Public self-effacement and private heroics
Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Edward Booth preaches on the teaching of Jesus not to take the place of honour when invited to a marriage feast, and his teaching to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind when you give a dinner or banquet yourself.
We debase the perspectives of this Sunday’s gospel by moralising about the details. We ought to take it in its entirety, and we then find an implicit instruction of great depth, an instruction which comprehends more about human behaviour than its two elements considered in separation.
In fact the gospel says that such a combination ought to characterise the Christian’s behaviour, so to speak as second nature. Each side of the combination is equally intense; each side must be both prized and cultivated.
If we ever experience sadness about the seeming state of the Church, the Catholic ethos we knew being debased and discredited, we ought to reflect on how new ethoses are created. New ethoses are created not out of abstractions and dreams, but out of the instinctive and habitual carrying out with great care and deliberation of the normal homely tasks we hear about in the gospel.
This is because the goodness of such normal homely tasks diffuses itself far wider than the spectacular which is widely reported. Both sides of the instruction must show themselves as the fruits of a maturity which remains unbroached, and from which it can give.
The incident at the Pharisee’s Sabbath feast gives a strong impulse, not just on how to avoid personal embarrassment in public, but of the positive value of self-effacement. It is tasteless, childish to seek prominence, worse even to contend about it with rivals or suspected rivals for the limelight. If you wanted the best judgement on the personalities concerned in such a fracas, you would not ask the disputants, but those who have learnt the wisdom of staying in the background, watching and weighing it up.
Jesus’ teaching is a positive correction to an all too frequent destroyer of peace and mind. A society only makes general progress when the quiet good will of the normally silent majority is prepared to exert an inexorable pressure on the self-seekers. It is a story of public life, whether the political arena, or somewhere more modest.
This is in great contrast with the recommendation to summon the deprived to a banquet. Here the setting is already private, hidden from any reporters; if any of them heard they would find it hard to sensationalise without some ironic mockery. It is difficult to sustain good publicity for such enterprises for more than a limited time.
But the point of the story is that the real heroics are played out here, and in analogous situations. It would demand an heroic mastery over one’s inclinations and sensitivities to fill the house with ‘the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind’, even though they are sharers in one’s common humanity. For some people it costs a real effort even to visit the sick and aging relatives, who so often say that they do not want to trouble the young people.
So there is to be a levelling up and a levelling down, as a consequence of the nature of the Kingdom which Our Lord was preaching. And there was precisely this levelling up and levelling down in the way his mission unrolled around him.
He is the ever-drawing Centre; he is the inescapable Mean around whom all are meant to assemble. And those on both sides assemble round him: the initially ambitious and the initially deprived and despised, they are drawn to make that Centre and that Mean their own, as they take upon themselves, gradually under grace, but with a willing and happy resignation, to let themselves be transformed into what they are already in their depths: sons with him of the same heavenly Father.
Therefore they share the same protection which a Father can give, and communicate it to others who attach themselves to the same assembly. And with this Son of God, sharing in the inspirations and gifts of the same Spirit, they establish a Church-Kingdom which is characterised by a justice, exterior in relationship to others, interior in relationship to one’s true self. This justice manifests itself in peace, and goes on to erupt into that most desirable of qualities, alike light and serious, of spiritual joy – of a humanity, at ease with itself, and at ease with God. Amen.