Relationship with God develops on God’s terms, not ours
By: By Shawn Reeves
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 1
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
I can recall the first time I saw my wife and truly looked upon her with interest and intrigue. It was in a college dorm over a meal. She was a mystery, whom I observed a table away, vaguely aware of her identity. Over time, we became acquaintances and then companions and, later, two souls longing to wed as one. Though we married young — I was 22 and she 20 — we grew together in all the normal stages of love, allowing our hearts fluidly to elevate together from one degree to the next, so that even today our hearts mutually transcend the love of previous years into even higher realms of devotion to one another. Such is the way of things that have “beginnings” and “not beginnings.”
Yet, what if I had pressed her too rapidly from acquaintance to bride? What discoveries would have been lost? What intimacies would have rooted too shallowly? What intermingling of hearts would have been bullied by time’s impatience rather than cultivated by her rest? To do so would have been to approach love with much presumption, and oftentimes such becomes our approach to love of God.
The life of prayer is very much like a drama of love, and too often we claim a right to intimacies with God, to His mysteries, as if we were owed them by the very fact that He has confessed a love for us. We want all the answers immediately and expect with God the intimacy of aged spouses while we’re still on our third date, risking our prayer life becoming frustrated and discouraging. Yet, true love is patient and does not insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:4-5); it does not demand advancement to a “place of honor at the table” prematurely.
Echoing Proverbs 25:6-7, Jesus warns not to take a place of honor at a banquet but, instead, “go and take the lowest place.” Meals are naturally communal, and because of this meals are a pervasive image for covenantal life in the Scriptures, particularly the Passover meal and Eucharistic meal. It is no happenstance, then, that Jesus chooses a parable within the context of a meal to teach about humility.
INTIMACY WITH GOD
In the Gospel reading, Jesus confirms and expands that message of the first reading: “Conduct your affairs with humility.” Jesus, whose entire life supremely models the words, “humble yourself the more, the greater you are,” makes it clear, through a covenantal parable, that while we are privileged children of the Father this does not mean the relationship develops on our terms. The seats at the Father’s table are gifted by humility, not captured by greatness.
Is the Lord’s message only negative then — “thou shalt not be presumptuous”?
Whereas mankind approached God in the old covenant through the “blazing fire and gloomy darkness” of Mount Sinai, “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” has elevated us into the experience of heaven itself — “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” In Jesus, God has announced to His people, “my friend, move up to a higher position.” The second reading alludes that this was a progression of God’s design for our spiritual good. Indeed, because Jesus declares “when you are invited” (not “if”), and adds “when the host comes to you” (not “if”), He subtly insinuates that covenantal life with God is a life of spiritual progression and humble anticipation. The Lord desires to “come to us” and welcome us to a seat of closer intimacy but not by superseding the development of our virtues: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
If in prayer we humbly rest in “the lowest place” at table and our souls strengthen listening to “a voice speaking words,” slowly the Lord leads us from the edict “into things beyond your strength search not” to “my friend, move up to a higher position.” For His destiny for us is intimacy with Him, “places of honor at the table,” in which “the spirits of the just [are] made perfect.”
SHAWN REEVES has served as the director of religious education at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign since 2001. He and his family are members of St. Malachy Parish in Rantoul.