Cocktails and Humility
When I was in high school, I was excited about religion class because we no longer had to simply recite stuff we already knew, like the Ten Commandments, or how many sacraments there were, or when the Liturgy of the Eucharist took place. Rather, we started really looking at Scripture and learning some of the stories behind the stories in the Bible – archaeology, geography, culture, etc. I ate it up. One day, my sophomore teacher, Mr. Dolan, said, “Do you want to know what hell is?” I perked right up, pen in hand, ready to write this profound wisdom down for all ages.
“Hell,” he said, “is an endless series of cocktail parties.”
I stopped writing in mid-sentence.
“I hate cocktail parties,” he continued. “And I know that I could be tormented with them for eternity.”
At fifteen years old, I really didn’t understand what he meant; but since then, I’ve been to my share of cocktail parties, and every once in a while, I can see some fire and brimstone hidden amongst the crackers and port-wine cheese.
Of course, Mr. Dolan was speaking a little tongue-in-cheek, but when I hear today’s gospel, I am inclined to think that he was not that far off either. Jesus was invited to a party, and he did what he often did: he observed them. On this particular occasion, he saw how the guests sought the places of honor (literally, the “first couches” – those spots nearest the host). Such invitations and taking of honorable places, then, sets off a string of invitations, and the endless series of cocktail parties begins. I don’t need to retell the whole story that we just heard, but Jesus’ point was that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The guests at the party – “those who had been invited” – were all invited by the same host. In that sense, they were equal. It was only when they went to sit at the table that the differences – or perceived differences – began to become apparent – and it was not because of the one who had invited. It was the greed or arrogance of the visitors who vied for the highest place that separated them from each other and, ultimately in the parable, led to their embarrassment by being sent lower.
The gospel is silent about where Jesus was sitting for this meal.
All we know from Jesus is the “parable,” which reveals his teaching on humility. In fact, this is not a parable in the sense that we usually imagine. Rather, Jesus “places side-by-side” (in Greek, parabolein) his story and the reality he observes, in order to teach those present. The lesson on humility arises from the disparity between the attitudes of the guests and the desire of the host.
In the grand, cosmic scheme, of which we as Christians must be aware, we are all “invited” by one in the same “Host.” Jesus’ lesson for us is to find favor with God by following the advice of Ben Sirach in our first reading: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” That is the “place of honor” that we truly seek – and it is not ours to give or take. The key is humility of heart, and identity with the “lowest” ones. Where is Jesus found? The second half of his “parable” reveals that.
“When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Righteousness, Jesus implies, is the fruit of this humility. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament, “righteousness” carries with it a sense of being in proper relationship with both God and our fellow men and women. This relationship cannot allow for self-exaltation and exclusion. We are taught to seek the “lowest (or last) places” precisely because that is where we find Jesus! His entire ministry reveals that he identified with all those who were considered “last” or “lowest.” He is there, with the poor, the weak, the outsiders, the confused. When we find ourselves there, rather than looking for a way out or to a higher place, we can look around and find Christ right there.
This is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is getting at when he writes, “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. No, you have approached … the heavenly Jerusalem … and God the judge of all … and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.”
Our encounter with Christ is not so far away and mysterious that a lifetime of contemplation is needed to find him. Rather, he is right here – in our midst, in this assembly, in the Word proclaimed, and especially in this Eucharist that we share. When we need Jesus, we only need to reach out to those in need – and to one another – and encounter the divine, eternal God, who Himself was humbled to come among us, in order to call us each up that that place of honor, with him, in the favor of God. May we always live aware of this call.