The following is my homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.
A number of years ago there was a cop drama on TV that my mom and I used to watch. Unlike Law and Order or CSI, this show didn’t focus on police officers and prosecutors using the law to catch “bad guys,” but rather on a mysterious vigilante that helped people with impossible situations. When the law had failed them, he would fix their problem by “creative” means. Unfortunately, there was a catch. In order to accept his services, people either had to pay him a million dollars or owe him an undetermined favor in the future. Talk about a quid pro quo! People were happy to have their problems disappear, but invariably lived in fear of what they might owe the vigilante.
While this is a fairly extreme case (and hardly the type of show designed for a 3rd grader!), I think we can probably relate to the concept of such exchanges fairly easily. We live in a fairly transactional society. A few years ago, a friend of mine wanted a small wedding with just some close friends and family. This was not possible. Her mother stepped in and said, “Oh no, you have to invite your cousin Johnny, he invited you to his wedding” and “We need another invite for my friend Paula. She used to babysit you and she’s been so good to the family.” Her “small” wedding had over 200 guests.
Maybe you’ve been on the other side of this. You really put yourself out there, help someone move or wake up at 2 in the morning to bail someone out of jail. You know… And so the next time you’re moving, the next time you’re in jail at 2 in the morning… you expect them to help you. I was there when you needed me, now you owe me!
Even at Christmas, what do we do? We ask our friends and family members if they want to “exchange gifts.” I’ll give you something if you give me something.
My suspicion is that most of our interactions work this way. It doesn’t mean that we’re not generous, but it does mean we live largely with a transactional mentality. We like fairness, and so we feel guilty when someone gives us something and feel cheated when someone doesn’t give us something back.
This is quite different from what Jesus tells us today. What does he say in our Gospel? “When you hold a banquet, do not invite your friends, brothers, wealthy neighbors.” Why? Because they may be able to invite you back. They may be able to repay you. And if they can repay you, you might be tempted to do it simply to get repaid. “Instead, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and the blind”—invite those who have absolutely nothing, who never get invited to parties, who are ridiculed by others—because they will never be able to repay you, because your act of hosting people in this situation will truly be a gift.
What Jesus is getting at here is the selflessness of love. A true gift is something that is freely given, without any promptings or reservations, no strings attached, completely for the sake of showing love. As an act of love, it is an end in itself. It doesn’t need anything in return. How can it? Gifts are given simply because we have something we want to share. I imagine the idea of exchanging gifts at Christmas would seem like an oxymoron to Jesus! How do you exchange something that is freely given out of one’s generosity? No, a true gift does not need anything in return.
The reason that I believe Jesus tells us this parable is to show how God loves us. God created us, gave up his life, animates us with the Spirit. He gives us the sacraments, chiefly the Eucharist. He does this, not as an exchange, not a transaction, but as a free gift. We have done nothing to earn any of this, we can do nothing to pay God back. In God’s court, we are the poor, crippled, lame, blind. We’re useless—we sin, we have no idea what we’re doing in life, have nothing to offer in return, and certainly don’t belong.
But he invites us anyway. He invites us, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. It is an act of love because it is something that we cannot earn.
The opposite is true as well. As an act of love, a true gift, is something that we cannot lose. No sin, no disobedience, no wrong decision could ever force God to stop loving us, could make God take back what he offers, because his gift is not dependent on who we are or what we do. Sure, we may turn away ourselves, we may refuse to accept it, ut God gives us these gifts to us not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Even if we turn away, even if we remove ourselves from God’s grace, God will continue to follow us, continue to invite us, continue to prepare a place in his home.
How amazing is this? Take a moment, and just let that sink in. In a world so dependent on performance… in a world where everything is an exchange—you do this for me, I’ll do that for you—our God loves us… no matter what. Maybe that makes you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you don’t know how to respond. Nothing is free in life, right? There must be a catch! How can I get such an amazing gift and not do something in return? Surely… there have to be strings attached!
Truly, there is only one thing we can do: Be thankful. Accept the gifts that he has offered us with a thankful heart. Enter completely into this liturgy, singing with full voice, listening attentively to the prayers, praying like your life depends on it. We gather together at this table, not just to receive, but to give thanks. That is what eucharist means—thanksgiving. Be thankful for what God does in your life, be thankful for the person sitting to your right and to your left, be thankful that you live in a country with freedom of religion and press and protest. Be thankful, recognizing that it need not be this way. We do not deserve any of this, but receive it as gift.
And then, with a heart overflowing with grace and thanksgiving, pass it on: Do the same for others.
Give gifts that cannot be repaid. Love those who cannot return the favor. Act selflessly, giving to others not because of who they are, not because of who you are, but because of how God has already loved you. Invite the poor, crippled, lame, and the blind to your house, to this house; eat a meal with those who are outcasts of society, those who cannot repay you because they can’t even take care of themselves.
When we look at this from the perspective of the world, it seems crazy. My guess is there are more people who would be willing to owe an enormous favor to a mysterious vigilante after he fixes our problem than there are who think that inviting the poor into their homes is a good idea. As ridiculous as that crime show was, it at least made sense to the world: you give me something, so I give you something.
But that’s not the way God works. It’s not the way of our faith. God gives without counting the cost. We are filled with abundance for doing absolutely nothing.
What can we do but do the same for others?