There is a very funny commercial running on television. The commercial features an Italian-speaking man dressed in renaissance garb, standing in a backyard swimming pool. The children in the pool are playing Marco Polo; the man is actually Marco Polo. While the kids yell, “Marco!”, “Polo!”, the man responds, “Yes! I’m Marco Polo. Hello? I’m right here!” The kids ignore him completely. The commercial is very funny, and very memorable.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus had an experience similar to the experience of Marco Polo in the commercial. The Lectionary omits the event that led to Jesus’ comments about his fellow dinner guests. (*) Prior to his observation that some of the guests at table were fighting over places of honor, Jesus had healed a man suffering from dropsy.
The Gospel says, “On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully. In front of him there was a man suffering from dropsy.” (Luke 14:1-2) “Dropsy,” in the ancient world, was any malady that caused swelling or bloating; today, the word edema is used.
Among the invited guests at the dinner in this Gospel reading was a man who today would probably be diagnosed with liver failure or congestive heart disease. A number of the guests were worrying about finding a good place to sit, while one of their fellow guests was suffering from a life-threatening condition. I’m sure that Jesus must have felt like Marco Polo in the commercial. “Hello? There’s a sick man right here! Is anyone paying attention?”
As it turned out, only Jesus was paying attention. He healed the man, even though it was a Sabbath day. His violation of the Sabbath prohibition of work was the reason that “people there were observing him carefully.” (Luke 14:1) His disappointment about their self-serving behavior is what occasioned his advice, “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. . . 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.” (Luke 14:8,12)
The sick man’s suffering was obvious to everyone; dropsy (edema), exhibits easily perceptible symptoms. Jesus was the only one willing to do the obvious thing: alleviate the man’s suffering. The other guests were too self-absorbed to pay attention to someone in need. Jesus’ sayings about acting with humility were not intended to be advice about how to impress people. Rather, they were instruction about living a holy and righteous life. To act humbly in the presence of others (Luke 14:8), and to care for the poor and suffering (Luke 14:13), comprise the sort of life that will end in God’s eternal presence. (Luke 14:14)
According to Jesus, acceptance into the eternal reward of God’s Kingdom will be determined by the degree of concern we show now to those in need. Each day there are people around us who are in obvious need; if we fail to offer them the obvious help, we fail to fulfill God’s will.
Opportunities to do the obvious good are all around us. Long, perilous journeys are not necessary; there is great need in our local communities. Research and investigation are not necessary; the suffering of the sick and poor is obvious. A highly detailed long-term plan is not necessary; obvious needs call for an immediate response.
Our parish volunteers address obvious need on a daily basis. The Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist who visit the hospital, nursing homes and shut-ins are addressing the obvious spiritual needs of their neighbors. Those of you who bring food for the FEAST Food Pantry address the obvious needs of the hungry. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society addresses the obvious material needs of people in our neighborhood. Those of you who have contributed to Pinellas Hope and The Kimberly Home have addressed the obvious needs of the homeless and the abandoned.
These above, and other, volunteer ministry opportunities surround us on a daily basis. Here, at All Saints, Jesus isn’t the only one saying, “Hello? There’s a person in need right here! Is anyone paying attention?” It doesn’t take lots of time to respond to obvious needs. It doesn’t require any special talents or skills. It requires no more than the desire to fulfill God’s will for the world. It requires only that we pay attention to the people around us.
To respond with appropriate compassion to the obvious sufferings of others constitutes a holy and righteous life. It is unimportant that holiness rarely attracts public approval. It is more than sufficient that holiness of life is pleasing to God, because a life of compassion for those in need leads to resurrected life with God. (Luke 14:14)
A note on the Scriptures:
It is unfortunate that the editors of the Lectionary deleted from today’s Gospel reading the event that prompted Jesus’ commentary to his fellow dinner guests. We hear advice from Jesus about humility, but we don’t hear about the humility that Jesus demonstrated in healing a man attending the dinner.
While Jesus was reclining at table at a Pharisee’s house, he observed a man suffering from dropsy. (Luke 14:2-6) “Dropsy” is an archaic term for generalized edema or edema associated with congestive heart failure. It was a Sabbath day, but Jesus cured the man’s affliction without regard to the Sabbath prohibition of work. Faith healers were common in Jesus’ culture, and they charged for their services. “Healing,” then, was considered work, and therefore prohibited on the Sabbath.
Jesus could see that some of the other guests disapproved of his choice to heal the suffering man. He asked them, “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5) Then he turned his attention to the competition for places of prominence that went on between some of the guests. Our reading today recounts those events.
The first bit of advice that Jesus gives is about how to ingratiate oneself with a patron; the second bit of advice is about how to ingratiate oneself with God. There is a certain degree of common sense about acting with false humility; it can serve as a good set-up for public affirmation. (Luke 14:10) False humility might also be an effective strategy for ingratiating oneself with God. (Luke 14:13-14)
One could be excused for thinking that Jesus is being portrayed here as nothing more than a positive thinker or an advice guru. On the contrary, however, these sayings about humility are not advice about how to make a good impression. Rather, they are commentary on the healing. The man with dropsy humbled himself to accept healing. Jesus humbled himself (in violation of the Sabbath prohibition of work), to cure the man.
In performing this healing, Jesus took upon himself the shame associated with violating the Sabbath prohibition of work. He did so gladly because it benefited the man in need. This is Luke’s theology of the Cross. Jesus accepted an ignominious death on the Cross because of the benefit it would have for those who accepted his teaching. Unlike the atonement theories of salvation that were popular in the middle ages, and are still popular today, this is an understanding of salvation akin to St. Paul’s notion of self-emptying. (Philippians 2:6-11) Jesus humbled himself, and his act of humility was judged by God to be meritorious.
Jesus’ humility on the Cross was meritorious (for him), because it was a final, complete and irrevocable act of Covenant fidelity. While the Covenant is comprised of mutual obligations and benefits for both God and God’s People, the Covenant with God remains a relationship between unequal partners. The appropriate stance of God in the Covenant is beneficence, and the appropriate stance of God’s People is humility. Jesus was perfectly humble to the very end. Jesus’ humility is redemptive (for us), because he made his sacrifice for the sake of those who would give their complete loyalty to him. We have a share in the benefits of his sacrificial death when we imitate his sacrificial humility.
At the Crucifixion God upended common human expectations, and showed God’s mercy to the poor and marginalized. This understanding of the saving death of Jesus is foreshadowed in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), explained in Gospel passages such as this one, and revealed fully in Jesus’ death. (Luke 23: 34,46) The humility that Jesus recommended to the guests at dinner was not an act meant to solicit a favorable response. Rather, it was an act of self-emptying for the benefit of others.
The Gospel doesn’t tell us whether the dinner guests were able to give up their self-concern about finding places of honor at the table. Perhaps, this omission is for our benefit. We live in a society which is obsessed about public image and personal merit. Attention-getting and self-aggrandizement are the cardinal virtues our culture pursues. Jesus’ redemptive example of humility is not only counter-cultural, it is the only remedy for the guaranteed disappointment we bring to ourselves when we embrace the narcissism of the culture in which we live. Jesus said, “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) The greater we make ourselves, the less righteous we become. The more humble we make ourselves, the more faithful we are to our Covenant with God.