Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Humility is a major theme of the first reading and of the gospel of this Sunday. Yeshua (or Jesus) ben (son of) Sirach conducted, or was a teacher in, an academy for young men in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C. His book or scroll was filled with advice for his students to prepare them for life. In the section immediately preceding today’s reading the emphasis was on family life, especially the reverence children owe to their parents even in their old age. That advice was this year’s first reading for the feast of the Holy Family. Today ben Sirach moves beyond family to society in general. He begins not with the expected “Son,” but rather “Child,” to which he adds, “Conduct your activities with humility.” The second part states the result of humility in one’s undertakings, “and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” The humble theme continues, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are.” This second piece of advice has a greater reward than the first, “and you will find favor with God.” Some manuscripts add a verse 19 to conclude the advice on humility, “Many are lofty and famous, but to the meek he (God) reveals his secrets.” The meek are not as full of themselves as “the lofty and the famous” may be.
A different theme continues the reading, though one could connect it with humility. “Do not seek what is too sublime for you. Do not search into things beyond your strength.” Taking this double proverb too seriously could stifle research and what “Inquiring minds want to know.” One can imagine ben Sirach being criticized for his use of proverbs. To such critics he responds, “The mind of the wise appreciates proverbs.” Then a word for good students, “An attentive ear is the joy of the wise.” Sirach adds a short parable worthy even of a greater Yeshua, “Water quenches a fire, and alms atone for sins.” As water extinguishes a fire, so does our outreach to the poor extinguish our sins.” A similar saying from Tobit 4:10, “Almsgiving delivers from death, and saves from passing down to darkness.”
In the Book of Psalms, today’s Responsorial Psalm is entitled, “National Song of Triumph.” It could also be called the Israelite “Star Spangled Banner,” because many expressions in this psalm are echoed in our national anthem. But the theme of the first reading is humility, and humility is often equated with the status of being poor. Even in the Israelite national anthem, the poor and the powerless are not forgotten, as the People’s Response notes, “God, in your good-ness you have made a home for the poor.” The understanding is that the victorious triumph of the nation enables the nation to “make a home for the poor.” How current an ancient song can be!
The second reading, the last of the readings from Hebrews, continues the author’s appeal to his addressees to persevere in their Christian faith. He compares creation of Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai, Exodus 19-24, with the creation of a renewed people of God. He sees the Christian “nation” not as something completely new, but as an improvement or perfection of old Israel. Therefore, the renewed Israel is still connected with Mt. Zion, that is, Jerusalem or its Temple Mount, but now it is “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Instead of the blazing mountain, storm, trumpet blast, and fearful voice from the sky of Sinai, we have angels dressed in their finest, the assembly of the firstborn (Jesus), (an assembly no longer of Israelites but of Christians). The Sinai covenant which established the People of God was sealed with the sprinkled blood of sacrificed animals. Now we have a new covenant sealed with the sprinkled blood of Jesus, blood that cries out more eloquently to God than the blood of Abel.
The gospel of the day begins with a headline, “On a Sabbath Jesus came to the house of one of the ruling Pharisees to eat bread (to dine) and they were watching him” A key word in this headline is the word “Sabbath.” A “ruling Pharisee” meant that he was a member of the Sanhedrin — the 70-member governing body of the Jews in religious matters and some civic matters, as far as Roman occupation forces permitted. We know of two members of the Sanhedrin who were almost surely Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The importance of the key word “Sabbath” is lost, however, because our reading omits why “they were watching him.” Apparently his critics had placed a man swollen with water retention to test Jesus. He already had a reputation as a Sabbath breaker because he cured people even on that day of rest. Would he do it again, or not? He did, but he also shamed his critics publicly for their hard-nosed interpretation of the Sabbath.
The rest of the gospel reading echoes the teaching of humility. Jesus noticed how the guests were trying to sit in the most honored places (next to the host of the dinner). Jesus shares with the other guests how this could lead to major embarrassment. The host might come in and make one move down lower to make room for someone more important. How much better it would be to take the lowest place. Then the host would notice, and say, “Friend, come up higher.” This would bring public honor on oneself. Was Jesus really interested in this kind of human motivation? Luke adds a theological principle about humility. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled (by God), but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (by God). Now comes Luke’s real concern — always the poor — as he portrays Jesus dishing out more advice. “Do not invite your friends or relatives or wealthy neighbors to your dinners. That’s just so they can invite you in return. Instead invite the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind. God will bless you because they are not able to repay you.” Proverbs 22:9 summarizes this lesson, “A blessing awaits the kind person, because he shares his bread with the poor.”