Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sunday word, 01 Sep 2013

A Tie, a Thread, a Tool
22st Sunday of the Year C (01 Sep 2013)
Homily of Fr. Paul Panaretos, S.J.
Early in their marriage my sister and brother-in-law dined with my family. Abe wore a smart tie. I admired it and told him. “You like it?” Abe asked, placing his open hand behind its knot to let the tie drape over his knuckles from knot to tip. Then to my surprise Abe untied it, slid it from beneath his collar, saying, “It’s yours, enjoy wearing it.”

Abe is Lebanese. The Lebanese among us can appreciate that moment. Those who know Lebanese can tell of their good-nature and generosity. Their generosity and self-effacing manner; my experience at our dining room table; and even a few corpuscles of Mediterranean blood flowing in any of us alert us to a message today’s scriptures offer us. Its message is conveyed by a thread of Mediterranean culture.

That thread lives today as it did well before Jesus’ parable. He told it to status-conscious religious professionals invited to the same dinner as Jesus. In every culture humility and status rest together awkwardly. In Mediterranean culture humility involves not overstepping one’s status; not claiming more honor than one deserves; not grasping for or clinging to gifts. Gifts can tempt us to give gifts in return. If we consent to that we end up trading not giving for the sake of giving. We can also be tempted to outdo others in our giving.

Outdoing is not limited to others. We are tempted to live beyond ourselves; not only our means, ourselves. We run risks when we live beyond ourselves. The Book of Proverbs counseled: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of great men; is better that you be told, “Come up closer!” than that you be humbled before the prince.1 That is an obvious risk. Another is less obvious: when we live beyond ourselves we risk putting others in our debt. Christians do not put others in their debt. Being Christlike is not confining; it opens us to our true selves. Living beyond ourselves does not.

Jesus more than confirmed the honor in not living beyond oneself and the shame attached to giving gifts to gain gifts or attention or status. Jesus exposed our human fondness toward self-importance and self-exaltation with his ever-troubling line: All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus’ line makes our souls itch. We itch because Jesus addresses attitudes, frames of mind and hearts craving exaltation.

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus’ summary of his parable did no violence to self-esteem or self-respect. Instead it helps us appreciate Jesus’ attitude, his frame of mind and his heart so we may have them, too.2 His heart desires to defend and shelter the forsaken. The attitude of our Messiah is water which quenches a flaming fire and seeks to give alms, which atone for sins. His heart pulses with life for all.

How do we put on the mind3 of our Messiah? One way is to cultivate openhanded, wide-hearted generosity into lavish, selfless giving. Its practice becomes a tool. That tool transforms our attitudes and widens our thinking. It shapes us to be God’s heart for others. Putting on the attitude of our Messiah Jesus is our lifelong vocation. Repeated practice is key. The more often we put on the mind of our Messiah Jesus the more often we will succeed to stand against movements within as well as circumstances outside us that coax us to have another mind about how we choose to live.

Jesus’ ancient Mediterranean culture is distant from us in many ways. Yet its thread of selfless generosity abides in our time. The generosity—not only to me—of my Lebanese brother-in-law, friends and colleagues; and of my Greek cousins, many resting in peace, serves as a tool helping me to notice Jesus as my days unfold. Their frequent practice of generosity helps me meet Jesus more readily in the words of scripture. Their practice and my often clumsy one bring to life what often appears “dead and deformed”4 on the bible’s pages.

Our Messiah Jesus was once dead and deformed by his passion. Now he lives fully human and divine. He is not an idea, even a holy one. Jesus is our pioneer of faith.5 He allows us to be ourselves and do what we think we could never do: to choose and act with hearts like his.

In your daily 15 minutes with Jesus this week
  • Pause to feel our triune God offering you sheltering embrace in the divine heart.
  • Ask your patron saint to present you to Jesus so you may converse with him.
  • Chat with Jesus about his attitude: how it kept him from exalting himself; how it opened his heart to others. Resolve to put on his attitude and put it into practice in concrete ways this day.
  • Ask him for the grace to live that way, the way Jesus created you not how you want to create yourself.
  • Close saying slowly the Lord’s Prayer. His prayer guides us to live modestly and never beyond ourselves. It helps us share his attitude and live from it.

Link to this homily’s Spiritual Exercise

  1. Proverbs 25.6-7.
  2. St. Paul said this to his beloved Philippians 2.5. He implied in the familiar words that follow that we are to stretch toward divinity as Jesus participated in our humanity.
  3. St. Paul was fond of this metaphor. He used it in other letters: put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13.14); put on the new self, created in God’s like-ness (Ephesians 4:24); put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3.10). To put on echoed baptism, in which Christians first clothed themselves with Risen Jesus (Galatians 3.27). 
  4. The phrase is from this sentence of Peter of Celle, a 12th-century French Benedictine bishop: “What lies dead and deformed in the letter on the dead parchment comes to life when what is read is put into practice.” Hugh Feiss quoted it in his Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
  5. Hebrews 12.2. The Greek word translated also as leader, suggests “leading by example.” That nuance is faithful to the mission of Jesus, who is like us in all things but sin (see Hebrews 4.15).

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