Treat everyone with equal kindness; never be condescending but make real friends with the poor. Do not allow yourself to become self-satisfied.
Romans 12: 16
In today’s gospel from Luke, a Pharisee who is dining with Jesus exclaims: “Happy is the person who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Clearly he is presuming that he is among them. Jesus counters his presumption with a parable of those who were invited who do not come to the “great feast,” but rather of the poor, the suffering, and the outsiders who take their place. In his parable Jesus is warning the Pharisee, and us, against “self-satisfaction.”
There is much discussion these days of a breakdown in American public and political life that seems to be fostered by people living and communicating more and more only with people of their own kind and mind. It is often said that there is no vibrant “center” in political life because of a breakdown in any sense of a larger community consisting of persons of different ethnicities, races, religions, economic status and even points of view.
As we are reminded in today’s readings, however, this is really nothing new. It is at the very heart of human nature to stay with “one’s own kind.” On entering religious life I remember being struck, and hurt, by the expression I heard among the dominant culture that a person was or was not “one of our own.” The truth is, however, that I myself am constantly making the same determination and directing my responses to others accordingly. This is why St. Paul says to “make real friends with the poor.” Wherever we are on the economic scale, there are always those who are “the poor” to us. They are the ones who are less, not only economically but educationally, politically, physically, emotionally. We are called to make friends with those we “feel” to be our inferiors, not to grow in virtue or moral superiority but for the sake of our own souls.
Those we see as less than ourselves are really our way to come back, come home to ourselves. Those who are unimpressed with our pretenses are precisely the persons who can teach us what it means to eat bread in the kingdom of God. They are the true companions of our authentic selves. Those associations and environments that gratify our ego-inflated and self-satisfied identities are really leading us away from our ordinary and true identity, who is the one who has a place at God’s table.
The verse from Romans 12 with which we began affords us an insight into how we may practice living in such a way as to foster the common and ordinary center of our lives. “Treat everyone with equal kindness; never be condescending . . . .” It is easy to be of service as a “professional” who has a certain expertise or superiority over the one being served. In truth, however, such a mode of serving and being with always has about it a certain degree of “condescension.” As the one being looked up to, it is easy to become self-satisfied. On the other hand, it is very difficult to be with and for one who doesn’t seem to recognize and appreciate our assumed expertise and benevolence.
Jesus teaches, that it is easy to give from our surplus but not so easy to give from our want (Luke 21:4). To make friends with the poor is the way we experience and realize our own poverty. When we encounter another in their human poverty, we also encounter the reality that we have nothing to give but ourselves, as poor, and ordinary, and common as we are. Here, our learning, our competence, our material goods are as straw. Our presence and our heart, however, can be the medium by which the other may know, at least for a moment, God’s love for him or her. In condescension toward another, we are but a mere shadow, a fake. But, in sharing with another from our want and poverty, we may both discover that we are already “eating bread in the kingdom of God.”
The (com)passionate fire of the Spirit which beguiled Ryken would be actualized over time by ordinary men like him. By living the vowed life in communities centered around the Word and worship of God, freely choosing an ordinary life that foregoes privilege and entitlement, and turning constantly toward God, these men would become a band of brothers in touch with and responsible for their giftedness and transformed into common men who would lead truly contemplative lives and who would mission beyond their comfortable worlds, locate themselves at the margin of the margins, and form the inhabitants of these margins to discover their own giftedness.
Xaverian Charism Study, Conclusion