Sunday Gospel Reflection for 22nd Sunday of the Year August 28th Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
At the very start of his first published exhortation after his election, Pope Francis issued an invitation to Christians which I found extremely powerful. He wrote, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” (the Joy of the Gospel, 3)
It was the words “personal encounter” which stayed with me. There is always, I believe, a danger that, as followers of Jesus, we focus so much on his message and his miracles that we lose sight of the real, human person who walked among us, speaking those words and performing those miracles.
This, I think, is what Pope Francis was saying to us. We are called, each one of us, to a ‘personal encounter’ with a person, Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a philosophy or a social and ethical code. The words of Jesus are wonderful but they are not enough. The healings of Jesus are wonderful, but they are not enough. The message of Jesus is wonderful and filled with life and hope, but if it is only that – a wonderful, hope filled message, it too is not enough. The call of Jesus to each of his apostles and first disciples was always a personal one. When he said, “Follow me…” he meant that literally. The invitation was to “follow ME…” – not a written set or rules or a moral code, but a person, Jesus. The invitation to each one of us is the same, “follow ME…..”. It is only when we ‘personally encounter’ the man, Jesus, that the life of the Gospel, the life of God him/herself, opens before us.
This is why, when I read the Gospels, I try to see behind the message and the miracles to find the person who said and did them. Nowhere in the Gospels is Jesus described for us, either physically or emotionally. We must, therefore, search in the words and stories to find clues, or hints, of what this man was like. And they are there, many of them, usually in words or phrases which we so easily skip over in our rush to see the miracle or get to the message. It involves some digging, some awareness of how people interact, a commitment to prayer, and a little imagination. But, truly, the search is worth it.
Today’s Gospel is a case in point. It has two short parables about humility and what genuine compassion looks like. Important? Yes. Relevant? Yes. To be reflected upon? Also Yes. But hidden in plain sight are five simple words which invite us to reflect on, and meet, the person who told these parables.
They come at the start of the Gospel, just after Jesus enters the house of “a leading Pharisee” to share a meal with him and some others he invited. They sit and settle and probably the usual table conversation begins….. the weather, the state of the crops, politics and Roman occupation, the usual stuff that begins a meal with people we don’t know particularly well.
And then we hear that….”they were watching him closely.” Behind these words, I believe, is an invitation to meet, to encounter, Jesus as he reclined at that table.
Each one of us, I’m certain, have had the experience of being silently ‘watched’ by others. We all know the anxiety of knowing that those I am with are just waiting for me to make a mistake to pounce. It is the moment when I look around the table and suddenly become aware that if I pick up the ‘wrong’ fork to eat my appetiser I will be failing some huge invisible examination or when I wonder if ordering a beer with my meal rather than wine will be labelling myself uneducated, uncivilised or both. The stress of these situations can be such that when it comes to ordering I mumble, “…I think I’ll skip this course” or “…just sparkling water please!”
This meal that Jesus was invited to was not, I think, what it seemed to be. Behind the friendly banter Jesus was being ‘watched closely’. The ‘leading Pharisee’ and his friends, far from being friends of Jesus were testing him, watching and waiting for a word or an action they could use against him. We might even wonder if the entire event was a set-up!
Everything we know about Jesus tells us that he was a shrewd, observant, perceptive person, well capable of discerning the motives of those around him. Therefore we can be certain that early on in the meal Jesus realised he was being watched.
Now look at how he responds to what would be, for any of us, a stressful situation. Rather than being paralysed by the situation or becoming defensive, Jesus seems to revel in what’s happening, going out of his way to challenge the proud and arrogant system used when deciding the seating order at a meal.
What does this tell us about Jesus? Quite a lot, I suggest. It tells us that he was a man ‘comfortable in his own skin’, mature and self-confident, not intimidated by what others thought of him, but able to gently point out their own insecurities. Think of someone you know who you would consider self-confident and perceptive. I don’t mean an arrogant person who uses their confidence to intimidate and control, but a person who is simply comfortable and at ease in whatever situation arises.
Such people will draw others to themselves. Their own ease and grace will make it possible for those who are present to also be at ease with them. They will lead but not control. They will be wise but not arrogant. Because they are comfortable in themselves, they will allow us to be comfortable too. When we come away from being with such a person we will say, “wasn’t it a pleasure to meet him/her?”
Jesus found himself in a hostile situation where he knew he was being watched and tested. Every question he was asked was a bomb, primed to explode in his face if he said the wrong thing. The way we see him respond – comfortable, confident, self-assured, yet not aggressive or defensive or arrogant allows us to see behind the words of the Gospel to the person who spoke them. We, as Pope Francis might say, are allowing ourselves to have a “personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Of course there is a danger here too, and it is that of over-interpreting a word or phrase or Gospel scene, making too much of it, seeing in it things which may not be there at all. Isn’t the danger of fundamentalism that we take every individual word or action of Jesus as equally important and equally ‘true’ and thereby lose perspective and distort the essential underlying truths of Jesus’ life?
If what we read today is an isolated incident in Jesus’ life, we might well be advised to be cautious. But far from being an isolated incident, this shrewd, yet gentle, self-confidence is seen again and again in Jesus’ words and actions. When he healed on the Sabbath, or when his disciples picked ears of corn on the Sabbath, he was well aware what he was doing and of the criticism that would follow. It didn’t stop him. His inner conviction and ease with himself meant he could carry on, neither being aggressive or apologetic, but calmly self-assured.
I have read many learned articles over the years which surmise that maybe Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, unaware of the seriousness of what was going on around him and oblivious to the threats he faced or the very real possibility that he might die. For me, the idea that Jesus walked blindly or innocently into his own death flies in the face of all we know of him in the Gospels. We can never fully know what he felt would happen but, while the ‘agony in the garden’ shows us that he didn’t want to die, it is equally clear that he had some inner conviction that all of his Mission was leading to this moment, and he was confident that whatever happened was what God was asking of him.
You see, the small phrases we so easily overlook in the Gospels and the tiny clues we get as to the person of Jesus, can be so easily dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant. But together, and in a prayerful way, they guide us to the man who walked those trails and pathways, and who changed the path of history as no man has ever done before or since.
When Pope Francis issued that invitation to us, he did so in an urgent way. The invitation was to “all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment…” He means us to recognise just how important this “personal encounter” really is.
Isn’t it interesting that St. Paul’s conversation on the road to Damascus was the result of a ‘personal encounter’ he had with Jesus.’ Much later, he declared that everything he said and did came from that encounter. “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me….”
It is the mystery of Easter, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus that makes a ‘personal encounter’ with him possible. He is not dead but alive. Just as he encountered Paul on the road to Damascus and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he longs and waits to encounter us in the same way.
And we needn’t be afraid. The calm, gentle, comfortable man of the Gospels, confident and self-assured is not going to leave us. When we are ready, when the time is right, we can and we will encounter him.
“…and they watched him closely.”
Isn’t it amazing how far five little words can take us?
|Gospel Sunday August 28th 2022||Luke 14:1,7-14 ©|
Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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