“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
The Gospel today is the first half of Luke 14. Luke 14 is so important that the fathers of our Church set aside two Sundays, Trinity II and Trinity XVII, dedicated to that chapter. Chapter 14 of Luke answers the question “How are God’s people supposed to live here and now?” The answer is that God’s people are to live with humility and generosity all their lives. Humility and generosity are marks of discipleship. Do not seek the front seats or the high tables of honor, but rather the less conspicuous seat. In fact not only will the disciple of Jesus live with true humility, but his disciples will also give without any hope of repayment. Thus we have that portion of the Gospel that speaks to whom one should invite to parties. Jesus’ disciples will live generously toward others without expecting to be paid back. You can identify the humble person because he or she ignores issues of class or rank. Jesus teaches over and over again that God honors the friend of the poor, the lame, and the blind. Now here is a take away for you: The themes of humility and generosity are at the very heart of the life of Christ and he taught his disciples that they should follow his example. Jesus was himself humble and generous. And if you wish to follow him then you should pursue the virtues of humility and generosity. It is impossible to be a disciple of Christ and live any other way.
Only a few weeks back the Gospel was that notorious passage where Jesus draws a red line:
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
It may have been the rare occasion that a slave ended up belonging to different people. But, according to Jesus, there was no such rare occasion possible for his disciple.
“You cannot serve God and personal wealth.”
No you can’t. This is exactly what Jesus said: If Jesus is your God then you will end up hating personal wealth and if you make personal wealth your god you will end up hating Jesus. We’ve heard a lot about red lines this week. If anyone wants to know what a red line looks like – there it is. I made this point a few weeks back: Jesus taught his disciples not to value money and possessions so highly that you live a life seeking them or that you even value them enough to worry over them. This is a warning to both the well to do that have possessions to guard; and it is a warning to the poor who wished they had them.
Why is this so important and why does Christ see the love of personal wealth as a god vying for our affection? Because the love of mammon militates against personal humility and generosity. And here’s how – the god of mammon, the false god of personal wealth, promises us two things that people have always wanted: security and superiority. Our yearning for security and superiority militates against Jesus’ insistence upon trusting God, detaching from possessions and submitting only to God’s will. Trusting God, detaching from personal wealth and submitting to God’s will is impossible without humility and generosity. I said this a few weeks back – “According to the values of this present culture money and possessions guarantee our security and our superiority to people around me. And if not outright superiority, the more money and possessions I have, the greater is the outwardly evidence that I am a successful person according to the values of our society. There is nothing like money and possessions that promises me that I will have what I want when I want it.” But I can promise you this: one is never satisfied. At first the quest for power and place and joy of possession is exhilarating. When we reach one goal, we look around for more worlds to conquer without ever taking stock of the glitter we think is so valuable. Every new recognition in our field or profession, every victory over a competitor and every addition to one’s personal wealth is thrilling. We think we are on the way to the true meaning in life. I think I am proving my value and importance. I deserve the shinny new car whether I need it or not, regardless of how many hungry people might be fed if I were to give half that money to the poor. The gold that jingles from my wrists may build a church in Haiti, but it belongs on my wrist. But it never ends. I want more and more and more. Humility! Give me a break! It is pretty useless to remind a person in the heat of what this culture calls success that the profit is bitter when one gains the whole world and loses his own soul.
I have been thinking about Grand Central Station this week because I have recently seen some pictures of it back in its heyday. Today it is a dwarf encircled by sparkling Towers. And squatting there in the shadow, Grand Central Station stands out as a monument to lesser gods as much as any temple whose fallen and scattered stones litter Europe today. Here is an American Temple dedicated to American commerce, power, and presence.
The largest example of a Tiffany sculpture in the world, crafted for Grand Central Station, in the form of an arch of triumph has been the gateway to New York City for millions upon millions of people since 1903. The central figure of the arch of triumph is Mercury, the god of commerce and he is supported on the right and left by Minerva and Hercules – extolling cleverness and brute strength. In its day, Grand Central Station’s main concourse was constructed to inspire awe and wonder and majesty like a grand cathedral. About 300 feet long, 120 feet wide and 125 feet from floor to ceiling, it was and is a temple of worship filled with very busy people who night and day still live according to the liturgies of a pagan culture. The windows and arches draw one’s vision upward to the peculiar ceiling; the whole of which is a painting of the constellations of the night sky. What is peculiar is that the painting is in reverse, visualizing the sky from a deity’s point-of-view. Of course that is your point-of-view if you happen to be gazing upon it. You are the deity. A long time ago the devil whispered to Eve: “If you eat this fruit, ye shall be as gods.” But Jesus said:
“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
This is the human condition – we have taken the devil’s offer to heart. We have reached out for that apple and if anyone presumes to question our right to it that person becomes our enemy. In the Book of Revelation it is the Beast who controls commerce throughout the world and the Christian is the enemy because he will not worship the Beast. Without the mark of the Beast, your union card, your guild, the Christian cannot even earn a living for his family. But the Christian had rather die than to live according to the values of that culture.
Our culture has constructed monuments and temples and liturgies and selected its own saints in order to bless selfishness and greed. This is what the Church call spiritual formation. Our society has become proficient in spiritual formation. How do I know that I have been spiritually formed by this culture? Well, this is how Jesus describes the blessed state of being:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you who are hated and spoken evil of and rejected for my sake.”
That’s crazy! Things are not like that in our world. Any kingdom worth having is the achievement of successful, powerful and aggressive men and women. Humility – give me a break! Our culture has a message for you, your children and everyone you love:
“Blessed are the entitled, take all you want!”
“Blessed are the powerful, no one will stop you or get in your way!”
“Blessed are you who network with powerful friends at weddings and banquets, they will invite you to their weddings and banquets.”
“Blessed are you who don’t get caught! You still look good to us!”
But God’s ways are not our ways. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount there is something that we almost never see or hear about – the four final woes that Jesus adds to the Sermon. Here instead of blessing, he pronounces a set of woes that correspond to the previous blessings:
“Woe unto you who are rich, you have received your consolation!”
“Woe unto you who are full, you shall be hungry!”
“Woe unto you who laugh now, you shall mourn and weep.”
“Woe unto you when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Jesus had an answer to all these questions:
“Take heed and beware of all forms of greed; for a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. And he told them this parable saying, The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said to himself, ‘I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink and b e merry.” But God said to him,’Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things that you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the man who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God…”
Being “rich toward God” is a way of saying that the Kingdom of God has come into my life. The values of the Kingdom of God take root in my life. Jesus says that those who inherit the Kingdom are merciful in their assessment of others, forgiving of injuries, liberal in sharing their wealth – people who make a positive use of suffering – there is humility, openness, trust, joy and a thankful heart. The Love of God and neighbor is purified and multiplied in our own hearts and lives. How are you doing with this?