Most of us here at Mass today will return to homes that have a fridge. There we store perishable foods – meat products, ready-to-eat salads etc – that if not stored at 5C or lower will quickly go off.
Now in Jesus’ time and climate in Palestine there was no refrigeration, let alone refrigeration. So perishable items of food could not be kept for long periods of time. His generation knew nothing about chilled, frozen or tinned food as we do today. Although ancient peoples came up with some ingenious solutions to the problem of storing food, they still had to consume much of what they grew fairly soon after a harvest. One way to do this was to share fresh food with family and neighbours through banquets or feasting. Because of the difficulty of storing food, weddings usually took place not long after the harvest in order to take advantage of the fresh food available at that time.
In the Gospels Jesus is often a guest of honour at banquets. Indeed, in St Luke’s Gospel, from which we read today, dining with others is a notable characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Luke has him eating about twice as frequently as in the other Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John.
In today’s Gospel (Lk 14:7-11) Jesus is a guest at the home of a leading Jewish official. At first it looks like he is giving his host advice about how to behave at a wedding feast so as to avoid being embarrassed. But his host and, later, first century Jews hearing this story, would have known that Jesus was referring not to a Jewish wedding but to the banquet they expected to take place with the coming of the Messiah. (Christians now associate this with the Lord’s Second Coming.)
The Pharisees believed that because they scrupulously kept their religious laws God would automatically give them prime seats at this heavenly banquet. Jesus rejected this and said in so many words that we also have to take to heart: ‘Anything you ever get from God comes only from God’s generosity and not because you deserve it …You cannot do anything to deserve something from God … the good you get from God is a gift, not a reward … so the only way to relate to God is to get rid of notions of entitlement … You are entitled to nothing and cannot demand anything from God.’
Instead, Jesus said, we must approach God like the poor people of his time who would not believe their luck when invited to a wealthy person’s home. They’d be overwhelmed and recognise that they’d been invited not because they deserved it but simply because their host was so generous. We, too, says Jesus, must have this very same attitude in our relationship with God.
The Pharisees did not like hearing this and, perhaps, we might feel the same. For instance, how easy it is for us to think when a serious illness strikes or something badly goes wrong: ‘but I’ve been so good … I’ve kept my religion, gone to Mass and said my prayers … Why has God done this to me when, surely, I deserved better?’
The harsh truth, Jesus teaches, is that a relationship with God has to be founded on the basis that we are entitled to nothing. We cannot earn, deserve or force God to give us anything. We cannot bargain with God (even though, at times of desperation, we may try). We can only ask. The good things, opportunities and gifts that come our way arise from God’s generosity and not from anything we have earned. We might think we deserve what we have but at a stroke it all can be taken away.
This attitude to God – an awareness of my ‘nothingness’ or ‘lowliness’ before God – is what the Bible, including our First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20, 28-29) calls ‘humility’. If I am humble in this sense, I am in awe of God and grateful for what I have been given, even if at times it entails hardship and pain. We meet God only on God’s terms, not our own.
Meals were used by Jesus to show that no one is excluded from his Kingdom. At these meals he broke down religious taboos and defied social and religious barriers as a way to proclaim the endless mercy of God. At the end of today’s Gospel text he makes the further point that we must extend to others the generosity we have received from God. This generosity must not be limited to those who can return our favours, like family members or friends. He counsels that it is how we serve ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind’ – those who do not have the means to repay us – that will determine our place at the banquet in what the Second Reading (Hebrews 12:18-19,22-24) calls ‘the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ that awaits us all..
Holy Name, Jesmond
1 September 2019