Soup Soul, Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, Holy Apostles Church, New York City, USA.
[Jesus said] Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… Luke 14:13
A new book has just been published, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, by British author Tom Holland. He has some startling observations to make about how Christianity contains two deeply radical concepts which have shaped western civilization right to the present time. One, from Jewish roots, that God created us in the divine image, hence every human being has an inherent, unassailable human dignity, and the other from the Lord himself, that the lowest of the low enjoy a potential relationship which is closer to God that any king or pope. Jesus suffering the death of a common criminal in the most downtrodden, brutally disgusting way, yet emerging as savior of the world rocks the foundations of all philosophies which went before. There is a logic therefore in the development of the idea that every human being has rights which are unassailable. This foundational ideal springs directly from Scripture and (possibly unknowingly) is supported by people who would shudder at being called Christian. It could be said that even secularism, buoyed by belief in the welfare state, equal rights, individual human dignity, springs from this Christian ethic. The welfare state, care for the downtrodden, care for the sick, old age pensions, all these concepts spring from a deep-rooted belief in the dignity of the human person. Although we dislike paying the taxes which underpin all these ideals, it is unthinkable that people would be allowed to die in the street from lack of those services just mentioned. And where does such concern come from? Holland would say that they come from the Judeo-Christian ideals of human dignity and the need to care for each other, high-born or low.
Jesus’ radical command in today’s gospel feeds right into this concern which he taught us. Those among us with nothing, quite often through no fault of their own (poor education, weak health, little economic opportunity, etc.), are the responsibility of us all. Somehow we have to invite them to the table of dignity, greater opportunity, adult education – whatever it might be, to acknowledge that their human dignity demands such help. We with greater resources must on some level help those with less. It is our Christian – indeed human – responsibility. And it clearly aligns with Jesus’ teaching, crystal clear in today’s gospel.
As a retired teacher, I see Jesus’ teaching today through my teacher’s eyes. I once worked in a Jesuit school in Washington DC. It was (and remains) very successful, with many more applying for places than are available. It is expensive to go there, but a good fifth of the students were granted substantial scholarships, some of them 100%. One student I remember especially. His family lived in one of the worst areas of the city. He was on a 100% scholarship. His father had vanished years before. His mother had MS. They were devout Catholics, even with holy pictures pinned (literally) to the walls. They had, essentially, nothing. He is now a professor of law at a leading university in the Midwest. I think that is what Jesus is talking about today. That student was invited to feast at the table of learning, respect, discovery, growth and development, and blossomed magnificently. And the money for such scholarships? It comes from the generosity of the alumni, most of whose parents could afford full tuitions. They see the truth at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, and recognize, accept and act on their own duty to help those with nothing. Both groups are all children of God, and must be treated as such. And this isn’t pinko liberalism; it is the heart of the Christian message, that we are all brothers and sisters under God, one great family. And family is what counts.
United Nations Flag Mural, University of Michigan, Dearborn, Michigan, USA.