As we prepare to celebrate Labor Day next weekend, I’m sure many of you are planning a get together with family or friends. And, for most of us, that will include a meal – a barbeque, picnic or dinner. How fitting for us to hear about Jesus in today’s gospel at a meal. Jesus is the guest at a fancy dinner. His host is a leading Pharisee; a person with great status in the Jewish community. And, he has invited some friends to dinner to meet this newest celebrity in Israel, a man from Nazareth, who had gained such notoriety as a preacher and a healer. So Jesus was a celebrity and the Pharisee was eager to cash in on his celebrity status.
You can see that there is some tension between Jesus and the guests from the very beginning. You will notice that “the people were observing him carefully.” They were, in fact, watching his every move to see if they could trip him up. The passage we hear from today speaks of Jesus as he is approaching Jerusalem. It follows closely after the account we heard last Sunday where Jesus encouraged his followers to strive to enter through the narrow gate. He has already caused some controversy because of his preaching against the Jewish leaders who were caring for themselves rather than their people and considered themselves to be shoe-ins in the Kingdom of God. I wonder if the Pharisee who invited him to dinner was trying to improve his own standing by providing an opportunity to trap Jesus. Curiously, today’s section of the gospel we heard skips over an important event that occurred at the very beginning of that dinner. Allow me to read it for you. The passage starts, as we heard a few moments ago, with: “On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully.” It continues with this section that we did not hear: “In front of him there was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus spoke to the scholars of the law and Pharisees in reply, asking, “’Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?’” But they kept silent; so he took the man and, after he had healed him, dismissed him. Then he said to them, “’Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?’” But they were unable to answer his question.”
Jesus has the people’s attention and now he takes advantage of it to provide a very important teaching about the Kingdom of God. How do we know that he is talking about the Kingdom of God? Because he uses the image of a wedding banquet, and whenever he does this in the Gospels, he is referring to the Kingdom of God. The story goes on, with a side comment about Jesus noticing that the guests were choosing places of honor at the table. Jesus warns against doing this at the wedding banquet, lest a more deserving guest arrives and you have to give him your seat and make your way, with great embarrassment, down to the lowest place.
Instead, when you are invited, Jesus advises, go to the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Jesus concludes with the sage advice we’re all familiar with: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So, this is a parable about the Kingdom of God, following last week’s very important teaching about how we should strive to enter the kingdom. Its purpose is to give us a glimpse of the end time and advice about how to get to heaven; after all, that’s our ultimate goal. In today’s parable, we hear Jesus saying, don’t think that what this world considers important is important for those who want to enter God’s Kingdom. Realize that what you think is important now will not be important then. All this jockeying for position. All this self-aggrandizement. All this wanting to be in the right place. All this wanting to be number one, being on top. None of that is going to count. The only things that count in the Kingdom are humility and love. For at that banquet, at that time, the appropriate place for all of us to stand will be at the foot of the table and God, in his abundant love, who will welcome us, will lead us to our proper place at the heavenly banquet.
We all want to know how to get to heaven. This story from Luke gives us another important clue as to how we get there. “Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted and everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”
We also know from other teachings that Jesus provides that an aspect of humbling yourself means thinking about others not with contempt but with love. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Last Judgment scene in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus speaks of separating us like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. Here, Jesus makes it very clear that humbling yourself and loving others means thinking about other people, and feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned – those corporal works of mercy we are called to practice as followers of Christ. And, it was this teaching that found Jesus in opposition to the Jewish leaders who were thinking only of themselves and not taking care of the needy in their community.
So, both last week and this week, we learn about how to get to heaven. If you want to insure your salvation, then stop thinking only about yourself and start thinking about others, too. True humility, after all, is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. We hear about the value of humility in today’s first reading as well, when we hear from the Book of Sirach: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility; …Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” That’s how we get to heaven. And, we all want to get there for, as we hear in today’s second reading, it is the city of the living God and our final destiny.