There must be no competition among you; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always think of the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.
Philippians 2: 3-4
Whenever you give a luncheon or dinner, stop inviting your friends or your brothers or your family or your rich neighbors. Perhaps they will themselves invite you back, and you will have had repayment in kind. Instead, whenever you give a reception, invite poor people, crippled people, lame people, blind people. And you will be happy that they are not able to repay you, for you will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.
Luke 14: 12-4
In his commentary on today’s gospel passage, Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us that “the lame, blind, and crippled” are excluded from the priesthood by Leviticus 21: 17-21 and that at Qumran “these disqualifications were extended to exclusion from the Holy War of the end-time and even from participation in the eschatological banquet” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 225). Jesus is dramatically overturning the entire religious and cultural formation of his listeners. To know God’s ways and God’s will, he is saying, we must alter our entire way not only of seeing but of behaving and of relating. We must let go of those we have favored and instead become welcoming and hospitable to those we have rejected and avoided.
The description of the Xaverian charism tells us that “Through our ministry, in particular among the poor and the marginalized, we work to help others discover their own uniqueness so they, too, may share the love of God with the world through their own giftedness.” It does not speak of our ministry “to” the poor and marginalized but “among” them. The call of Jesus, however, goes even further. It calls us not merely to serve or minister to the poor and marginalized but rather sit and eat among them, for we are not sent to the poor and marginalized, we are they.
Today’s passage from Philippians is, for me, among the most challenging in all of scripture. As our personalities are formed, we carve out an identity in relationship to others by comparison and competition. We assume for ourselves those aspects of others that our tradition and culture have taught us to value, and we reject those aspects of others that we do not value. We measure our worth in relationship to others, and, since we all desire to have some standing in the world, we distinguish ourselves from others by what we have that they lack. We become proud of our self-creation, and so we choose to be related to those who gratify our sense of ourselves and to avoid and reject those who do not gratify us.
“Always think of the other person to be better than yourself.” When Jesus tells us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to share our home, he is not only advocating for social justice. He is challenging the very structure of our personality. It is in welcoming the gift of the undesired and undesirable other that we come to know the true nature of the Kingdom, that we encounter the love of God. Early life formation is largely conformation to the values and understandings of the culture and time into which we are born. We learn from those around us the person we are supposed to be and the values by which we are to live. We learn from the beginning what are to be our likes and dislikes, what is attractive and unattractive to us. In short, we reduce the mystery of God’s world to a size that we and our tribe are able to manage.
Spiritual awakening involves relinquishing the certitudes that we have developed through the “recipes for life” that we have been given. It calls us from a diminishment and rejection of what is different and depreciated by us to a stance of seeing the difference in another as “better than” ourselves. By putting the other’s interest first, we can be drawn into aspects of the mystery of life and of God that our sense of self-interest would be likely to avoid and repress.
The conversion of consciousness to which the scriptures call us is an enormously difficult and fearful undertaking. As individuals and as cultures, we limit the world precisely because it is too much for us. Cultural faith and religious practice become for us just another tool for building a safe and confined space for ourselves in the world. The summons of true faith, however, is to trust in the beneficence of the world’s creator. It is to risk, even and especially at those moments it is most difficult, to step beyond the boundaries of our cravings and aversions, our tendencies toward pleasure and away from pain.
One way we can grow in this call is to reflect on what persons and life experiences in the past have been our great teachers. Most often we may find that it has been beyond the margins of our routinized experience, of our comfort zones, that we have been most significantly formed and changed. It is in moments of physical illness or pain, in relational experiences of conflict and disruption, in situations of distress and failure that our egos are stretched and our consciousness awakened and expanded. Everyday in countless ways we are offered opportunities for continual conversion and ongoing life formation. The world we encounter each day is always much larger than the limited perspective we bring to it. Literally and figuratively “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” are knocking at the doors to both our inner selves and the wider world. Today we are called, despite our fears, to let them in and, by serving them, to allow them to become our teachers, the true agents of our ongoing formation.
From March 1896 to May 1897, Therese volunteered to work in the linen room with Sr. Marie of St. Joseph, a nun with a depressive personality, who had such black moods and violent mood swings that no one was willing to work with her. When Therese offered to work with her, it was a fully conscious choice, since Therese was very aware of the depth of Sr. Marie’s illness. Therese once said of her: “She is like an old clock that has to be rewound every quarter of an hour.”” Even for Therese, Sr. Marie was a difficult person to love. In June 1897, a month after she stopped working with Sr. Marie, Therese wrote:
This year, dear Mother, God has given me the grace to understand what charity is; I understood it before, it is true, but in an imperfect way. I had not fathomed the meaning of these words of Jesus: “The second commandment is LIKE the first: You shall love your neighbor as yourself….” Dear Mother, when meditating upon these words of Jesus, I understood how imperfect was my love for the Sisters…. Ah! I understand now that charity consists in bearing the faults of others, in not being surprised at their weakness, in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice. But I understood above all that charity must not remain hidden in the bottom of one’s heart. Jesus has said: “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket, but upon the lamp-stand, so as to give light to ALL in the house.” It seems to me that this lamp represents charity which must enlighten and rejoice not only those who are dearest to us but ALL who are in the house without distinction.”
Marc Foley, OCD, The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St. Therese of LIsieux, Chapter 5