August 28, 2016
XXII Ordinary Time, Year C
None of us likes to occupy the last place. Also, none of us, when doing something for someone, does it with a view to receive nothing in exchange. On the contrary, we like to be first, we are happy when our dignity is recognized, when we are appreciated, esteemed, and honored; and on every occasion we always seek to earn something for ourselves, or at least not to lose anything.
Because of that, the teaching of Jesus recounted in today’s Gospel sounds very strange to us; it reminds us again of the “inverted logic” of which we spoke last Sunday.
Jesus speaks of it in two parables, hidden in the context of a banquet at the house of one of the leading Pharisees where Jesus was dining.
The first parable can appear really strange: seeing that the invited were going to choose the first places, Jesus invites to do the contrary: Go and take the lowest place, and thus the master of the house will invite you to a higher place. It could seem an opportunistic choice, a cunning calculation, or a simple matter of etiquette. But it’s not so; perhaps, behind this strange expression, a simple truth lies hidden there, an indication of the way.
Jesus simply means that the way to get to the first places necessarily begins from the last places, which can be “high” only to those who have known life at the bottom and have discovered grace there. Because Jesus knows that the last place is a grace. The grace of one who knows one’s own value beyond the position that one occupies; the grace of one who has no illusions of being important by the honors one receives. The grace of one who knows how to welcome life as a gift, the grace of one who knows how to serve.
Usually, we do not understand this by ourselves and we spend part of our lives aspiring to positions of power. Many of our struggles, our relationship difficulties arise from this, from the ambition of wanting to occupy the first places.
We are not alone: even in the first community of Jesus, there are examples of this difficulty. The Synoptics agree in stating that every so often the disciples were lost in discussions to decide which of them was the greatest (cf. Lk 22:24), and on one occasion it happed that the mother of two of them pleaded the cause of her sons, that they might sit in the first places (Mt 20:20-24).
It is a human temptation, one of the three which also tempted Jesus in the desert.
But it happens that life has its way of showing us how this glory is vain and ephemeral and it comes about, by grace, that it touches us to climb down to the bottom.
And this can be the beginning of salvation, because the Lord has designed salvation so, introducing into human history that inverted logic, often painful but effective, whereby those who allow themselves to finally break down are in a condition to be raised; that is, to have an experience of liberation, truth, grace, so as to discover the true value of people, things and life.
There, in the last place, one begins to live in earnest.
The second parable also tells us of a very simple truth, already inscribed in the truth of the human heart.
Jesus, turning to the one who invited him, tells him the blessing reserved to the one who invites to the banquet those who have nothing to give him in return: “and you will be blessed because of their inability to repay you” (Lk 14:14). Because, if we give to receive, absolutely nothing happens to our lives. Nobody gains anything, and no one loses. It’s just an exchange of goods.
But if we give without expecting anything in return, then we recognize and honor the gratuity which is woven throughout our existence, and we grow in humanity. We are simply real.
We perform a gesture that throws life wide open on eternal horizons, because gratuity is an eternal treasure, in the sense that it makes life eternal, it opens up on the resurrection: “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk 14:14).
Exchanges are exhausted in the here and now; gratuity is blessedness for evermore.
To this gratuity Jesus assigns something important, a blessing, that is the revelation of a true joy. And we ourselves know that this is so, that when we manage to get out of our world of interests and calculations to get into a space of gratuity, we really experience a different joy that is profound and sure, which never fails.
Jesus does not merely assert this.
Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John offers us an icon that he makes from a synthesis of these two parables: here, we are still in the context of a banquet, it is the supper that precedes the Passion; the Lord, the Teacher, divests himself, goes to the last place, washes his disciples’ feet, and in this gesture includes all, even the one who will betray him, who will disown him. Not only, therefore, will he not give him anything in return, but worse than that he repays him with evil. And after having done so, Jesus repeats the blessing reserved to the one who has recognized the wisdom hidden in the last places.
“Knowing these things, you are blessed if you put them into practice” (Jn 13:17).