There is, the Bible tells us, no way to describe literally what heaven is actually like, but several poetic images are traditional. One is a ‘court’ with God enthroned like a king, and angels and people, gathered around delighted to be part. Another is a great feast or a party which may include dancing. We have examples of both in the readings today.
Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
This book is not found in the Hebrew Bible, and is one of the Deuterocanonical [‘Second Canon’] books from the Greek versions. (In Protestant Bibles, it may be omitted or listed as ‘Apocrypha’.) The name ‘Sirach’ comes from the Greek and used in some modern Bibles. ‘Ecclesiasticus’ is the Latin title. The author, Jesus Ben Sira, was a well-educated Jew living in the Greek-speaking Roman Empire. He wrote for other Jews in the Diaspora in the style of Wisdom books of the Old Testament, stressing how Jewish wisdom was superior to the Hellenistic ideas they found around them.
The verses selected for today’s Gospel are typical of Wisdom books, written as if a father teaching a child. Pride in learning or in knowing the ‘mysteries’ of knowledge was common among the Hellenistic writers, but pride can be found anywhere, and the Hebrew book of Proverbs also has many counsels on humility. Ben Sira sees it as a block to relationship with God and thus producing ‘evil’. Humility, on the other hand, acknowledges our status as creatures who receive all we have through gift of God. As a more practical point, he says acting humbly improves our relationship with other people.
Psalm 67/68: 4-7, 10-11
Dancing before ‘the presence of God’ is not typical of modern British liturgies, but may be part of celebrating mass in other places of the world. Various texts in the Old Testament suggest it was part of Hebrew worship but later in recent centuries was seen as too undignified for worship. While we may not want dance in our churches, we can take it as a metaphor of happy celebration. The texts might be a challenge to those who go to mass ‘as a duty’ and something to get over quickly. This reading suggest that joy in the presence of God’s words and the Eucharist should be part of our worship.
The verses on the orphan, widow, the lonely and the poor prepare us for Jesus words in the Gospel.
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24
This is the last of our selections from the Letter to the Hebrews and is a fitting, even lyrical, climax. The anonymous author draws on two images from the Old Testament to encourage his readers about the future they will receive, also suggesting they have a foretaste of this in present life when they have the faith and trust he has called for in the previous readings. What God has prepared for the faithful is beyond our present understanding, as Jesus points out in the gospels. Symbolic language can be one way to reach towards this idea.
The first comparison is to what they are not going to see: a frightening manifestation of God. The imagery comes from the time in the Exodus from Egypt when the Hebrews in their desert wanderings camped at Mount Sinai. There they were terrified when God’s presence on the mountaintop was shown in dark clouds, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, smoke and fire – all things we now associate with volcanic eruptions which people today still find threatening. (For a description of the Hebrews’ experience see Exodus 19:12-13, 16-18; 20:18-21.)
In contrast, the author takes the imagery of a festival, like the Passover celebrated in Jerusalem. (Jesus’ journey which are following in Luke’s gospel was to towards Jerusalem in time of the Passover.) It was always a joyous occasion for the Jews, a gathering of family and temple rituals. But for Christians in the future, the celebration with be greater, even more joyous, taking in all of us as ‘the family of God’ with angels and all the saints. The ‘first born son’ inherited the greatest portion in Jewish practice but in heaven all share the fullness of God’s inheritance.
The image of God as ‘supreme Judge’ is not necessarily an encouraging one in our times when we think of judges exclusively in terms of court trials and passing sentence on the convicted. The word the Hebrews used, however, meant charismatic leaders who delivered the people from oppression and protected them in their daily lives. (The Old Testament book called ‘Judges’ tells of various such heroes in the days before the Jewish monarchy.)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Some events Luke has on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem are loosely connected to that travel, and probably taken from various episodes in his sources. Jesus is several times shown at a party, and Luke here describes one hosted by a Pharisee, a group often hostile to Jesus. The first line of our reading hints that the host and his guests were observing Jesus with at least some suspicion, maybe even hoping to entrap him. He seems aware of this, for he gives four challenges to the host and the others present. The first and fourth are omitted in the liturgy (Luke 14: 2-6, 15-24).
The second challenge is to the guests who are seen trying to get the most honoured seats at this apparently lavish dinner party. Jesus’ words might sound worldly or even cynical: if you want to be honoured, better to wait for the host to invite you, or you risk being shamed. Although it sounds like advice on how best to assure the prestige you want, Luke tells us that Jesus is speaking in a parable. What neither Luke nor Jesus do here, however, is to point up the meaning of the parable. We are left to draw the conclusion as how to behave morally. Putting ourselves first and ignoring (or disdaining) others does not get the ‘highest place’ in God’s kingdom.
Jesus next speaks to the host, who as a Pharisee, would have distanced himself from those who do not live by the most minute rules of the Law, which for those most unfortunate, were too detailed to observe in ordinary life. Jesus, however, feels there is more honour in caring for the needy. There is a little irony too in his words: when you entertain in the hope of being asked in turn to parties, the best you will get is another dinner! When you care for the poor, crippled, the lame, the blind, your repayment is far greater and everlasting – like the symbol of the heavenly celebration the author of Hebrews described.
Nicholas King, in his commentary on Luke-Acts, after each section asks his readers a question to reflect on. Noting how Jesus was a challenging guest at this party with criticism and advice for both host and guests, King asks, ‘Would you invite Jesus to a dinner party?’ I have another question to ask myself: how often – or ever! do I invite those on Jesus’ list when I entertain?