Monday, September 19, 2016

The Perils of Mammon and the Promise of Love

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Luke 16:13

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
September 18, 2016 – 18C Pentecost

            So, there is this rich fellow.  And like lots of rich folk, he decides that one easy way to make money is to lend what he has to others, and live off the interest.  But he doesn’t like to bother with managing all the accounts he has with various debtors, so he hires a manager.  While we’re not told the details of the arrangement, we can safely assume that in exchange for his services, the manager gets to keep a small cut of the interest on each account.
            In this case, though, we are told at the outset of the story that, rather than being a good steward of the rich man’s accounts, this manager has instead “squandered” what he has been given.  When word gets back to the boss about this, the boss calls the manager in for a little talking to.  What is this that I hear about you?, he asks.  Give me an accounting and then pack up your bags; you’re obviously not fit for the job.  That’s when the manager starts to panic.  He is afraid what the boss will find when a proper accounting is done, and he wants to try to make the best of a bad situation for himself.
            So, the manager goes around to the various debtors and cuts deals with each, slashing the interest owed to the rich man in exchange for immediate payment.  Why does the manager do this?  In part because he wants to show the boss that he has collected something at least; and in part he wants to ingratiate himself with the debtors so that after he is fired, he might be welcomed into their homes.
            Now, here comes the first surprise.  When the boss finds out what has happened, he doesn’t get mad.  Never mind that that boss has lost a fair bit of money on his loans; he seems more interested in praising the manager for his sudden shrewdness.  But then comes the real surprise. Jesus adds his own voice to this chorus of praise:  “And I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
            What?  If you’re scratching your heads, you’re not alone.  All commentators agree that this is a notoriously confusing text and one that seems utterly dissonant to the rest of Jesus’ teachings. 
            For starters, the manager hardly seems to be a morally praiseworthy person deserving of our attention, much less our admiration.  It is conceded from the start that he is a bad steward, having squandered what his boss gave him.  To compound this failure, he then engages in blatant dishonesty by denying his boss what he is legitimately owed, and he does this merely to advance his own interests.  Calling such behavior “shrewd” doesn’t make it any less loathsome as a moral matter.  He is a cheat pure and simple, whose only concern seems to be to look out for number one.
            Now, some interpreters have tried to redeem the parable by making the manager out to be a “Robin Hood” figure, somebody who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  These commentators observe – and on this point they are likely right – that the boss’s loans were almost certainly usurious and oppressive, as this was a common practice among wealthy lenders at the time.  The manager’s actions to reduce the interest on the loans, say these interpreters, had the effect of liberating the poor from the unfair terms of their loans – in conformity with the Torah’s prohibition on usury.  The manager is, on this view, a champion of the underclass. 
            This interpretation has some appeal, but it ultimately fails to hold water.  For while the effect of the manager’s actions may have been to rob from the rich to give to the poor, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the manager’s motive was to help the distressed or to advance the interests of justice in any way.  On the contrary, the text plainly says that the manager did what he did in order to ingratiate himself with the debtors; he was looking out for himself pure and simple.  He is no Robin Hood.
            So what, then, is the moral of the story, and who is its hero?  Well, let me suggest that perhaps these are the wrong questions.  While many of Jesus’ parables are offered in order to teach a moral lesson or to hold up someone as a hero – think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example – sometimes a parable’s purpose is not to answer a question but to pose one.  This text seems more naturally to fall into that category. 
            Jesus’ aim is to get us to engage with the problem of Mammon – the allure of wealth and its relentless grip on our lives.  He is not holding up the dishonest manager as a hero so much as he is saying that the love of wealth inevitably weaves a tangled web of deception and that, in this fallen world, acting shrewdly is sometimes the only thing a person can do to extricate himself of herself from the web.  Once you begin worshipping at the altar of money, there is often no way out but to trade your dishonest wealth for friendship, making the best of a bad situation. 
            The second point I would make, and this is perhaps the more important one, is that this text is a good example of the lectionary not giving us the “whole story” to interpret.  For, even though the parable of the dishonest manager reads like its own stand-alone story, when you go back and put it in the context of Luke’s gospel, you see that it immediately follows Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – another story about a man who squanders the wealth he has been given and about how he responds to that problem.  I am increasingly convinced that the two parables need to be read and understood together, and that when we do, the second parable makes a little more sense.
            The Parable of the Prodigal Son, you’ll remember, is the story of the son who demands his inheritance from the father prematurely, and then goes off and squanders it; more or less, just like the manager in our story.  Only in the prodigal son’s case, after he realizes the wrong he has done and the mess he is in, he doesn’t try to cover it up by engaging in a shrewd deception.  Rather, he confesses his wrong, and returns to the father asking for forgiveness; and the father, even before the son asks, lavishes the son with mercy, overjoyed that a son who once was lost now is found. 
            So, when we read these two parables side by side, we see that they are parallel narratives, portraying two different kinds of squandering, two different responses to that squandering, and thus describing two different kinds of kingdom.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son describes the Kingdom of Heaven, and its “currency” is forgiveness and mercy, motivated by a selfless love that results in the joy of true reconciliation.  The Parable of the Dishonest Manager describes the Kingdom of this World, and its currency is the quid pro quo of transactional dealings, motivated by an acquisitive desire that is entirely self-centered.  The only kinds of relationships that survive in the Kingdom of this World are those that are bought and sold by those shrewd enough to know better.
            St. Augustine once put this point very simply and very memorably in these words:  God gave us people to love, and things to use.  Sin is the confusion of the two.  The rich boss and the dishonest manager are all about using people as things to advance their own interests.  The father and the prodigal son are all about authentic human relationship built upon an honest and forgiving love of the other.  By telling these two stories together, Jesus is comparing and contrasting two different ways of being in the world, one based on loving people and the other based on using people. 
            This week I ran across a cartoon in the New Yorker.  The picture is of a man and a woman at a bar, both with a drink in hand.  The woman leans over the bar and says to the man:  “To be honest, I’m not looking so much to connect as to segue.”
            That is one way of capturing this Augustinian insight, and the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.  We can choose to connect with people, by honoring them as ends in themselves, and treating them with the dignity of a forgiving love.  Or we can choose to use people as a means to an end, a mere segue to our next diversion.  The question Jesus poses with these two parables, told one after the other in Luke’s gospel, is just this:  Who do we want to be and to which of these two Kingdoms will we pledge our hearts?

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Art of Being Lost

Olivia Hamilton
Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
September 11, 2016

When is the last time you were lost? Like, actually, physically, lost? If you’re like me, it’s probably been a while. With the advent of GPS technology and the rise of smart phones, we can easily determine our precise geolocation in the blink of an eye. And of course, whether we like it or not, other people and even corporations can track our whereabouts, too, often using that information to try to sell us things in stores nearby.

With all technologies, and this is no exception, there are benefits and also burdens. As we gain the capacity to easily navigate from point A to point B, our own “cognitive maps,” according to some researchers, are withering away. We are increasingly relying on technology, rather than memory or reasoning or even intuition, as we voyage through unknown cityscapes or make our way to the closest Starbucks or Bank of America. The natural question that this all begs, for me, is this: does being so precisely located make us feel more at ease in the world we inhabit, or on the other hand, does it contribute to a sort of gauzy, pervasive sense of dislocation?

I think the last time I was lost, in that disorienting, nearly panic-inducing way, was about six or seven years ago. I was in rural Kentucky with a friend and we were traveling to visit another friend at her grandparent’s farm, tucked away down a dirt road in a part of the county called Pumpkin Hollow. After hitting the road later than planned, and encountering some traffic on the way, we found ourselves behind schedule, snaking deeper and deeper into what felt like no-man’s-land as the sun quickly disappeared behind the hills. At this time, neither myself nor my friend had smartphones, and because we had left town in haste, we hadn’t called our friend to give us directions. Naturally, our GPS unit kept leading us down dead-end dirt roads and we eventually powered it down in frustration. And of course, we had no cell phone service and could not send out an S.O.S. to our friend, either. What was really frustrating was that we knew we were close, within a few miles of our destination, we thought, but we just couldn’t close the gap.

Finally, after about an hour of searching, we did something unthinkable: we stopped and asked for directions. I kid, but in fact it did feel like a risky decision, as there were no gas stations or fast food places nearby, and so the option we were left with was to knock on the door at a stranger’s home, in the dark of night. We pulled up to a small brick ranch house with cars in the driveway and a swing set in the yard, where we could see the red and blue lights of a television flickering in the living room. Even though this seemed like a relatively safe situation, my heart was beating fast as we approached the porch. Being lost made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

To our great relief, the young woman and little boy who opened the door couldn’t have been more friendly, or more helpful. The mother scurried to the kitchen and scribbled down directions, reassuring us that we’d have no trouble finding it. She reiterated each turn and made us repeat the directions back to her so she could be sure that we had absorbed them. She even made a joke about how often people get lost down these roads, helping to lessen the sense of shame we were feeling about our nagivational failure. And after we pulled away from her house, we had reached our destination in five minutes flat.

This of course is a simple, somewhat cliché anecdote. I was lost, and then I asked for help, and then I found my way. End of story.

Our gospel today tells the familiar story of things that were lost being found. These stories, of the lost sheep and the lost coin, offer us a wonderful opportunity to rejoice at the goodness of God’s mercy, made known to us in God’s unfailing ability to redeem what was once considered gone for good.

As with all of Jesus’ parables, the message, I think, is simultaneously simple and complex. And with that being said, these parables, peppered throughout the gospel, are anything but cliché: they are stories that are profoundly disorienting to those who hear them, in this case the Pharisees and scribes – and I want to think for a minute about why that is.

If you think back to the imagery of the GPS, it’s as though the Pharisees and the scribes know exactly where they are in the social order – but such a precise social location has made them completely incapable of being able to rely on their own “cognitive map” to navigate human relationships in any sort of charitable, generous way. They are the ‘haves’ in the world of the ‘have-nots’ and the stable and secure in a world of weary, itinerant workers and women working to the bone, saving every coin, to make ends meet. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them, they jeer.

As the saying goes, wherever we humans draw a line in the sand between “us” and “them,” Jesus is always on the other side of that line. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the scribes subverts the idea that there are the sinners and then the rest of us righteous, upstanding folk, the lost and the found. The parable is effective inasmuch as it reminds us that the only sin to be found in this scene is the false pretense that the world is made up of different types of people, only some of whom are worthy to sit God’s table, literally, to break bread with Jesus. We are not composed of the righteous and the rest…we are people, all alike in our capacity to seek favor and praise, and to believe ourselves better than, or more worthy, than others.

To close, I want to share an excerpt from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop that came to mind as I was reading over the gospel text earlier in the week. The poem is called “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

I love this phrase that she uses: the art of losing. Like the concentric circles of loss that Elizabeth Bishop draws…first keys, then afternoons, then places we loved and cannot return, Jesus’ parables ask us to relate to losing a hard-earned coin, then a creature in our care, and then, finally in the third which we do not hear today, the parable of the Prodigal Son, we are really faced with the reality that what Jesus is talking about is not stuff, it is us. If the poem encourages us to live more fully into the experience, or the art of losing, perhaps Jesus’ parables are teaching us to cultivate the art of being lost.

What would the art of being lost look like for you? I have a few ideas, but of course I invite you to ponder this on your own terms, as well.

Maybe cultivating the art of being lost could involve spending some time, each day or each week, without a roadmap or a plan. In prayer, on a walk, or in meditation. Practicing having no agenda other than to be with God. Another way to embrace being lost might involve reaching out to a friend or mentor or counselor when you are in a time of need, especially at those times when everyone else seems to think you’ve got it all figured out but you yourself are doubting the way forward.

Perhaps fully inhabiting being lost means striving to be aware of judgments made about others…you know, the kind of judgments we all tend to make about who’s in, and who’s out. On this day when we remember the attacks of September 11th, and lament the subsequent grief, war, and division that have followed, we are reminded just how high the stakes are in shaping a world where we’re a little slower to cast side-eyes at one another, and when we’re a little quicker to suspend suspicions and to develop curiosity about our neighbors rather than fear.

And perhaps above all, practicing the art of being lost means embracing the reality that you object of someone else’s searching – in this case God’s. As we read over and over in the gospels, Jesus’ commitment is always to the lost and the least. And just a hint…that means all of us. Instead of fretting alone, let yourself think of being lost as the perfect opportunity for God to meet you right where you are.

If you heard nothing else tonight, I hope you hear this: Being lost doesn’t have to be a disaster. The God who made you loves you without fail, no matter how far you wander or stray. Like the woman who searches every inch of her house by lamplight for the missing coin, God will not rest until all that God has made, and loves, is reconciled with its maker. Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Our Identity in Christ

“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Philemon 1:15-16

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
September 4, 2016 – 16C Pentecost         

            This past week, I was struck by an opinion piece that I read in the Crimson by a sophomore named Zoe Ortiz. Writing in part for the benefit of the incoming freshmen class, and in part for the wider University community, Ortiz reflected back on her own experience as a freshman new to campus.  As you will hear, unlike most of her fellow students, Zoe is the first person in her family to attend college, and comes from a low-income background. She is also a person of color.
            She describes her first classroom experience in these terms:
I’m sitting in a classroom, surrounded by my peers, but I can’t speak. There’s a pit of uncertainty pooling deep within my stomach, growing larger with every expectant glance from my Teaching Fellow, and I can’t help but feel inferior.
It’s my first day in Ethical Reasoning, where my peers effortlessly pronounce the French names of philosophers and politicians long gone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Maximilien Robespierre roll smoothly off their tongues. They reference their multiple international trips and confidently reason with one another as the polished lawyers they say they want to become. They easily toss about words I only learned from standardized testing, words that no one from home ever integrated so effortlessly into their daily vocabulary.
A girl sitting next to me poses a question, and I know the answer. My mind erupts in a tug-of-war: Do I answer her or do I let it go? I feel the answer on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it down, burying it deep inside. Better to stay quiet than to suffer the judgmental looks of everyone around me as they realize I’m different. Then they’d know; they’d know my weakness; they’d smell my fear of not being good enough.
I imagine what it might have been like to be born into a family of college graduates where money and experience could comfortably guide me towards a secure future. I wonder what it would have been like to be like them—the seeming majority of Harvard’s student body that, unlike me, isn’t first-generation, low-income, or a minority.

            Ortiz’s purpose in writing is not to bemoan the injustice of it all, or to express bitterness or resentment at the privilege enjoyed by others, so much as it is to open our eyes to difference, to the experience of others, and to invite us to reflect more deeply on who we are, and the comparative advantages that may shape our own experience of the world.  This capacity to step back from the particularities of one’s perspective, and to feel the world as others do, is called empathy.  As Christian writer Sue Monk Kidd describes it:  “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify with another, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes.”  Such empathetic understanding is only the starting point, however.  If real change is to happen, a person must allow empathy to stir the heart to such a point that our relationships with others and with the world are thereby transformed and renewed.
            Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon, our epistle reading today, is an exquisite lesson in how a faith rooted in Christ can open our hearts to such transformation and renewal.  A mere 335 words and 25 total verses, Philemon is the third shortest book in all of the Bible; and unlike Paul’s other letters, it is less an encyclical to a whole church (like Romans or Galatians, for example) as it is a personal note, an intimate plea, to a fellow Christian.
            There are three principal characters in this moral drama:  Philemon, Onesimus, and Paul.
            Philemon is a friend of Paul’s, a Christian living in Colossae, a small town in what is now Turkey. Philemon is also a slaveowner.
            Among the slaves Philemon owns is the second character in our story, Onesimus.  We don’t know much about Onesimus, other than the fact he finds himself in a predicament.  Onesimus has run away from Philemon, possibly as the result of some misdeed.  Perhaps he has failed to carry out some appointed duty, or stolen some money, the text is not clear.  All we know for sure is that Onesimus has left Philemon and is in trouble.  For a slave to run away from his owner under Roman law was serious business, punishable by flogging or worse.  And certainly if Onesimus has stolen from his owner, death, even crucifixion, was among the possible punishments.
            And then finally, of course, the last character in our story is Paul.  Paul finds himself in prison at the time of this letter, either in Rome or Ephesus, the scholars are not in agreement.  Calling himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus,” Paul is undoubtedly in custody because of his evangelizing escapades, seeking to bring the good news of Christ to the world in disregard of prevailing Roman law barring the worship of anyone other than the emperor.  And it is in prison that Paul apparently befriends Onesimus, whom Paul describes as “his child,” one to whom he has become “a father” during his imprisonment.  We can safely assume this language to mean that Paul has converted Onesimus to the faith while in prison, just as Paul had previously converted Philemon.
            So what is Paul’s purpose in writing?  On one level, Paul’s purpose is to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus from bondage, to give him his liberty.  And viewed on this level, Paul’s request is revolutionary indeed. But Paul’s point is more theological than legal.  Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus in a new light, to recognize him no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Look past all of the accidents of birth, of appearance, of privilege, of legal ownership, Paul implores, and recognize Onesimus as a human being with dignity who is your equal in God’s eyes. 
            Importantly, even though Paul could have exercised his apostolic authority to coerce the outcome he desired, that is not Paul’s tack here:  “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” Paul writes, “yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”  And so Paul takes the extraordinary step of sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand, trusting that Philemon will do the right thing.  “I wanted to keep him with me,” Paul writes, “but I prefer to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” Paul concludes, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”  I ask you to “welcome him as you would welcome me.”  
            God’s way is never coercive.  Paul knows that if Philemon is genuinely to be reconciled to Onesimus, and to regard him as an equal in Christ, then he must do so freely, and of his own volition.  Love cannot be compelled.  Indeed, Paul is so confident in the possibilities of God’s grace acting upon Philemon’s heart that he closes his letter by saying, somewhat shrewdly, “confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
            At the very heart of this letter is a theological vision of humanity being newly recreated in the image of Christ – that is, through baptism in Christ, each of us is made new and our identity as a child of God is restored and liberated from all the corrupting differentiations of race, class, social standing, and the like, that human beings are prone to make.  Even though our earthly identities continue to reflect these accidental characteristics, when we look upon each other with Christ’s eyes, Paul wants to say, we see all these artificial distinctions fall away, and we see each other as God sees us.
            This theological insight from Paul’s letter to Philemon is also the key, I think, to understanding the admittedly difficult language from today’s gospel reading, where Jesus seems to suggest that hating one’s family is a precondition of discipleship.  Jesus’ wish is not, I’m confident, that we should literally hate our fathers and mothers.  Rather, Jesus uses this shocking language to drive home a point:  that we are first and most fundamentally children of God, no matter who are human parents may be, and that this relationship with God precedes all others.  Before we are male or female, white or black, Jew or Gentile, gay or straight, husband or wife, we are God’s children; and too often we allow the partisan claims of family, tribe, or class to obscure the truth of a common human dignity that is God’s good creation.  To be a follower of Jesus is thus, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
            Which brings me back to our friend, Zoe Ortiz, and young people like her, who carry with them a fear of not being accepted for who they are, of being judged because they are different, of being relegated to the margins because they are misunderstood.  While I hope and pray that Harvard, and our wider culture, may learn to see past the distorting effects of privilege and advantage, and create a more hospitable environment for the Zoe Ortizes of the world, the truth is that the worship of achievement and competition and survival of the fittest runs deep in these parts.  Which is why it is so important to have vibrant church communities on our campuses, giving witness to a Christ-like love that forgives rather than judges, that welcomes rather than excludes, that brings hope rather than fear, and that insists that there is always room for one more seat at the table, no matter who you are or whence you come.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

To Give or to Grab

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 14:11

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
August 28, 2016 – 15C Pentecost

Many people will tell you that one of the most thought-provoking commencement addresses ever given was delivered by the late novelist David Foster Wallace in 2005 at Kenyon College.  Wallace began his address with a little parable:  “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

“The immediate point of the fish story,” as Wallace explains, “is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see” because they are so close to us and so taken-for-granted.  For fish, that reality may well be water.  For human beings, that reality, Wallace argues, is egocentrism, or the fact that all of our experience of the world is filtered through the lens of “the self,” which often gives us a distorted sense of our own importance and of what really matters.

The basic biological and theological truth is that human beings are hard-wired, at some fundamentally subconscious level, to look out for ourselves, to promote our own interests, to view the world from our particular perspective.  In Wallace’s arrestingly frank language:  “While most of us would never admit it in public, my deepest belief is that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting. . . . Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, and real.”

When we are around infants and toddlers, we see this egocentrism in all its unvarnished glory.  A one-year-old is concerned only about his or her own desires and wants and needs, and views others merely as instruments for getting what he or she wants.  As St. Augustine in his Confessions memorably observed:  Witness “the actions of a child who begs tearfully for objects that would harm him if given, gets into a tantrum when his parents will not comply with his whims, and tries to hurt many people who know better by hitting out at them as hard as his strength allows, simply because they will not immediately fall in with his wishes or obey his commands, which would of course damage him if carried out.”

We forgive these tendencies in a child, of course, saying that infants do not yet know any better, and this wisdom is grounded in the truths of developmental psychology, which teach us that an awareness of others and the capacity to see beyond one’s own agency is something that takes time and learning to develop in a person.  And as we mature, we are taught the basics of playing nicely with others:  we learn (or so we like to think) not to be selfish, to be considerate of others, to see another’s point of view, and so on.

But both Wallace and Augustine (if for different reasons) would insist that polite, social manners of this sort, while a step in the right direction, seriously underestimate the insidious and relentless power of egocentrism, the subconscious drive to put me and my interests first.  Even as adults, most of us have a hard time consistently ridding ourselves of selfishness.  We don’t like to admit it, but we more often than not revert, usually without even being aware of it, to a basic self-centeredness in the choices we make.  Its as if we’re in the grip of a power that is always putting our self in the center.

Christians, of course, identify this power as sin, and classically, the particular sin of egocentrism is hubris or pride.  And, of the seven deadly sins, pride is at the foundation of human brokenness.  As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:  "Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison to pride: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind."  Or, in a more secular voice, Benjamin Franklin once put it this way: "In reality there is, perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride.  Disguise it, struggle with it, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will every now and then peep out and show itself; and even when I imagine that I have completely overcome it, it turns out I’m just proud of my humility.”

In a nutshell:  the classical Christian view is that “pride goeth before the Fall.”   Meaning:  left to our own devices, human beings have an inevitable tendency to revert to a focus on our selves, to overestimate our own importance, even sometimes thinking we can be like God, having dominion and power over our destinies; and, such thinking almost always leads to our undoing.

Which brings us to today’s gospel teaching, two little stories about banquets.   In the human realm, Jesus observes, guests at a banquet always seem to be clamoring for the seats of honor, to sit at the head table, in a place of prominence.  That is because the impulse that organizes the human banquet is pride, the urgent need of the self to be seen and heard and fed.  By contrast, the divine banquet is organized not by pride, but by humility, a relentless need to ensure that everyone is invited to the table, an impulse to make room for the other, even if that means giving up one’s own seat.  With human banquets, there is a constant anxiety around scarcity, a worry that the food and wine will run out, that inevitably leads us to want to exclude the other so that we can keep what is ours.  In the divine banquet, there is a confidence in the abundance of God’s gifts that liberates us from worrying about our own needs so that we might lift up others and share what we have.

The paradox in all this, of course, is that it is only through humbling our selves, by setting our own interests aside, that we experience the grace of God’s abundance.  Our truest self, it turns out, is the self that serves the other, not the self that insists that it must be served.  Or, as Jesus puts it, the governing rule at the divine banquet table is:  “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In a very basic sense, the mystery of the Incarnation revolves around this paradox.  In Jesus Christ, God became one of us in order to reveal a completely different way of being human:  a humanity grounded in humility rather than pride.  God in Christ became a self that gives as opposed to a self that grabs.  And among the gifts that God gave us is the freedom to choose which of these selves we want to be:  the giving self or the grabbing self.

In one of the most recognized lines in all of literature, Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously soliloquized:  “To be or not to be, that is the question.”  The longer I live, and the more I study and pray on Jesus’ life, however, the more I’m convinced that the real question for our lives is a little different:  to give or to grab, that is the question.  And if we are to follow Jesus, there is but one answer to that question.

Let me close by paraphrasing David Foster Wallace, who, though not a Christian, nevertheless had sound theological instincts when he concluded his commencement speech with this advice to Kenyon’s graduating class:

You can, if you want, Wallace told these young people, choose to operate on the default setting of egocentrism, and the world will not discourage this, because “the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.  Our culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom for many:  The freedom to be lords of our own tiny kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom is alluring indeed.

"But, of course," Wallace continued, “there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, it involves being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad small and unsexy ways, every day.  That is real freedom.”  And although Wallace didn’t say it, he could have added:  That is the freedom of living the life of Christ.  Amen.