Lectionary August 28, Pentecost 12

I. Theme –  Our lives should exhibit humility and love

Feast of Simon the Pharisee” – Peter Paul Rubens (1618-1620)

The lectionary readings are here or individually:  

First Reading – Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm – Psalm 112
Epistle – Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Gospel – Luke 14:1, 7-14 

Today’s readings remind us that our Christian way of life is characterized by humility and love. The wisdom teacher Sirach warns his readers to avoid arrogance, violence and pride. The author of Proverbs counsels about having a humble attitude and being content with one’s own social status. The author of Hebrews urges readers to make Christian love a practical reality in their lives.

At a banquet, Jesus teaches the meaning of true humility.Jesus’ teachings on humility challenge us, and cause us to go deeper—it is not enough to humble ourselves in the presence of others, but to actively reach out and invite those who would not be invited to join in. We are called to live out our witness, especially when it is hard and goes against the grain of the world. How does the invitation of Jesus challenge us at the table as we celebrate?

Some of us may know the honor of sitting at the head table at some social or business function. Because recognition of our importance is a coveted honor, the scene in Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast is familiar to us. Who has not looked for his or her place card near the host and been disappointed to find other names at the seats of honor?

The twinge we feel when we do not make the head table at important meetings reveals the fact that we still have a trace of the old nature in us. We want to look rich before people; we forget how rich Christ has made us before God.

Our earthly status is always insecure; it waxes and wanes, and the retirement party inevitably comes. Newcomers take our place, and we are expected to go fishing–or at least stay out of the way of our successors. Not so in God’s service. Once a saint, always a saint here. We are never retired from work in the kingdom. Our future is to be more glorious than is our present in God’s service.

God continues to give freely to us who are poor in what matters most. Our attempts to emulate God’s generosity and hospitality are received and honored when done in the spirit of humility that befits God’s image in us. Then, like God, we too can enjoy the company of those who can never repay us.

II. Summary

First Reading –  Sirach 10:12-18

The book of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus in older Bibles, reflects the teachings of Judaism in the second century BC. The author, Ben Sirach (50:27), describes himself as “one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High” (38:34). Apparently, Sirach ran a religious school, a “house of instruction” (51:23), for those whose wealth afforded them such leisure. He set down in writing the content of his oral instruction about 180 BC. His grandson translated the work into Greek sometime after 132 BC. (See the Prologue to the book of Sirach.)  It is a book of moral instruction and wise sayings.

It was included in the Greek translation of scripture (the Septuagint, usually abbreviated LXX). Although not a part of the Hebrew canon of scripture, the work was highly valued both in Jewish and Christian circles. Thus it acquired its Latin title, Ecclesiasticus, “of the Church,” that is, to be read in church. It is the last major product of the tradition of wisdom literature (such as Job, Proverbs and many of the Psalms), and is an early example of the teaching that developed into the rabbinic schools of Judaism.

The reading for this week is a little homily on human pride.  Notice the consistent structure of coupled clauses.  From the ostensibly theological premise that begins this discourse, Ben Sira quickly moves into the world of wisdom and commonplace practicality.  He sees pride in the rulers of the world, a pride that God quickly undermines and brings to naught.  Ben Sira had ample fodder for his mill.  Living in the period of the Seleucid kings, the author saw ample examples of pride in the face of God.  Perhaps some reading in the Maccabees might help flesh out these insights for you.  History had left the old concerns about the Davidic kingship behind.  In spite of the success of the Maccabean Period (164-63 BCE) the Levant was already engulfed by far mightier powers whose secular and religious life was at odds with what Israel had long known.  Faithfulness to God, rather than national or personal pride, during such a period is what Ben Sira hopes to receive.

Proverbs 25:6-7

For those bothered by reading the apocryphal text, the lectionary provides this snippet from Proverbs.  As such it deftly serves as an inspiration point for Jesus’ saying in the Gospel.  The reading from Proverbs has more of a personal scope while the reading from Sirach has a more global feel.

The Book of Proverbs consists of short, memorable sayings drawn from human experience that are shaped poetically for memory and meaning. Since they are practical, proverbs serve a multitude of functions for people in their communities including observation, command, admonition, prohibition. In general they help to preserve tradition, ponder the mystery of life, and promote proper behavior. Today’s reading, for example, offers advice on how to conduct oneself when invited to dine with the king.

Not only are the images and message memorable, but the shape is poetic. In particular, Hebrew wisdom utilizes the parallelism of couplets to juxtapose truths and tease out new meanings. Good proverbs are characterized by being memorable, true to experience, practical or useful, and universally applicable.

Each proverb is like a snapshot of a vast panorama that needs to be complemented by other viewpoints. Since no proverb can totally capture the complexity of life’s mystery, the truth of each must be taken in context with that of others to create the whole picture.

Proverbs 25:6-7 is a brief passage about humility. It is better to be raised up than to be taken down. Humility is one of the character values lifted up by Wisdom literature. In our second thread of the Hebrew Scriptures this season after Pentecost, we have been following passages about the covenant that God made with the people and the promises of the covenant.

This passage, while at first glance doesn’t seem to fit, reminds us that when we are humble, we are more likely to witness and experience God’s grace firsthand than if we are proud. As often among people, we think we only need God when things are bad. If we remember with humility that all things, including ourselves, come from God, if we remember our dependence upon God, then we remember God’s presence, through good times as well as difficult times. When we are low, we hold on to the hope of God to raise us up, and when we are high, we remember with gratitude that it is God who has raised us up, and we also remember others who need help to be raised up. We focus not on our own gain, but the will of God and the care of others.

Psalm –  Psalm 112

This is an acrostic psalm, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet

This psalm is in happy company with both Sirach and with Proverbs, for all three of them are examples of Wisdom literature.  Here the idea person is held up for us to emulate and to exploit.  The proper noun indicates a warrior or a hero, but it is really anyone who has to deal with the issues of this world.  Prophetic issues are raised up here: righteousness, mercy, generosity, truthfulness, and such. 

Psalm 112 sings of the blessings of God for those who follow God, and that even those who are blessed with riches are blessed so they can give freely to the poor. The blessings are not only spiritual, but include children (v. 2) and wealth that can be used to help others (v. 3, 5, 9). These blessed faithful contrast with the wicked whose “desires come to nothing” (v. 10).

The psalm closes with a neat comparison – The ideal person stands in sharp contrast to the one who is wicked.  The wicked are the ones who are angry and jealous, who allow greed to overcome them, but the righteous give freely, sharing with all, and delighting in God who has given them everything. They are in sorrow at the comparison, and unlike the reputation of the righteous one (which, according to the psalmist, is eternal) the desires and story of the wicked will soon be gone.

Epistle-  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

The first people to hear this letter were Jews who had become Christians. Their conversion cost them their membership in familiar Jewish circles, so the author persuades them that they have an even better, if yet unfamiliar, membership in Christ.

Here, in this reading, the author gives the reader some final recommendations on how to live a worthy life.  We are given advice on loving service and then in a later section on true worship

The writer reminds the readers that in following Jesus, we must love one another, and that love comes with respect.  Hospitality, especially to fellow Christians, was a practical way of showing love, since one’s fellow guests at ancient inns were likely to be thieves. Hospitality was especially a duty for leaders of households. The responsibilities and rewards of such hospitality could be unexpected.

Prisoners and the ill-treated were to be helped. Christians should be able to be compassionate concerning the sufferings of others.

We must honor our spouses and remain faithful. We must love one another with mutual respect, and not live in greed.. Adultery and immorality will be judged. Love of money also disrupts relationships in the community and with God. Everyone is to be content, trusting in God’s care and adopting Psalm 118:6 as a watchword.

Jesus’ teachings, the commandment to love one another, still stands. We honor God by living for others, caring for others, doing good to others. The writer makes the bold claim, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” While we all grow and change, God’s promise fulfilled through Jesus—indeed, God’s love through Jesus, remains the same.

The recipients of the letter are urged to remember the example of their own leaders, as previously they have considered that of the Old Testament saints (chap. 11). These leaders appear to be those who originally proclaimed the gospel to them (2:3c), and who have now died. Whereas mortal leaders die, Jesus Christ is always available as model and mediator.

Gospel –  Luke 14:1, 7-14 

The particular sequence in Luke 14:1-24 of a healing, a teaching and a parable has been shaped by Luke around the theme of supper in the home of a Pharisee. The teaching on humility in verses 7-11 is, at one level, an illustration of simple worldly wisdom (Proverbs 25:6-7). But it takes on meaning for the whole Christian community when related to the community meal or eucharist.

Jesus is eating at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, and Jesus has noticed where everyone has sat down for the meal. The guests are choosing to sit closest to the host and to Jesus, to show how honored they are, rather than showing their humility.

There are two teachings.  The first is about humility. What Jesus advises them goes against all tradition—to sit at the lowest place and then be invited to move up. Jesus’ reasons for this is that all who humble themselves with be exalted (vs. 11), but this exaltation may not come in this lifetime. In verse 11 the passive verbs indicate that God is the one doing the action. The future tenses point to the humbling of the proud and the exaltation of the lowly on the last day, already implicit in the coming of the Messiah proclaimed in Mary’s Magnificat prayer (Luke 1:52).

The second observation is about the virtue of hospitality and how it is lived out in the actual lives of people.  Who should be invited to our banquets?   The guests should be, according to Jesus those on the  margin of society – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Those whose reputations and labels would not make them on the guest list. This teaching goes beyond humility, but that we are called to bless others

In other words, all those who are mentioned by both Isaiah and Jesus as the recipients of the messianic kingdom should be invited to this earthly feast.  There is no reciprocity here, only the promise of the kingdom.  Thus, this simple human dinner party becomes a sign of what is to come in the heavenly realm.

This teaching speaks both specifically to the exclusivity of the Pharisees and generally to the ethic of reciprocity widely accepted. The maimed, the lame, the blind were excluded from worship at the Jewish temple, and thus w ould have also been unacceptable dinner guests for the Pharisees. None of those mentioned would have been able to repay this hospitality.

Jesus’ challenge to inclusiveness at the Christian eucharistic banquet continued to haunt the early Church (James 2:2-4; Romans 12:16) and remains just as much a challenge today.

As Christians we often say Christ has no hands or feet but ours. We are called to bless people with our lives. It’s not just about giving money to those in need, but is about extending our lives to those on the margins. We must not just be humble ourselves, but we must empty our own selfish ambition and reach out with the love of Christ beyond society’s boundaries.

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