11th Sunday after Trinity

23 August 2019

Proper 17: Ecclesiasticus 10.12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.1, 7-14

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IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is the guest at a sabbath dinner hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Luke tells us taht the Pharisees “were watching him closely”. The Greek expression has the connotation of “lurking . . . like a fox ready to pounce” (David Lyle Jeffrey, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).

Christ has no permanent home in which to eat or sleep (Luke 9.58). He chooses to make himself vulnerable: he is always the guest at others’ tables, despite being the true host of all humanity. While those who entertain Jesus fail to recognise this fact, everything they serve has ultimately come from him. For he is the Word through whom all things were made (cf. 1 Chronicles 29.14, John 1.3).

By standing in a place of dependence, Jesus sees how his hosts treat different kinds of people, and how they thereby reinforce existing hierarchies of status. He also observes his fellow guests competing to rise within those hierarchies. When he sends out the seventy-two, he commands them to adopt this same vantage-point of vulnerability (Luke 10.1-23).

The fact that the Pharisees are “watching him closely” does not inhibit Jesus. He first performs another sabbath healing (vv. 2-6, omitted from our lections), and then offers advice to his fellow guests as they vie for the more prestigious seats. Finally, he criticises his host’s choice of dining companions.

To be hosted by those with wealth and worldly status is to be spiritually as well as materially vulnerable. When his fellow guests jostle for better seats, he cautions them against being seduced by such things. As Justo González explains, Jesus’s words have an “eschatological reference”. He “speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’”: a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension of the final judgement and the new order of the Kingdom, which reverses the present human order: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).

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To live in the light of God’s Kingdom is to abandon all such grasping after worldly status. When we open our hearts to God’s Spirit, we are drawn into the self-giving love of Christ. It is precisely by being drawn into this humility that we are raised to share the life of God.

There is likewise an “eschatological dimension” to Jesus’s advice to his host. Inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be a worthy (though perhaps condescending) act of charity. In hosting those who are despised and dismissed in this world’s hierarchies of status, this privileged Pharisee would have at his table the people who will be greatest in the world to come.

Our epistle also focuses on the offering of hospitality to those in need. As St John Chrysostom explains, it is written to a community that has suffered persecution and a loss of material status because of its faithfulness to Christ. The practice of hospitality is not limited to the rich and powerful. Indeed, the greatest hospitality is often shown by those who are impoverished or persecuted, and none the less share what they have (cf. Luke 21.1-4).

The writer reminds the Hebrews of the hospitality of Abram, Sarai, Gideon, and Manoah (Genesis 18.1-2, Judges 6.11-24, 13.2-22). When the Hebrews themselves offer hospitality, they may likewise “entertain angels without knowing it”. These early Christians are not promised a future reward for this generosity. Their reward is an encounter with God here and now.

The passage continues with an exhortation to its readers to care for their imprisoned and tortured brothers and sisters “as though you were in prison” and “being tortured”. Such hospitality and care, offered by a persecuted and impoverished Church to those in even greater need, is another foretaste of the heavenly feast.

“Christian hospitality is not just an act of kindness but a way of receiving the Lord himself into one’s home” (Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Hebrews). The leader of the Pharisees in our Gospel reading does not realise that he is entertaining someone far greater than an angel. In contrast, our epistle is reminding its impoverished and persecuted readers that each guest whom they receive bears the presence of their true host.

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