Saturday, August 31, 2013

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

If someone were to ask you to describe you relationship with your spouse, your best friend, or one of your parents, what would you say? A marriage counselor once posed this question to a couples group he was working with and was disturbed to hear one husband describe his wife only in terms of what she did for him- namely, keep the house neat and him well fed. Hoping to get this man to reconsider his definition, the counselor asked the other husbands to share how they understood their wives. To his shock, they all said pretty much the same thing, describing their wives in reference to themselves and what their wives did for them. It’s no wonder, the counselor concluded, that they all had troubled marriages.

To understand other people only in terms of what they can do for us is certainly selfish, to say the least. But more than that, it puts us on a proverbial "slippery slope." Because when we think this way, then those people who can’t do anything for us are, in our mind, worthless and valueless. And when something- or someone- has no value, what’s the point of keeping it around? It’s easier just to get rid of it.

You may remember a scene from the film "Life is Beautiful," which won the "Best Picture" Oscar a few years ago. Roberto Benini, playing the lead character, is serving as a waiter at an opulent banquet. At one table surrounded with elegantly dressed diners, he overhears one woman describe a math problem recently assigned in the local schools. The problem concerned calculating how much the state government could save if it no longer had to pay for hospitals and other services for the disabled and handicapped. To his horror, Benini’s character could read the handwriting on the wall. The government was trying to instill in young minds the belief that a person’s value is based simply on what they can contribute to society and their physical or mental health. As you may know, these beliefs shaped the Nazi practice of "eugenics"- the creation of a "master race" by eliminating those who didn’t meet their criteria of racial and physical perfection.

Thankfully, the whole premise of eugenics horrifies us today. However, traces of this insidious philosophy can sadly be found in contemporary American thinking. For instance, racism is a sin that still infects our culture. Also, many Americans place an unrealistic value on physical perfection, and we make critical decisions based on a person’s perceived "quality of life." We see this mindset among those who defend euthanasia of the elderly, the abortion of children who may be born sick or handicapped, and the trend toward the creation of so-called "designer babies" through sperm and egg donation, genetic manipulation, or even cloning. We see it in political policies that ignore the needs of the poorest, weakest, and most vulnerable in our nation. We see it in those institutions that don’t make the effort to be accessible to persons with disabilities. And we see it in the real fear that DNA screening may one day be used to deny employment or insurance to those who have a predisposition to certain illness, as such people are understood to present an unacceptable financial risk.

Jesus challenges this mindset in today’s gospel. The well to do of his day- in this case, the scribes and the Pharisees- would extend dinner invitations to others with the full expectation that they would later be repaid. In effect, they created their guest lists by asking: "What’s in it for me?" That’s how they maintained their social status. If a person accepted a dinner invitation, he or she had to return the favor. Not to do so was a disgrace, a dishonor. Therefore, no one ever considered inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, or the blind to their banquets. Because they couldn’t reciprocate or repay, they were considered to be dishonorable, and worthless.

Yet these are exactly the people Jesus says should be invited to dinner, precisely because they aren’t able to return the favor. In effect, Jesus is saying that in God’s eyes they are honorable people worthy of respect and love. In other words, those whom God considers to be worthy and valuable are not always the same people the world considers to be worthy and valuable. You see, God values people not because of what they can do, how much they have, what they look like, or their physical or mental health. Instead, God values all people because of who they are. When God looks upon you or me or any other person, he sees something that other people often miss: in each one of us, God sees a reflection of himself, because we are made in his image and likeness, and everything God makes is good.

Today, Jesus invites each one of us to see his Father’s face and discern his very presence in those people whom our society frequently de-values or neglects, and who are so often dismissed, patronized, or ignored: The poor and the homeless; the frail, lonely elderly; prisoners in jail; immigrants and refugees; the physically handicapped; the mentally challenged; and those of races, cultures, and religions different from our own. All of them, Jesus tells us, are worthy of our love and respect; all of them, he assures us, have a right to life; and all of them, we learn from the cross, are of immense value, because Jesus bought them with a price. The truth is, God created every person for a purpose; every person has a role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan; and every Christian person has a unique and indispensable membership in the one Body of Christ.

It’s as the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote: "It is with awe that we should conduct all our dealings with one another… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Next to the Blessed Sacrament, the human being is the most precious thing that God presents to our senses."

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