September 1, 2019
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
(Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Luke 14:1, 7-14)
On a typical morning, most of us rise from our beds and shuffle into the bathroom.
It’s our first stop of the day.
Invariably, we’ll spend at least a few minutes glaring at ourselves in the mirror. It’s not usually a pretty sight, given what bed does to our hair and what minimal clothing can do to highlight our various body bulges and skin imperfections. Add to that some puffy eyes, a nick from shaving and a little toothpaste dribbling out the side of the mouth — well, it’s enough to make you look and feel like you just escaped from some kind of home for the deranged.
Things can quickly improve, however, when you shower, comb through that hair, slap on deodorant and put on appropriate clothing and maybe some makeup. That is, of course, until you grab your phone and open a social media app like Facebook or Snapchat or check the news for the latest celebrity gossip. There you notice all the smiling, perfectly airbrushed faces that confront you every day. Try as you might, no amount of man or woman sculpting will make you look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model or produce abs like that dude in the underwear ad that pops up in your feed.
You think about posting a selfie (who doesn’t these days?), but you’re worried that you’ll have to present the world with your regular face, which is no match for the beautiful people online or even your friend’s smiling pics from Aruba.
Not to worry — there’s an app for that! With a photo filter like Facetune or the editing features of Snapchat, you can do a little tweaking. Erase that mole, nip and tuck that spare tire, get a little creative around the eyes and voila! You have just put your best selfie self out into the world.
All is well … until you look in the mirror again. Then disconnect between your real self and your virtual self begins to sink in.
In the age of the selfie, medical professionals have identified a new phenomenon called “body dysmorphic disorder,” or Snapchat disorder, to put it more colloquially. As The Journal of the American Medical Association describes it: “The pervasiveness of these filtered images can take a toll on one’s self-esteem, make one feel inadequate for not looking a certain way in the real world, and may even act as a trigger for body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).”
Some people become so enamored with their virtual selves that they seek help, not from a psychologist but from a plastic surgeon who can help them look more like their altered selfies. According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the number of patients seeking this kind of selfie-altering surgery increased by 13 percent between 2016 and 2017.
We live in a culture where getting real about ourselves is often a challenge. Altering our bodies to fit a vision of perfection can be damaging, but what happens when we do the same thing to our souls? If it’s possible to have a dysmorphic conflict between the real and virtual selves we present to the world, it follows that the ways in which we think and behave can have the same disconnect. We might sculpt our personalities and social postures to appeal to others and make us seem like more than we are, rather than being humble and realistic about our flaws and our human needs. When we have this kind of soul dysmorphia, it becomes easier to see others as inferior to our inflated and airbrushed selves.
Jesus, however, had a tendency to drop into people’s lives, cut through the airbrushed veneer and hold up a mirror to expose the true self. He did it not from a position of superiority (even though he was God in the flesh) but from the position of one who, despite his fully human and fully divine nature, was humble and always projected his authentic self. He was such a contrast to the other religious leaders of his day, who were all about keeping up appearances. At a Sabbath banquet in the home of one such leader, Jesus addressed the problem of soul dysmorphia and challenged the people around the table to get real about who they were and who God wanted them to be.
According to Luke, at the meal the Pharisees were “watching [Jesus] closely.” While it was expected that a virtuous host would invite a prominent teacher to dinner, it was clear that the host’s motives here were suspect. We know that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and the cross and there would be plenty of prominent religious leaders who want to trip him up and find a way to get rid of him. Everything Jesus said would be analyzed and scrutinized, but time and again his words were consistent with his actions.
What we do not see in our Gospel reading today, because it is verses (2-6) that were in between our reading, is that at the meal was a man with dropsy — a condition that causes the body to swell from excess fluids. Clearly, this man’s selfie needed to be enhanced with some apps and filters! Every day, his mirror gave him the awful reality: He needed help and needed it soon! He was ill and getting worse.
Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus asked the elite around the table, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Interestingly, the Pharisees were silent.
Jesus healed the man, sent him on his way, and then asked another question about pulling a child or an ox out of a well on the Sabbath. Again, they couldn’t answer.
Their silence is instructive. Jesus had baffled them and forced them to do some introspection. The Pharisees, like many people in Jesus’ day, were keeping up appearances, jostling for position in the eyes of God and the eyes of their fellow Jews. They were eager to put on a good face, showing how well they were keeping the law and maintaining their purity. If they had had an Instagram account, you can be certain they would have been constantly posting carefully staged and gauzy, halo-hazy shots of themselves engaging in acts of piety.
Seeing Jesus heal a man with an obvious problem that would make him unclean, and on the Sabbath no less, would offend their self-righteous sensibilities even though, as Pharisees, they may have technically agreed with Jesus’ assertion. If keeping up appearances is important, one must avoid potential embarrassment and the awkward moment. Better not post a picture of being bested by a homeless rabbi from Nazareth!
Jesus noticed a lot of jockeying for position at the table as different people vied for the place of honor. In response, he told a parable about a wedding banquet which, on the surface, seems to be a kind of Emily Post-style instruction on etiquette but, in reality, is much more.
That Jesus talked about a “wedding banquet” may indicate a larger agenda here. In different places in the Scriptures, the wedding banquet sometimes serves as a symbol for the coming kingdom of God, as it does here in Luke (Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 19:6-9). Jesus seemed to be warning his fellow dinner guests that their striving for a place of honor at God’s table was a projection of their airbrushed image of themselves.
There are always more “distinguished” guests who have been invited, and you don’t want the embarrassment of being bumped to the other end of the table. Instead, the person who is real and honest with himself or herself will choose the lowest place and let the host set the agenda for who sits where. It’s the host, in this case God, who determines our status, for it is God who sees the real person behind the altered public veneer. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The second parable Jesus tells is directed at the host and, if we connect the two parables, Jesus seems to be defining who the more “distinguished” guests are who should have prominent places at the table. “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,” says Jesus. To do so was expected as part of a social transaction — you invite them and they have to invite you.
It’s the same kind of social contract we expect to execute in the selfie world — you click “like” on someone else’s fake portrait or news about themselves and you expect them to like your altered life as well. But Jesus urges the host, as he urges us, to instead elevate those who cannot reciprocate and to engage with those to whom our dysmorphic self-images don’t matter. It’s in relationship to the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind that our real self-image comes into focus. We learn that while we may not be in dire economic or physical circumstances, we too are poor, crippled, lame and blinded by self-interest and self-indulgence.
Our smartphone cameras have a toggle icon. Tap it and it switches from selfie view to world view. The image you see is either of yourself, or that which is beyond yourself.
Jesus wants us to toggle our lens so that what we see is everything beyond ourselves. When we turn from staring at ourselves to serving others we begin to get a good sense that God gives “likes” to those who are humble, honest and authentic about themselves and in their relationships to others. “blessed indeed will you be” in inviting them, says Jesus, “blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Many people suffering from Snapchat dysmorphia focus their whole lives on impressing their friends to the detriment of their own bodies and souls. Jesus reminds us that the most impressive people in God’s kingdom are those who take the humble position, who turn the focus away from self to others, and whose sole purpose is a soul and a life that is pleasing to God. It’s not about presenting a pious image but caring only about turning the spotlight on the image of God in others and in ourselves.
What makes for beautiful in the kingdom of God is humility, service and love for others. And what makes it even better is that no surgery required!
Let us pray. (Today in lieu of the normal responsorial prayers, I have a special one devoted to Labor day that I found online and I would like to share it with you.)
Good and gracious God, you told us from the very beginning that we would earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. We are interdependent in our laboring, Lord. We depend on the migrant workers who pick our lettuce and our strawberries, the nurses’ aides who empty bed pans, the teachers who form our children’s minds.
We thank you, Lord, for the gifts and talents you have given us that allow us to earn a living and contribute something positive to our world. We pray, dear Lord, for those who are without work. Sustain them — us — in your love. Help us to realize that we have worth as human beings, job or no job.
But that’s hard to get, Lord. Our society preaches to us that our worth comes from success. But our worth comes because you made us. We are your children, no matter what, job or no job. You love us and you call us to love and support each other. We pray for those who do the dirty work in our lives, those who break their backs for us, those who are cheated out of even a minimum wage, those who do not have to health care, those who cannot afford to send their kids to college.
Help us to bind together, Lord, as a community, as a nation because we depend on one another — the garbage collectors, the police, the stock people in our grocery stores, the truck drivers, the pilots, the 7-Eleven clerks, the ticket-takers on the turnpike, the plumbers, the accountants, the bank tellers, the landscapers, the lifeguards, those who clean our houses, the cooks, the waiters, the steel workers, the carpenters, the scientists and the writers.
Help us to realize this weekend how dependent we are on one another, Lord. We are one. We are family. We need each other. Let us give thanks for each other this Labor Day weekend. Help us to celebrate and give thanks for each other and appreciate the value, the dignity, the contribution that each one makes to keep our country, our cities, our lives going. And in tough times, help us remember the words of Jesus: Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light (Matthew 11:28).
(Closing prayer is thanks to and adapted from Bob Traupman, and Xavier University’s JesuitResource.org website. xavier.edu.)
We must also keep in mind the victims, family and friends from yet another mass shooting in Odessa Texas. For the members of Temple Emanu-El in Del Cerro and the hate crime shooting, and the people in the path of hurricane Dorian. May our Lord grant all peace, love, comfort and desperately needed help. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA