In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, blessings on this Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity. As we progress through the Autumn months toward Winter, we should be mindful now and then to stop and to smell the roses, so to speak, before they are vanquished by the coldness of the spent year. Time is always marching forward, like an army that is en route to a battlefield, but never manages to get there. It is progressive, driven, seemingly unstoppable, and for those of us caught up in the rush from one moment to the next we can feel as if we are the servants of time. Like we have been stamped by fate and are being pulled to some inevitable conclusion. On the one hand, we can feel overwhelmed, like a pawn moved by an invisible hand on a great chessboard. On the other hand, precisely because this invisible hand is moving us, we can tell ourselves that we are not really responsible for our actions. Our decisions are not really ours, we can say, but the inevitable unfolding of a predetermined fate. Freed from responsibility we can indulge a particularly Satanic illusion – namely, the false belief that there is freedom when we are released from moral and ethical restraints. Here is an example of this illusion in effect: Let us say that I am a Pharisee. Like all men, I am driven by the invisible hand of fate, the laws and the customs of my fathers driving me toward a certain manner of living and dying. One of these laws tells me that I should avoid any work on the Sabbath, even to the point of restoring a man who is suffering from a disability or a disease. Morality, ethics, indeed even basic human decency, would tell me that I should help someone who is so afflicted no matter the day of the week or the season of the year. Nevertheless, because I tell myself that I am bound by my fate, driven by the laws and customs of my fathers, I feel that I am free from that moral and ethical consideration. I can look the other way when passing that afflicted man, for this day happens to be the Sabbath. Indeed, not only am I free to do that, I am better because I do that, for is it not better to be scrupulous in adhering to the law? Is it not better to be absolute even to the point of being outwardly fastidious? Surely, I may not have many friends if I am this exacting with the laws and the customs, but like an unmoved rock my superiority in all such affairs will stand the test of time. And, anyway, why would I want to have friends who are less exacting than I am? If in the end I am an unmoved rock in hell, forever cutting myself off from everyone else because I know in my heart that they are all less scrupulous and exacting than I am, then at least I can say that I am still that unmoved rock. I remain convinced of my freedom from basic human decency which, I believe, has allowed me to remain forever superior to the unwashed masses out there who are cutting corners or fudging lines. The fact that in indulging that supposed freedom I am becoming a slave to hell is an irony that is entirely lost to me, until it is too late.
In today’s Gospel, Christ Jesus is dining in the house of one of the chief Pharisees. All the most important professionals in the local community are there: the lawyers, the businessmen, even the gladhanding politicians with their staff in tow. In our world, this would be a cocktail party in Beverly Hills or Bel Air where the political and cultural establishment is in full display. The many movers and shakers hovering like well-dressed gnats around the foie gras and cheese are really not movers and shakers at all. They are there precisely because they do not rock the boat. They do not move or shake much of anything. Instead, they are just busybody pillars of the old guard. They are respected precisely because they are unremarkable and unthreatening. They give one another accolades in honor of the years they have spent in keeping each other tightly secured inside their respective political and cultural straightjackets. Now, imagine a man with a dropsy, a physical disfigurement, shows up uninvited at this cocktail party. Imagine that he manages to get passed the security and to approach the guest of honor. Imagine that, in front of everyone, he gets that man’s attention, and that man responds to him. The music, the chatter, the laughs, the smarmy innuendos, all the life of that party suddenly and dramatically stops. All eyes are on the guest of honor and the disfigured man. It is like time itself has been stopped in its tracks. In that one moment, fate has been pushed back, and the laws and the customs of the fathers can be seen in proper perspective. We see that we are not really as overwhelmed by time as we like to imagine. We can stop to smell the roses, or in this case to take notice of an afflicted man and to do what the situation demands regardless of the fact that it happens to be the Sabbath. We are responsible for our decisions, and with God’s grace we can choose to do what is right in the moment, even when that choice runs contrary to the local political and cultural establishment.
What would we do in that circumstance? If given a chance to do what is right, even when that means rocking the boat of those whose opinions normally matter the most to us, will we act in a decisive manner like Our Lord acts on behalf of the disfigured man? Will we help a stranger, if that means incurring the wrath of our family, friends, and respected peers? Christ Jesus points out that the Pharisees are hypocrites. They will not help this stranger because it is the Sabbath, but they would be willing to pull an ass or an ox out of a pit on the Sabbath. Presumably, while the stranger has no value in their eyes, the ass or the ox has considerable economic value, and so for the sake of financial self-interest the Pharisees will make an exception to their fastidious adherence to the law. The Pharisees are hypocrites because, in the end, what really matters to them is not the observance of the Sabbath, but rather the extent to which they can appear ever so sanctimonious before their peers. What matters to them is not the law but publicly shaming someone else for violating the law. Christ Jesus puts all this showy sanctimony in the crosshairs with his parable about the wedding guest taking the front row seat. It is easy enough to cast the Pharisees as villains. The real question is: Can we see ourselves in those same Pharisees? Let us say we act decisively on behalf of someone in need, even to the point of incurring the wrath of our peers. If we act decisively because we are motivated by the same showy sanctimony as had motivated the Pharisees to do nothing, then are we really any better than them? I suppose it is better to help than not to help, but if we are motivated by showy sanctimony, the pride of our own supposed righteousness, then we are as guilty as the discredited Pharisees in going first for the front row seats at the wedding. The message is clear enough: If as Christians we are in this world but not of this world, then being motivated by showy sanctimony actually works against our growth in the faith. We are putting the esteem we may get from our own peers above the mercy we may get from God. In essence, we are hedging our bets. If God does not pull through for us, then perhaps our own peers will make the difference by glorifying us and our children’s children for the public acclaim we fostered for ourselves. It really does not matter what we do, or what we fastidiously refrain from doing. If showy sanctimony and widespread public acclaim are the raison d’etre, then we are building for ourselves a prison cell in hell, not a home in the Father’s Kingdom. Pray, brethren, that we may avoid this temptation. Pray for the grace which may allow for us to be concerned only with how God views us and to set aside as increasingly irrelevant the views of our fellow fallen men. God is biased for us. Let us learn to be biased for Him. Let us act decisively, but also selflessly, for this is how we may learn to be God’s children.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.