We are all equal in dignity before God

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

On a flight from Johannesburg, a middle-aged, well-off white South African Lady had found herself sitting next to a black man. She called the cabin crew attendant over to complain about her seating. “What seems to be the problem Madam?” asked the attendant.

“Can’t you see?” she said. “You’ve sat me next to a kaffir. I can’t possibly sit next to this disgusting human. Find me another seat!” “Please calm down Madam.” the stewardess replied. “The flight is very full today, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do- I’ll go and check to see if we have any seats available in club or first class.” The woman cocks a snooty look at the outraged black man beside her (not to mention at many of the surrounding passengers also).

A few minutes later the stewardess returns with the good news, which she delivers to the lady, who cannot help but look at the people around her with a smug and self satisfied grin: “Madam, unfortunately, as I suspected, economy is full. I’ve spoken to the cabin services director, and club is also full. However, we do have one seat in first class”.

Before the lady has a chance to answer, the stewardess continues, “It is most extraordinary to make this kind of upgrade, however, and I have had to get special permission from the captain. But, given the circumstances, the captain felt that it was outrageous that someone be forced to sit next to such an obnoxious person.” With which, she turned to the black man sitting next to her, and said: “So if you’d like to get your things, sir, I have your seat ready for you in first class up at the front...” At which point, apparently the surrounding passengers stood and gave a standing ovation while the black guy walks up to first class in the front of the plane.
(Unfortunately I do not know the source of this story.)

We are all shocked at the prejudice of that white South African lady, we feel sorry for the insulted man and we can identify with the other passengers who applauded the stewardess for moving the man up to first class. We see similar prejudice in today’s Gospel (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus told his fellow Jews about two times in history when God intervened to help non-Jews and foreigners (Luke 4:25-27). During the ministry of the prophet Elijah there was a famine. God instructed Elijah to go to Zarephath in Sidonia outside of Israel, and there he met a widow whom he asked for food. She had only enough meal left in a jar for one meal and then she and her son would die. Nevertheless she fed Elijah and her jar of meal and jug of oil did not run out (1 Kings 17). Jesus then gives a second example. The prophet Elisha succeeded Elijah. There were many lepers in Israel at that time but they were not cured. Naaman, a foreigner, came to Israel seeking healing for his leprosy. Elisha told him to bathe in the river Jordan seven times and he was healed (2 Kings 5). This was too much for those listening to Jesus so they tried to kill him. By the time of Jesus Judaism had almost become what we could say was “a closed group”, Jews looked down on those who were not Jews. Others were inferior, they were superior. Jesus challenged that thinking.

What has this got to do with ourselves? We can also ask ourselves, “Do we look down on others? Do we consider others inferior?” The Jews were blind to foreigners being favored by God but that did not mean the foreigners had not been favored by God. The foreigners were cherished by God even though the Jews were too blind to see that. Are we blind to God’s love for others? It is our attitude to others that is put under the microscope in the Gospel today. If we do not have a Christian attitude to others, regarding all as equal in dignity before God, we are asked to heal that distorted attitude. We are all equal members of God’s family. That’s good to remember because there are so many divisions in society, so many boundaries, and it is good to know that with God there are no divisions or boundaries between us, we are all members of his one big family of God. It is good to bear this in mind with so many unchristian things being said about refugees and asylum seekers. The society you left as you entered the door of this church was not perfect. But here in the church you are just as precious as the person next to you, behind you or before you. There are no ‘blow-ins’ in the Church, we are all adopted sons and daughters of God. We all receive the same Eucharist, we all receive the same Lord.

Having an unhealthy attitude towards others is, I think, only the symptom of the problem. The problem is one layer deeper. The problem is forgetting that we, as baptized, are all equal in dignity before God, forgetting that Jesus died to save each one of us here, that Jesus died to save the person next to you, behind you and before you. If we look on others from that perspective how different they seem! Try thinking about others in this way. It will help to heal attitude problems. The ideal way to relate to others is given to us in our second reading,

“Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.” (1 Cor 13:4-7)

Reading that beautiful description of love we have to admit we fall down badly often. We can see how well or badly we fare with regard to that description of love by omitting the word love from the reading and putting in our own name. Put in your own name now in the pauses instead of the word love.

... is always patient and kind; ... is never jealous; ... is never boastful or conceited; ... is never rude or selfish; ... does not take offence, and is not resentful. ... takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; ... is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

Reading in that way shows us how much we fail to love because sometimes we’re not patient and kind, sometimes we are jealous, sometimes we are boastful and conceited, sometimes we are rude and selfish, sometimes we do take offence and are resentful, sometimes we don’t always excuse, trust, hope or endure what comes. And you say sometimes that you have no sins!

The white South African lady did not show love and we were shocked. But that was a very pronounced example. We are all guilty of not showing love or maybe even of looking down on others in more subtle ways. Do not forget that since baptism we all equal sons and daughters of God our Father, we all receive the same Lord in the Eucharist. Can we heal our unhealthy attitudes towards others and try to love them?

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Fourth Sunday Year C

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Today’s Gospel in the context of Luke