Sunday Week 22 Year C

I don’t know what it’s like in your church but one of my bugbears as a catholic priest is the way people sit at the back. On a bad Sunday evening everyone is the length of a football pitch away and you feel like you are performing for empty pews and distant empty faces. I blame today’s gospel and others like it. … Take the worst seat, accept the least praise, think better of others than yourself. Downward mobility. Such ideas have been a charter for an odd piety of humility—a striving to be humbler and holier than thou. Is this what Jesus is after? That we don’t risk asserting ourselves or celebrating our gifts or making a stand?
There is something strange going on here. Jesus himself seems to have set us the example: defeated, humiliated and nailed to a cross—a death he freely accepted says the Eucharistic prayer. And there’s something gloriously upside down about that. An incomprehensible act of God that challenges the world’s perception of what is valuable and what is not, of what’s worth dying for, and what counts as victory. In a world of winners Jesus surely counts as the ultimate loser—even the victory of the resurrection which we celebrate at this table hasn’t made much difference to the degree of distress and violence and poverty in the wider world.
So is there a new Christian value-system with the poles reversed: to win is to lose, to lose is victory? Take the lowest seat because you will be raised up? Is this God’s preferential option for the poor? Is this the mighty cast from their thrones?
The catch is that, 2000 years on, we have substituted one scale of virtue with another, an old standard of achievement for a new one. We might like it better. It might still be as counter-cultural as ever. But it still functions to grade us, to draw lines that divide the sheep from the goats.
We still ask the question “who’s in and who’s out?” There’s a really daring, maybe even rude, Jesus asking that question tonight. Here he is, a dinner guest, commenting on the behaviour of his fellows at table and on his host, watching them draw the lines that divide, watching them battle to be in and not out. Watching and sticking the verbal boot in. Is he enjoying himself?
Did Jesus die to turn the scales upside down? No; he died to give the lie to the whole myth of exclusion. In God’s eyes there is no in or out; no scapegoats. We are the poor fools who do the grading. We are the idiots who would rather do away with Jesus than have him ruin our dinner party with his home truths. God has no favourites. Or rather God’s love for each of us makes the idea of favouritism silly. Jesus didn’t just turn the world upside-down, he did away with the illusion of insiders and outsiders altogether and he asks us to live in the light of that—to lobby and vote in the light of that. Think what a world that might be. Think what it would mean personally, to receive life as gift and not have to earn it. Think what it would mean politically, if all could receive life as gift and not have to struggle for it against those on the inside.
I think that is what Jesus is asking of us tonight, on retreat: to give up. To give up and stop self-judging, stop grading. To let God love us. Let ourselves know and feel how God loves us. To be without fear. Without effort. At peace. At ease.