminded that there is a Heaven and a Hell. This week, we get a little bit of instruction from our Lord on how to get to heaven and enjoy eternal life.
From the parable and from the other readings today, we are presented with two approaches to life with others and to following God’s commandments. In the parable from today’s gospel, Jesus gives a lot of practical advice on what to do when you’re invited to a fancy dinner. It’s all very prudent. Rather than going and sitting in the best seat, go sit in the lowest seat and thereby increase your odds of being promoted. It sounds like a very good and humble approach to human status.
The Letter to the Hebrews commends the Jews for their careful approach toward the God they worshiped in the desert Exodus. They were wise to not touch the blazing fire, and they heard a voice that was so powerful they begged Moses to do their talking for them.
The writer of Sirach gives similar advice. “Conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” So here in one of the wisdom books, we have some guidance on why to be humble. Sirach seems to be saying, “if I am humble, then there is a good chance that I will be loved. Perhaps they will love me even more than if I were to shower them with gifts.”
We might call this approach “getting along and getting ahead.” Being easy to get along with is a wonderful personality trait, and people who are easy to get along with are more likely to be promoted. All of us would rather be described as a nice guy instead of “a bit difficult.” And, as Sirach explains, nobody loves a boaster, so humility is the best way to be loved by others. Get along, and you will get ahead. It’s the smart thing to do.
Sirach is a wise man, and a reasonable man. He points out that “alms atone for sins.” Now, the word reasonable deserves some careful study. When we describe something as reasonable, often what we really mean is “it’s not too much,” or “it’s a fair request.” We know people are sinners, and we admit that Hell is a real option, but God is reasonable, right? If Sirach sinned, he put some money in the poor box. If we sin, we go to Confession and everything’s fine. It’s a wise thing to go to Confession, and the Church really only makes us go once a year. But it’s the smart thing to go more often.
This is really the virtue of prudence operating in our lives. What is prudence? Prudence is knowing the right way to do something and knowing when something needs to be done. Prudence is a natural virtue, something anybody can rationally understand as an excellent habit.
Now, when the natural virtues like prudence are infused with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they become something greater, and are supernatural virtues. These are habits of excellence lived as God desires.
In the case of planning where you are going to sit at a fancy dinner, natural prudence as presented by our Lord in the parable really starts from a position of fear. He pretty much says, “don’t go sit in the seat of privilege lest you be called out and be told to go sit in a lower seat.” That’s a very natural way to approach issues like social rank. And Sirach advises that we will get social capital when we don’t behave in an unlovable and arrogant way.
And the world operates this way much of the time. When we tell ourselves to be nice to be loved, we are really saying that love is not a gift. When we tell each other, “stay in your lane bro,” it’s really a warning to know your place and not be uppity.
Supernatural prudence, that prudence which is infused with the grace of the Holy Spirit, isn’t really concerned with being uppity. It doesn’t operate from a position of fear. Rather than focus on whether or not the seat you’re sitting in matches the social rank that you’ve been assigned, Jesus tells the host not to worry about the seating chart but to invite the poor who cannot repay the gift of a fancy dinner. He is telling the host to live for the day of the resurrection of the righteous. And in this parable, he reveals what the word “reasonable” really means.
Jesus does in this parable what he does in so many: he moves from what we would call reasonable to what God means by “reasonable.” Don’t worry about what seat you sit in, after all. Instead, invite the poor to your home for a big dinner. Do not let the social convention of is what is good and proper limit you, but do what God says is good and proper. Make sure to invite only those who cannot repay you. Why? “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The Sacrifice on Calvary and the Easter Resurrection are what make Heaven and Hell reasonable, according to God’s definition of that word. It makes sense, it is logical, it is able to be reasoned, that we are going to one place or the other at the General Judgment. So plan your lives, Jesus says, in that reasonable way rather than the compromising way we are tempted to live reasonable lives.
Jesus is telling us not to let the good become an enemy of the very best. Don’t worry so much about what other people think and say; instead, focus on God. Don’t go to confession because it’s prudent; go to confession because you hate the sins you have committed, and you want to be connected to this God who loves you so much that he comes to you in Confession.
Listen to the Psalm today: “God gives a home to the forsaken; he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.” The Letter to the Hebrews instructs the readers to put aside the fearful approach of old and approach “the city of the living God … in festal gathering.” From fear to festival. From frozen to free. From natural prudence to supernatural prudence. From practical humility to the humility of Our Lady. From deathly sin to eternal life.
How do we dare to take this approach? We dare because God is love, and love is gift. We should give things with the spirit of giving to those who cannot pay us back. We should be as humble as Jesus and his mother Mary showed us: always trusting God’s providence in obedience even when it is too hard to understand. And we don’t always have to understand. Our humility needs to start with accepting what Sirach says today: “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength, search not.” (This does not mean we should not grow in our knowledge of our faith, of course. Please take advantage of all the faith formation programs here and elsewhere.) But no matter how much I know, God knows infinitely more, and my life should reflect my acceptance of that reasonable and rational statement about the difference between God and me.
We are not our own masters. We are Christian disciples. We live in this world, but we live for the next world. We are journeying to the end of our natural lives, but we are directed by supernatural virtues. We are moving from practical ethics to godly ethics. Practical ethics are transitory, for this world will pass away. God – and God alone – is permanent, eternal, and his ethics are the ethics of Love and Gift.
We will receive the gift of love in the Holy Eucharist soon. Having received Him into our bodies at Holy Communion, may we live for Him. May we see as He sees, speak what he wants spoken, and love as he loves.