A few years ago, I had the chance to work as part of a team teaching an interdisciplinary course on the quality of worklife.
As the lone theologian among a corporate communications expert (who could help students understand the impact of an employer’s culture on the wellbeing of its employees) and a physical therapist (who could help the students understand the impact of a job’s physical demands on the worker), I felt one of my key responsibilities was to help students consider the relationship between career and vocation. This turned out to be more complicated than I had initially imagined, because many of them could not get past the idea that a job could be more than paycheck.
To tackle this obstacle, I discovered that I had to challenge the implicit utilitarian thinking that framed much of their worldview. I explained that their quid pro quo calculus worked for most of their “career oriented” activities—for example, adding a club to the resume to help round out the college application—but that it would always be insufficient in one really important area of life: relationships.
Essentially, I asked them to think about how they would feel if their friends told them, “I like hanging out with you because I know one day you will help my career advancement.” Or, “I ran the numbers and the benefits you provide in my life outweigh the costs I put into the friendship right now, so I think I’ll keep you around. I axed Johnny yesterday because the calculus was net negative for him.”
What the exercise quickly reveals for my students is the limitation of a strictly utilitarian view of value, especially in the realm of human relationships. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus challenges the same reductionistic perspective, insisting,
When you hold a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.(Luke 14:12-14)
In my classes, the argument for a non-transactional view of the value of our relationships was grounded in a call to respect the human dignity that the Catholic tradition insists is an innate quality of every human person (see Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nos. 144-145 for a succinct summary of this tenet).
In today’s Gospel, the argument certainly affirms this vision of the human person but it is actually rooted in a slightly different starting point. Jesus’s summons is framed as an invitation to help us recognize our proper place before God.
We can see this invitation in the emphasis on humility that runs not only through the rest of the Gospel reading but also all the readings for this week.
Jesus’s words in the Gospel exhort humility, creating an explicit link with the First Reading from the book of Sirach. There, the author encourages the listener to the same virtue, insisting, “humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”
This call should not be surprising, for as the Second Reading stresses us, humility is the way of God. Much of that reading highlights the grandeur of God and sets up a contrast between us, as humans, and God as the divine creator and shepherd of all. With the direct mention of “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant,” however, we are reminded that God has chosen to bridge that gap in the humility of the Incarnation (see Philippians 2:5-11).
Together, then, the readings help us appreciate that God is open to a relationship with us not because God seeks some transactional benefit—for surely we, as humans, could not provide that to the divine—but for the flourishing of the relationship itself. This act of humility is precisely what we are therefore called to imitate in our relationships with others, so that we can honor them and seek the flourishing of our relationship for its own sake.
Let us humbly seek to go and do likewise.