Scripture and the Liturgy

Guess Who? 22nd Sunday of OT

In 2005, a quasi-remake of the famous 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner” was released.  Entitled “Guess Who?” it starred Bernie Mac as an African-American father who struggled to deal with his daughter’s Caucasian fiancé (played by Ashton Kutcher).  Much of the comedy of the film revolved around the clash of cultures at the dinner table.  Usually we only share meals with people like us: family members or friends from our own “circle.”  When someone from “outside” comes in, it upsets the balance. 

If anything, Jews of Jesus day were even more careful than contemporary Americans about who they invited around their table.  The Readings for this Lord’s Day are going to conclude with Jesus calling his followers to invite people from “outside”—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—to dine with us.  This takes humility, for it requires us to recognize we are not “too good” to share as equals with those people overlooked by the rest of society.  Thus, we also observe a strong theme of humility running through the Readings.

1. Our First Reading is Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29:

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.
What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.
Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins.

Composed c. 200 BC, Sirach is the last of the wisdom books in the Catholic order of the canon, and may be regarded as a massive summation of the Israelite wisdom tradition.  In fact, Sirach is truly a meditation on the entire body of Israel’s Scriptures from the perspective of wisdom, that is, the practical knowledge of successful living.  Because Sirach provides such a useful digest of the moral message of the Old Testament Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the little book of the Church.”

Sirach is known by many names.  The full title of the book—in Greek and probably Hebrew as well—was “The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach” (cf. Sir 50:27).  A plethora of shortened titles in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin can be found in the Fathers and the rabbis of antiquity, including “Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Jesus,” “Book of Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Sirach,” “Proverbs of Jesus of Sirach,” and others.  The brief title ben Sira (“son of Sirach”) eventually prevailed in the Jewish tradition, and this name is often used in scholarly writing today, for the book and for its author.  As mentioned, the Latin tradition eventually bestowed on it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” although St. Jerome’s title in the Vulgate was Liber Iesu Filii Sirach, “The Book of Jesus son of Sirach.”  Since any title including “Wisdom” is easily confused with the Wisdom of Solomon, and “Ecclesiasticus” with Ecclesiastes, the name “Sirach” has now become common in modern Catholic discourse, and this is the title we will use below.

Sirach was highly respected among the rabbis of antiquity, and citations can be found in rabbinical literature where it is quoted as Scripture.  Greek-speaking Jews in diaspora throughout the Roman Empire also received it as inspired.  Despite the fact that it was originally written in Hebrew, however, it was rejected from the rabbinic Jewish canon of Scripture, perhaps because it was considered to have been written too late, after the age of prophetic inspiration.  Nonetheless, within the Church, Sirach was received as canonical and was commonly quoted as Scripture by many of the Fathers, even if it was omitted from some early lists of the canon.

Sirach is a self-consciously literary work, one that intentionally employs a wide variety of rhetorical and literary devices. The author was a professional scribe, a literary expert of his day.  As in earlier Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, the two-line bicola prevails.  But Jesus ben Sira also employs a wide variety of other literary forms, including hymns, acrostic poems, encomia, and at least one todah psalm.

The Book of Proverbs was the literary model for Jesus ben Sira, and like Proverbs, Sirach combines long poems in praise of Wisdom (e.g. Prov. 1:20-33; ch. 8; ch. 9; 31:10-31) with loosely-organized collections of proverbs.  Unlike Proverbs, however, Sirach shows greater thematic unity, and an effort to group proverbs by topic.

The modern Lectionary is generous in its use of readings from Sirach, employing a wide variety of readings from all sections of the book for different occasions.  In general, we may observe that frequently Jesus ben Sirach’s ethical teaching is formulated in a way very similar to that of Our Lord.  Taking advantage of this fact, the Lectionary in Ordinary Time often associates Gospel readings recounting Jesus’ ethical teaching with similar passages from Sirach.  In this way, the Lectionary teaches the children of the Church that Jesus’ moral doctrine was not entirely a novum or innovation; rather, it had strong precedent already in Judaism and canonical Scripture before his coming.  So we see the truth of what Jesus himself taught about his continuity with the sacred tradition of Israel: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17).  Although Jesus does introduce new teaching, the true novelty of the Gospel concerns more his person than his ethics.

Jesus ben Sirach, like the Jesus of Nazareth to come, highly prizes humility, and in today’s passage stresses this virtue as one key to entering into God’s favor.  In his exhortation “Humble yourself, the greater you are,” we hear a “pre-echo” of Jesus’ words: “Whoever would become great in God’s kingdom must become the servant of all,” and “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).  Jesus Christ is the culmination of a profound tradition of moral reflection of God’s revelation within Israel. The final lines about the alms seem out of place at first. The poetic couplet means that “Just as water quenches fire, so alms atone for sin.” The purpose of including these verses will become clear when we get to the Gospel reading, which also combines the themes of humility and almsgiving.

2. The Responsorial Psalm ia Ps 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11:

R. (cf. 11b) God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.

The just rejoice and exult before God;
they are glad and rejoice.
Sing to God, chant praise to his name;
whose name is the LORD.

R. God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.

The father of orphans and the defender of widows
is God in his holy dwelling.
God gives a home to the forsaken;
he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.

R. God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.

A bountiful rain you showered down, O God, upon your inheritance;
you restored the land when it languished;
your flock settled in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided it for the needy.

R. God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.

The First Reading—not accidentally!—ended with a call for the practice of almsgiving, that is, material help offered to the poor.  The Psalm picks up on the theme of kindness to the poor.  The Psalm asserts that God himself is the primary benefactor of the orphan, the widow, and other disadvantaged persons.  Therefore, when we show kindness to the poor, it is an imitatio Dei, an act that makes us resemble God!

What is the connection between humility and almsgiving?  It lies in seeing the poor person as like ourselves, as sharing in our humanity, as being our brother or sister.  Pride involves placing ourselves above the level of other human beings, so that their needs have no claim on us.  But through almsgiving we recognize the poor as our family, as fellow children of God who have a claim on our love.

3.  The Second Reading is Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a:

Brothers and sisters:
You have not approached that which could be touched
and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness
and storm and a trumpet blast
and a voice speaking words such that those who heard
begged that no message be further addressed to them.
No, you have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect,
and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,
and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.

The author of Hebrews is drawing a distinction here between two covenants: the covenant with Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai, and the covenant with David established at Mt. Zion.  These two different mountains symbolize two different covenants.  The sacred author states: “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness …”: this is a description of Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19:16-19) and is symbolic of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.  This means: “You have not entered into a covenant like the Old Covenant, characterized by fear of God and threatening fearsome curses (e.g. Deut 27-32).  The covenant you have entered is not like this Old Covenant (see Jer 31:31-34).”

Instead, the sacred author says, No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem …” Mt. Zion is the site on which the Covenant with David was established, so through this imagery the author of Hebrews identifies the New Covenant as the fulfillment of the Davidic.  He is also identifying the Church as the true “Mt. Zion” and “heavenly Jerusalem.”

The Davidic and Mosaic covenants were very different from one another, and the Church is based on the Davidic, not the Mosaic:

Contrast Between the Mosaic and Davidic Covenants
LocationMt. SinaiMt. Zion
SanctuaryTemporary TabernaclePermanent Temple
Form of InstructionLawWisdom
PolityNational GovernmentInternational Empire
Style of LiturgySilent, SomberJoyful, Musical (the Psalms)
Preferred SacrificeThe Whole Burnt OfferingThe Todah or “Thanksgiving” Sacrifice

As I’ve mentioned before, theologians often treat the Bible as if it contained only two covenants, the Old (Mosaic) and the New (Eucharistic), and then they try to move directly from the Mosaic to the Eucharistic. But, as they say in New England, “You can’t get there from here.” One cannot move directly from the Mosaic covenant to the New. The necessary intermediary is the Davidic covenant, which more perfectly typified the New Covenant than did the Mosaic. The prophets saw the return of the Son of David, not the son of Moses. They saw a New Temple on a New Zion, not a new tabernacle on a new Sinai.

The author describes the community of the “Heavenly Jerusalem” as including “countless angels in festal gathering,” that is, gathered for a feast.  What is this feast at which the angels and saints gather at “Mt. Zion”?  It is the Eucharist, where they consume the “sprinkled blood” of Jesus which “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  (Abel’s blood cried out for justice; Jesus’ blood cries out for mercy.) The Eucharist is the banquet at which God invites the poor, the blind, the lame, etc.—in other words, invites us.

4.  The Gospel is Lk 14:1, 7-14:

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.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.

These words of Jesus operate at two different levels.  On the basic level, it’s just sound advice about social etiquette.  Everyone dislikes a person that is always putting themselves forward, the kind the comedian Brian Regan describes as “me-monsters.”  So don’t put yourself forward in social situations.  Give way to others.  Ironically, in the long run this attitude wins friends, and eventually others will come and invite you “forward.”

         On the other hand, this banquet table may be seen as a symbol of the Church, which is gathered around the Eucharistic table of the Lord.  In that case, are Lord is condemning an attitude of “climbing the ecclesiastical ladder,” that is, seeking to acquire honor and authority within the Church, perhaps by obtaining “cherry” positions within her hierarchical structure or institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.).  Our Lord has no use for “social climbers” or “political animals” around his table.  Clergy should not attempt to obtain episcopal appointment, or having attained it, to acquire a more prestigious diocese.  But even lay people can fall into the temptation to try to acquire prestige in the local parish, the diocese, or even the national or international Church.  “If this is your attitude,” our Lord is saying, “you joined the wrong religion!”

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him,
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Likewise, this next section of the Gospel reading operates at two levels.  On the basic level, it is a call to practice a form of almsgiving: inviting the poor to share your food.  Those who show love to the outcasts and disadvantaged in this life may be assured that God will be “in their debt,” and will repay that debt in the next.  When we show love by meeting the material needs of the truly poor, we are “doing God’s work for him,” because as the Psalm taught us, kindness to the poor is the kind of thing God does.

         Concerning this Gospel, we should also recall that the crippled, lame, and blind were often considered ritually unclean, and certainly were not permitted to worship in the Temple courts in Jesus’ day (Lev 21:18).  Inviting them into your home meant risking ritual defilement.  Yet Jesus is teaching that the charitable laws of the Old Testament take precedence over the laws of ritual cleanliness.  Jesus is definitely calling on his contemporaries to get outside their comfort zones in their effort to show the love of God, and the same is true for us: too many of us live in a virtual “Catholic ghetto,” without meaningful contact with non-Catholics in our community or even in our own neighborhood.  How can we be content with this situation?

         By inviting the poor, lame, and crippled to our table, we are actually carrying on a Davidic tradition.  In 2 Samuel 9, we see that David, upon becoming King of Israel, sought out his father-in-law and predecessor Saul’s last remaining heir, Mephibosheth (or Mephiba’al), who was crippled in his feet due to a childhood accident.  David invited Mephibosheth to dine at the royal table “like one of the king’s sons” for the rest of his life.  This is a type of David’s greater son, Jesus, who invites us—spiritually lame though we are—to dine at the royal table “like one of the king’s sons” (i.e. enjoying a filial relationship with God) at the Eucharist.  The Church carries on the traditions of David, because as we saw in the Second Reading, the Church isthe fulfillment of the Kingdom of David.

This leads us to see the evangelistic thrust of this Gospel.  If the banquet table represents the Eucharistic fellowship of the Church, the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame” are those broken with sins committed against them and sins they have committed themselves, people who need the Good News.  Jesus is calling us to go out and invite those outside the Church to come to his Banquet.  While I’m on this subject, let me put in a plug for the work of the St. Paul Street Evangelization apostolate:

They are actually going out to invite the poor (in whatever sense) to come to the Church.

This evangelistic effort should be motivated by humility, realizing that we ourselves are “poor, crippled, blind, and lame” in God’s eyes (see Rev. 3:17), at least until he brought us into his banqueting hall.  When we engage in sharing the Good News of God’s banquet, the “repayment” that we will receive in the life to come will be, perhaps, to share the joy of the heavenly banquet with the very people we invited during our earthly life.


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