Do Not Take the First Place as You May be Asked to Take the Last

Father Raniero Cantalamessa Comments on This Sunday’s Gospel

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ROME, AUG. 27, 2004 ( Here is the commentary by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher for the Pontifical Household, of the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s liturgy, Luke 14:1,7-14, on the effect of true humility.

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One Sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees…. he marked how they chose the place of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.” He said also to the man who had invited him, “when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.»

The beginning of today’s Gospel helps us to correct a widespread prejudice among Christians. The Pharisees have ended up being the prototype of all vices: hypocrisy, duplicity, falsehood—Jesus’ enemies par excellence. The word Pharisee and pharisaic have entered the vocabulary of our tongue and of many others. Such an idea of the Pharisees is not right. Among them there certainly were many elements that fit this image, and it is with them that Christ clashed severely. But not all were like that. Nicodemus, who went to Jesus by night and later defended him in the Sanhedrin, was a Pharisee (see John 3:1, 7:50). Paul was also a Pharisee before his conversion, and he was certainly a sincere and diligent person, though unenlightened. Gamaliel was a Pharisee, who defended the Apostles before the Sanhedrin (see Acts 5:34).

Jesus’ relations with them, therefore, were not only conflictive. Some, as in our case, also invited him to dine in their homes. These invitations from Pharisees are that much more worthy of being highlighted given that they knew very well that it would not be the fact of inviting him to their own homes that would impede Jesus from saying what he thought. Also in our case, Jesus takes advantage of the occasion to correct some deviations and carry forward his work of evangelization. During the dinner that Saturday, Jesus gave two important teachings: one addressed to the guests, and the other to the host.

To the lord of the house, Jesus said: «When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors …» This is what Jesus himself did, when he invited the poor, the afflicted, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted (the categories of people mentioned in the Beatitudes) to the great banquet of the kingdom.

But it is especially what Jesus said to the guests that I would like to reflect on this time. «When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor….» Jesus does not intend to give advice on good manners. Neither does he try to encourage the subtle calculation of the one who takes the last place, with the secret hope that the host will call him to a higher one. The parable could lead to deception here, if one does not think of which banquet and which host Jesus was talking about.

The banquet is the most universal of the kingdom, and the lord is God. Jesus was saying that in life we must choose the last place, try to make others happy more than ourselves; be modest in assessing our merits, letting others recognize them, not ourselves («no one is a good judge in his own case»), and already in this life God will exalt us. He will exalt us in his grace, he will include us in the list of his friends and of the true disciples of his Son, which is the only thing that really matters.

He will also exalt us in the esteem of others. It is an amazing but true fact. It is not only God who «regards the lowly; but the haughty he knows from afar» (Psalm 137:6); man does this too, whether or not he is a believer. Modesty, when it is sincere and not affected, captivates, makes the person loved, his company desired, his opinion appreciated. True glory flees from the one who pursues it and pursues the one who flees it.

We live in a society that has an acute need to heed this evangelical message on humility. To hasten to take the first places, perhaps unscrupulously stepping on others, social climbing and exasperated competitiveness are characteristics demanded by all and, sadly, followed by all. The Gospel makes an impact on the social, even when it speaks of humility and modesty.

[Italian original published in the magazine Famiglia Cristiana; translation by ZENIT]

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