Distance – Jett Villarin, SJ

Luke 14:2, 7-14, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Inverse-distance-squared. This pretty much describes the interaction between two objects in our physical world. This holds for gravity, electricity, and can even be extended to romantic intimacy. The strength of the interaction between objects depends on the reciprocal of the square of the distance between them.

In English, the farther two things are from each other, the weaker the interaction. The nearer, the stronger.

The two Gospel stories today are about distance. In the first, Jesus cautions us against occupying seats of honor in parties lest someone more important, of greater stature, come in and be ushered to take our seat. That would be awkward for us who would then be asked to leave our premium class seat and “take the lowest place” in the room.

The lowest place in the room is usually the farthest from the host. If you’ve been to banquets, the so-called presidential table is the one with seats closest to the host. The honor attached to these high places is usually proportional to the inverse-distance-squared from the host. In English, the farther you are from the host, the lower your place in this ballroom of humanity.

Even politicians know this all too well. As they say in business as well as in politics, location is everything. One’s proximity to the seat of power is vital. This is why you will always see a constant stream of characters constellating around powerful people.

And so we (including priests who are used to taking seats at the presidential table and being first in the queue for food) are cautioned by our Lord not to be presumptuous about our place on earth. We can be so preoccupied with status, with promotion or demotion, with our proximity to power or paradise or whatever, when the only status that matters really is the measure of our distance from God and from our neighbor.

In other words, in English, in the eyes of God, rank is irrelevant. Rank, of the human and worldly kind, counts for little in the sight of heaven. Not only is position or place transient, it can even be reversible. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The second story counsels us to be magnanimous in inviting certain people to our party. We are told not to favor those who can return the favor, not our friends or family or wealthy neighbor. We are to invite instead those at the margins, those who cannot repay us, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

By their inability to repay us, we are blessed. Our repayment may never come from human favor or wealth or power but it will come from the very hand of God, which in the end is all that matters.

This story is also about distance. It cautions us not to be presumptuous about what is central and peripheral to God. We can so occupy ourselves with the holy and atmospheric things of heaven that we forget how our nearness to him is better measured by our distance from those who subsist at the peripheries of society, the people who are close to God.

In other words, in the eyes of God, the margins and the marginal are relevant. They may count for little in the sight of the world. Not so in the judgment of our Lord whose face and voice we discern from those who cannot reciprocate our kindness and generosity.

From both stories we learn the meaning of true humility and magnanimity. We discover that our true place (or rank or worth) does not depend on our proximity to wealth or fame or power. And we can be magnanimous in letting those at the margins into our lives, knowing that reciprocity is God’s and what is distant to the world may not be so to God.

Indeed, the strength of our happiness on earth (as it may be in heaven) seems to vary as the inverse of our distance to God and his people squared.

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