St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Trinity XVII : Fr Tony Hogg

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The setting of the Gospel story is familiar to us: a meal in a home with invited guests; the guests eyeing each other up; a tussle for the most prestigious seats. Out of this scene springs Jesus’ “parable” – more advice about wise behaviour, really. And since the parable is also set at a mealtime, its implicit criticism of those grabbing the best places is very thinly veiled. Jesus’ point is that to seek elevated prestige is foolishness, just asking for trouble. Putting yourself on a pedestal only gives you further to fall. 
But Jesus also makes the converse point: taking the humble place will lead to our being called to a higher, more “exalted”, position. But surely, we may feel, for all the mockery and setbacks they may suffer, it is the greedy and self- promoting who so often seem to be the ones who get rich, get power and achieve “exaltation”? Indeed, the modern world, dominated by images of super- rich superstars, encourages us aggressively to assert ourselves and seek our own place among the stars. 
A further difficulty is that Jesus appears to advocate “humility” as a strategy, merely a means to the end of “exaltation”. This calls to mind Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heep, constantly declaring how “’umble” he was, while his humility was a thoroughly suspect means to a nefarious end. 
Such self-serving attitudes are, of course, not what Jesus had in mind. A clue to his real meaning may be found in the words of St Paul in Philippians which state that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him” (2:8-9). Here again our two key words, humility and exaltation, are connected, but now through the cross of Christ. This is no show of humility but rather God’s Son giving his life, his whole being, in an utterly humiliating manner, for our well-being. This is humility and giving to the limit of what is possible. And it leads to exaltation at the hand of God the Father.
Few of us are likely to have to give up our lives in death for the sake of following Jesus, though for some Christians that possibility is real. But Jesus offers a more everyday example of what he’s looking for: “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. Jesus did not mean to stop us inviting close friends or our granny to the occasional meal, but he does question our motives in doing so. Do we invite only those from whom we stand to gain? Do we groan inwardly, or indeed outwardly, at the thought of including those we find difficult, or who are in some way outsiders? Do we only invite Granny to secure our place in her last will and testament? Are we guided by the question, “What’s in it for me?”
According to Jesus, what’s really “in it” for each of us is God’s blessing and being “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”. This is true “exaltation”; not the exaltation that comes with a sharp suit, money or superstar status, but that which comes through humility, by being close to God and following the example of Jesus Christ. It takes quite a shift of heart and mind to accept this as more than just a nice idea in theory, but rather the principle that guides how we live. We are being called to turn our eyes away from the glamour of wealth and power, and instead invest ourselves in eternity in such a way that we become a blessing to our homes, our communities and beyond, here and now. And, my dear friends, therein too lies our hope, as we remember that where there is hope there is faith and where there is faith there is joy.


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