Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14
(From the mass for Tuesday of the Thirty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time, year II.)
I have looked at this passage many times in the last few days. At first I looked at it from the point of view of someone who was giving a banquet, and trying to discern how I could invite the “poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” The passage itself is so obviously a call to the kind of selfless generosity that gives recklessly to those who can never repay, that it seems self-evident that that is how we should read it. It may seem challenging, but not particularly complicated, or even all that revolutionary to someone born and raised Catholic. Sure, we don’t always live it, but we can’t pretend we haven’t heard it before.
But then, when I began applying it imaginatively to different scenarios in my life, a curious thing started happening. I started turning it around and looking at it from the point of view of the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame. Oddly enough, I found the passage ten times more challenging when I did.
Have you ever met one of those annoying people who has it all together? The sort of person who has no issues, no brokenness, no strange, hidden past, no sins to be ashamed of, and who consequently is just overflowing all the time with charity and good-will for their fellow man? C. S. Lewis described that person by saying, “She’s the sort of person who lives for others. You can tell the others by their hunted expression.”
Some people are like that, you know? And God bless them, they do all sorts of good things in this world, from giving the most correct advice, to making sure the altar linen isn’t crooked, to managing the lives and fortunes of less collected people. All for their own good no doubt.
Why is it that we so universally hate such people?
In reading the passage above, my first instinct was to see myself as the person with a lot to give, who can afford to give and give to people who can never pay me back, and not mind at all the inequality of our positions. In some senses this is true. I have a job that pays much and a lifestyle that costs little, so I have many dollars to spare. Money also doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me. I can spend it on other people and to me it means nothing. To the people I spend it on, though, it can sometimes be a bit irritating.
When I applied this passage to another area in which I was trying to give selflessly to people who can’t repay, I started to listen to them and to see that I really am a bit of an ass, when viewed from their point of view. And when I put myself in their shoes I agreed that, yes, I would be hesitant and irritated to accept as well.
Why? Why is it so easy to give, selflessly and even thoughtlessly, when someone you love needs something that you have? And why is it so hard to receive thoughtlessly or gratefully when someone else offers you something that they have and you need? I don’t care what it is, whether it is a shoulder to cry on, a plane ticket to see a sick grandmother, forgiveness of past sins, a party, a car, new clothes, even something as simple as a cup of water that you could have gotten yourself. Why is it so easy to offer, and so hard to accept? Why is the greatest tension in relationships of any kind (if I my trust my own experience) not when one asks a favor of the other, but when one is asked to accept a favor from the other?
I don’t know the answer. Not to put it in any succinct, pithy formula. The rest of this post will never find itself on the inside of a Hallmark card.
Is it love? Do we really not want to trouble the beloved? Let’s talk about changing a diaper, for a second. I have changed many, many, many diapers in my life. No baby that I have ever met has ever had any hesitation in making known the need for a clean diaper, and I have never minded changing them. The baby doesn’t care if I am inconvenienced and neither do I, so we get along fairly amicably. But what happens when it is a relationship between adults? Am I the only one that has been invited over to someone’s house as a guest, and been terribly thirsty, but unwilling to ask for a drink of water because I didn’t want to “inconvenience” my host? I might be alone in that experience, but it happens to me all the time. I would rather go thirsty than ask for a drink of water.
But is that love? When I am host, do I resent it or even consider it an inconvenience to be asked for a drink? No. It is a delight to me. It is a joy to be able to serve and I love the people who ask because it gives me an opportunity to serve. When someone makes their need known to me it helps me to know how to serve them better. Why then is it so difficult to reverse that and make my needs known to others?
Is it shame? Do I really think that other people are the way they appear, unblemished, unwounded, unscarred? I have been around a lot, I have seen and spoken to a lot of people, I have suffered and seen others suffering, and if there is one thing I ought to know, it is that everyone is broken. Everyone. To include Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II (not anymore, naturally, but when they were alive.) Even the holiest priest I have ever known in my life, the man I consider to be a true father in the faith to me, even he was broken and wounded and scarred. I know this. Do I really think that the people who seem to have it all together really do? In the times when I seem to have it all together I know better. I know that I am simply being available to God. Like a glove, I am useful only when I have a living hand animating my being. Otherwise I am just a worn-out leather shell, insensible, immobile, useless.
Is it fear? Am I afraid of being turned down? When I was a kid I had a deep, irrational fear that if my parents knew I wanted something or if I showed any excitement about an event that was coming up, I wouldn’t get it or it wouldn’t happen. I don’t know where that came from and it certainly wasn’t true, but I remember endless plots to trick my younger brothers and sister into asking for things for me, so I wouldn’t have to expose myself. I don’t think that fear is totally alien to other people, either. It is in my prayer life when I don’t want to ask God for what I really want, but prefer to pretend that I don’t want anything but some vague, nebulous thing called, “Thy Will.” If you never desire you can never be disappointed. On the other hand, if you have no will of your own, how can you surrender that will to God’s Will? And you can see a similar dynamic in the language of young people. For example, “Hey, I was just doing nothing on facebook, and I saw something on my feed that reminded me of you, and I thought, hey, we should probably hang out sometime, if you don’t have anything going on. Completely fine if you do. Totally random, right?” Not true at all. Not random, and not even close to fine. Who is not disappointed when they try to make time for someone and the other cannot or will not reciprocate? We just cannot admit that we would be disappointed. There might be a good reason for not admitting it to the other, i.e. it is never fair to pressure someone into any gesture of love, and you don’t want them to feel badly if they legitimately have a reason why they can’t make it. But the reason we don’t admit it to ourselves is because if we never really desired, we can never really be disappointed.
Is it simply pride? Ugly, old-fashioned, no-nonsense pride? Maybe. I mean, who really wants to be seen as the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame? Not me! I would much rather be the rich guy who liberally bestows wealth out of my inexhaustible supply and meanwhile builds up a modestly positive balance in the golden ledger upstairs. Peter did the same thing, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” Ironically asserting his independence from the only One who really has anything to give at all.
The one thing I am certain of at the tail end of this somewhat uncollected post is that relationships, society and salvation depend upon dependence. We must get past whatever it is that keeps us from seeing ourselves as poor, maimed, blind and lame, and desperately in need of gifts which we can never repay.
Because, of course, that is precisely what we are.
Part II will be up tomorrow.