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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Homily for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Sirarch 3:17-20, 28-29, Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24, Luke 14:1, 7-14

On the Gospel, Preferential Option for the Poor

Joseph de Veuster was a Belgian missionary priest working among the islanders of Honolulu. His bishop had trouble finding a priest to work in the leper settlement of Molokai. Joseph, better known as Father Damien, volunteered to go and work in the "living graveyard that was Molokai." His solidarity with the lepers was so complete that he contracted the disease himself and died at the age of forty-nine in service to the poorest and most abandoned. Some of his contemporaries accused him of imprudence and foolhardiness. Today, however, he is recognized worldwide as a hero of the faith: Damien the Leper.

Father Damien made a total life commitment to the poor long before the church recognized the preferential option for the poor as a pillar of the church's social teaching. The Gospels teach us that as Christians we should give priority to the poor in the way we administer and dispense our resources. This is what we see in today's gospel reading. Some people see today's gospel as Jesus teaching table etiquette and good manners in choosing seats when invited to a dinner. But when we try to read it through the eyes of the early Christians whose assembly was mainly to share in the feast of the Eucharist, we begin to see that there is much more than etiquette involved here. Jesus is teaching the basic Christian virtues of humility and solidarity with the poor. And he does this in two stages using two parables.

The first parable, on the One Invited to the Wedding Feast (verses 7-11), is addressed to Christians as those who are invited to the feast of the Lord's supper. Irrespective of social status and importance we come to the Eucharist as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God. This is the only place where employer and employee relationship, master and servant distinctions dissolve and we recognise one another simply as brothers and sisters in the Lord, as together we call God "Our Father." The Letter of James reports and condemns a situation where Christians "make distinctions" in the Christian assembly:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves? (James 2:2-4).

Jesus is challenging his followers to abolish the rich-poor distinction among them and to recognise and treat one another as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 14:11)
The second parable, on the One Giving a Great Dinner (verses 12-14), is addressed to Christians as those who invite others to the feast of the Lord's supper.

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (verses 12-13).

In this second part of his teaching Jesus goes beyond levelling out the distinctions and calls for a preferential treatment of the poor and the disabled among us. He calls for affirmative action. Give the preference to the poor and the handicapped. A chain is only as strong as its weakest point. That is why priority of attention is to be given to the weakest link in the chain. It is in the best interest of the entire chain. It is in the best interest of the Christian community to give priority to the poor and disabled in our distribution of resources.

Does our parish community measure up to the criterion of preferential option for the poor? Do we consider wheel-chair access to our churches to serve “the crippled and the lame” a priority? What about providing sign-language translation in our services for the benefit of “the deaf” and braille Bibles and prayer books for “the blind.” This is what it means to "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" (Luke 14:13).

On the Epistle, Our New Covenant Worship

In a certain community of priests the daily celebration of Holy Mass is an occasion for petty bickering. At the “I confess to Almighty God,” half of the community says “and to you my brothers and sisters” as in the missal. The other half looks round and seeing that there is no woman in attendance, says “and to you my brothers.” Should a woman be in attendance they say, “and to you my brothers and sister.” Why mention sisters when there are no women present, they argue. Yet, properly understood, Christian worship always includes more than eye can see.

In the past we regarded Hebrews as one of the Letters of Paul. Today, it is generally believed (a) that Hebrews was not written by Paul, and (b) that is not a letter written to people who are absent from the writer but a sermon delivered to believers gathered in worship. With this understanding, today’s second reading from Hebrews 12:18-24 can be seen as an attempt by the preacher to give the congregation a better understanding of the mystery we walk into when we attend Christian worship. There are two parts to the reading. The first part begins in verse 18 “You have not come to …” and the second part begins in verse 22 “But you have come to …”

First the preacher tries to correct a wrong impression that some people in the church have about Christian worship.

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom [that can be seen], and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice [that can be heard] whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them (12:18-19).

These observable things were signs of God’s presence with His people in the Old covenant worship on Mount Sinai. They can all be perceived by the senses of sight, sound and touch. The grandeur of the worship was measured by its audio, visual and emotional effect. According to the preacher, this is not what we gather for when we assemble for Christian worship.

When we gather in worship, the preacher then goes on to teach, we participate in a seven-fold spiritual reality.

You have come (1) to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, (2) to innumerable angels in festal gathering, (3) to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven [that is, fellow believers who are alive and worshipping with us], (4) to God the judge of all, (5) to the spirits of the righteous made perfect [believers who are dead, whose souls are now with God], (6) to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, (7) and to the sprinkled blood [of Christ] that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (12:22-24).

We can see that what we have come to are spiritual things, as opposed to those things that we have not come to, which are things perceivable by the senses. To appreciate and participate meaningfully in Christian worship what we need above all is not eyes or ears or feelings but faith. Secondly, the things we have not come to have to do with things, whereas what we have come to has to do with persons: God, Christ, angels, spirits, and fellow believers. We come not to experience some-thing but to fellowship with some-one: God together with all who belong to Him. Communion is not something we receive into ourselves, communion is something we do with others: fellowship with God, God’s angels, and our fellow believers, living and dead.

Do you perhaps know some brothers or sisters in Christ who complain that they get nothing out of the church service because the singing is dull and the preaching boring? Maybe you should tell them that next time they come, they should bring more faith than eyes or ears. The good music and the good preaching we hear, the altar decorations and the flowers we see, these can contribute to our appreciation of the worship, but the most important thing we need to have a great worship is faith.

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