On Living Upside Down
(Sir.3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb.12:18-19, 22-24a; 11-13; Lk.13:1, 7-14)
I once commented to a friend that it’s a radical thing to live as a Christian today, but she just laughed. ‘That can’t be,’ she replied, ‘Christians are conservative!’ So I had to explain.
It’s true that many Christians do live quiet, unassuming lives, but it needs to be said: to live as Jesus wants us to live is to seriously challenge the status quo.
Through his life, his words and his death and resurrection, Jesus deeply challenges the way our world thinks. He doesn’t try to foment popular rebellion, because he’s apolitical. But he does emphasise the kingdom of God over the obsessions of man, and he does espouse moral values that confront many people. He speaks against hypocrisy (Mt.7:1-5) and adultery (Mt.5:28), and he tells us to love our neighbour, even when they hate us (Mt.5:43-44).
He tells us to turn the other cheek (Mt.5:39) and not to worry because God will provide (Jn.15:7). He tells the rich young man to give everything to the poor and to come follow him (Mk.10:17-27). And he says it’s not the rich, the powerful and the famous who are the greatest, but the least among us (Lk.9:48).
These ideas are counter-cultural. Indeed, they’re revolutionary!
In today’s Gospel, a leading Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. Why? So he can keep a close eye on Jesus; he wants to witness him making mistakes. But Jesus isn’t afraid. He wants everyone to discover the love and mercy of God – even the rich and the powerful.
Now, these Pharisees have strict rules about what people can and can’t do; they have a strong sense of honour and shame. They’re always seeking public honour and they work hard to avoid shame. To them, pride is everything.
So it’s not surprising that when the banquet starts, Jesus notices the guests scrambling for the best seats at the table, close to the most important people.
Jesus isn’t particularly interested in the meal; he’s more interested in the guests, so he says to them that when you grab a seat that’s not yours you risk being embarrassed if the host asks you to move. It’s better, he says, to wait until you’re asked to sit down, because then you might be offered a good spot.
The Pharisees feel offended, but Jesus goes on to say something more: ‘Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’.
He said something similar in last week’s Gospel: ‘There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last’ (Lk.13:30).
This isn’t the way the Pharisees thought back then, and it’s not the way people tend to think today. Most people want to be at the top of the ladder, not the bottom. They don’t like putting themselves last, either for God or for their neighbour.
In his book The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen says that our lives in our highly competitive society are characterised by a universal drive for upward mobility. Our whole way of life is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it to the top. Our very sense of vitality, he says, depends on being part of this upward pull and on the joy we get from the rewards on the way up. [i]
Jesus, however, sees things very differently. He says it’s better to be downwardly mobile. That’s why he came as a baby in a manger rather than as a king in a castle. That’s why he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, rather than on a war-horse. And that’s why he spent time helping the poor, the sick and the marginalised, rather than partying with the Pharisees
Something that makes saints special is the way they see the world from God’s point of view. They see it the way it’s supposed to be: upside down, with the poor at the top and the rich and the powerful at the bottom. This upside down is actually the right way up.
That’s why St Francis of Assisi gave up his father’s wealth and lived a life of poverty and service. 800 years later he’s still doing good work.
That’s why Mother Teresa refused to accept a huge dinner to celebrate her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Instead, she asked the organisers to give her the $10,000 to feed the poor in India. They did.
When the Apostle Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica to teach the people about Jesus, the locals said, ‘These men are turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6).
That’s what Jesus is asking us to do.
He wants us to turn 180° and change the way we live.
[i] Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY. 2007:23.