An Invitation

We may be tempted to feel complacent about today’s Gospel reading. After all, in today’s American society, haven’t we done away with the ranking and caste system that Jesus speaks about during the Sabbath dinner at the home of the Pharisee? We would especially want to believe this of our Western churches, wouldn’t we? If I am honest, however, after a decade of working in the church, and a lifetime of being a Catholic Christian, I have to admit that social distinctions do matter too often in our communities.

While we may no longer seat those with the highest social ranking in the front pews while corralling all others further back, we do hold onto a few notions about who belongs and who doesn’t. We make judgments about how deserving we and others are of special considerations and privileges, based on things like donations of money or how many years or generations our families have worshipped here. We use words like “member” to describe those officially affiliated with our parish. This term is in itself tricky, and we need to be cautious in our understanding of it. To determine that someone with membership is somehow more worthy, or to treat our communities as exclusive clubs is counter to all that Jesus teaches.

Jesus calls for inclusion of those who have nothing to give in return: “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Luke 14:13). The poor, the blind and all those who are similarly afflicted are explicitly mentioned earlier in Luke (4:18) as to be recipients of Jesus’ ministry.

What does this mean for our Christian communities? In last week’s article, David Dunst spoke of the works of mercy and the need to let go of our ideas that they are reserved for those such as Blessed Mother Theresa or other such exalted people. Once we are able to move beyond such misunderstanding, we then must take it yet a step further. We must open our hearts to the very real command of Jesus to live out a counter-cultural value of radical inclusion for the most marginalized.

I realize this challenges us deeply. It can be uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable, because then we can be confident that we are reaching beyond ourselves and our own mistaken, albeit often unconscious, determinations about who merits our ministry.

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis gives voice to this same wisdom. He writes, “We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are least, those whom society discards.” (195) He goes on, “Sometimes we prove hard of heart and mind; we are forgetful, distracted and carried away by the limitless possibilities for consumption and distraction offered by contemporary society.” (196) I believe this is true in particular ways inside of parishes. Here at St. Peter’s, like in almost every modern Catholic parish in Western society, we are blessed with a great richness of activity and opportunities. This is by no means a bad way for a parish to be. In fact, it can be wonderful for building up a community of disciples. What we must be careful to avoid is allowing all of that to overshadow our real purpose, which is the evangelization of the joy that is Jesus’ Gospel to everyone, to throw open our doors to anyone who seeks Him here and to go out boldly to bring His joy to all others.

Pope Francis continues, “This leads to a kind of alienation at every level, for a ‘society becomes alienated when its forms of social organization, production and consumption make it more difficult to offer the gift of self and to establish solidarity between people.’” (196) In the parish setting, it’s arguable to substitute “ministries” for “social organizations,” “liturgies” for “production” and “sacraments” for “consumption.” Do our ministries, liturgies and beliefs about deservedness regarding sacrament reflect accurately Jesus’ example? Are we truly open to sharing them with everyone? Do we, for example, complain when the liturgies don’t meet our own preferences, simply because we believe they should be a certain way? Do we refer to others as “members” and “non-members” when we consider who is to be included? Do we require proof of “parishioner status” when we decide who is to be granted our hospitality? Do we expect to be treated differently because we have “belonged” to this parish longer than others?

“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor,’” (2 Corinthians 8:9), (197) says Pope Francis. Our communities should, too. Those who come in spiritual poverty are the first and most important people who will ever walk through our doors.

As in today’s Gospel, let’s invite them to our table and pray that our hearts will be opened to them and through them, to Christ Jesus. Let’s allow ourselves to get uncomfortable and to put aside our mistaken ideas about the privileges of “membership.” Let’s make room in our hearts – and our communities – for the poor in body and spirit and remember the quiet joy of God’s love.

Lisa Amos

Pastoral Associate

 

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