St. Damien of Molokai
Joseph de Veuster was a Belgian missionary priest working among the islanders of Honolulu. His bishop had trouble finding a priest to work in the leper settlement of Molokai. Joseph, better known as Father Damien, volunteered to go and work in the “living graveyard that was Molokai.” His solidarity with the lepers was so complete that he contracted the disease himself and died at the age of forty-nine in service to the poorest and most abandoned. Some of his contemporaries accused him of imprudence and foolhardiness. Today, however, he is recognized worldwide as a hero of the faith: Damien the Leper.
Father Damien made a total life commitment to the poor long before the church recognized the preferential option for the poor as a pillar of the church”s social teaching. The Gospels teach us that as Christians we should give priority to the poor in the way we administer and dispense our resources. This is what we see in today’s gospel reading. Some people see today’s gospel as Jesus teaching table etiquette and good manners in choosing seats when invited to a dinner. But when we try to read it through the eyes of the early Christians whose assembly was mainly to share in the feast of the Eucharist, we begin to see that there is much more than etiquette involved here. Jesus is teaching the basic Christian virtues of humanity and solidarity with the poor. And he does this in two stages using two parables.
The firs parable, on the One Invited to the Wedding Feast (verses 7-11), is addressed to Christians as those who are invited to the feast of the Lord’s Supper. Irrespective of social status and importance we come to the Eucharist as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God. This is the only place where employer and employee relationship, master and servant distinctions dissolve and we recognize one another simply as brothers and sisters in the Lord, as together we call God “Our Father.” The Letter of James reports and condemns a situation where Christians “make distinctions” in the Christian assembly:
If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves? (James 2:2-4).
Jesus is challenging his followers to abolish the rich-poor distinction among them and to recognize and treat one another as brothers and sisters of equal standing before God. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
The second parable, on the One Giving a Great Dinner (verses 12-14), is addressed to Christians as those who invite others to the feast of the Lord’s supper.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (verses 12-13).
Does our parish community measure up to the criterion of preferential option for the poor? Do we consider wheel-char access to our churches to serve “the crippled and the lame” a priority? What about providing sign-language translation in our services for the benefit of “the deaf” and Braille Bibles and prayer books for “the blind.” This is what it means to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14-13).