Six years ago, I went to Sicily for a conference on liturgy. It was of course wonderful to see a little of Sicily, especially the capital Palermo on the north coast of the island and the beautiful cathedral in Monreale, in the hills above Palermo.
One of my abiding memories of the ten days or so I spent there were the huge banquets we sat down to.
Conferences usually have a formal dinner that people go to and perhaps get dressed up for. But in Sicily, we had three enormous banquets, and each one was bigger and better and brighter than the one before.
The final one was on the last night and was arranged by the President of Sicily. It was astounding. We never did get to coffee, because around 1am, the waiters decided it was time to down tea towels and go home. We breathed massive sighs of relief and got on the buses to go back to bed and sleep.
The first two banquets were organised by the Archbishop of Palermo and the Bishop of Cefalù, about an hour’s drive east of Palermo. So why was each meal bigger and better than the one before?
We wondered about it, let me tell you. The answer is in this one word: honour. Oh, and the opposite of honour: shame.
The Archbishop, the Bishop and the President were vying for the honour of being the one who honoured us, their guests, the most. The way for them to honour their guests was to wine and dine them well, and the way to get more honour than your ‘rivals’ was to wine and dine your guests better than they did.
So when the Archbishop of Palermo fed us early in the conference with a wonderful feast, the Bishop of Cefalù had his spies there. When they told him about the meal, the Bishop did better. But the President also had spies in Palermo and Cefalù, so once they reported to him, the President knew what to do to ensure that his was the grandest banquet of them all.
In their world, the President had gained more honour than the Bishop and the Archbishop; more than that, he had shamed his rivals.
We may smile about that, and we may have different ways of comparing ourselves one to another. But honour and shame are still there. Didn’t the Aussies gain honour against the Poms in the last cricket series? Didn’t the average Aussie cricket fan gain a taste of that honour? And didn’t it taste good to the fans when the Poms were shamed?
Jesus grew up in a place and time that was centred on honour and on its opposite, which is shame. People gained honour by their wisdom, by winning arguments in the public square, or by wealth or power. It was immensely important to be seen by others to be someone who had honour.
So it’s not surprising that when Jesus speaks about the Jesus way in the Sermon on the Mount, he mentions honour. (Though you may be excused for missing it.)
The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, beginning with
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
That word ‘blessed’ has confounded a lot of people. Doesn’t it just mean ‘happy’? That doesn’t seem to fit for a good number of New Testament scholars. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
So: what about How honoured are the poor in spirit? Or The poor in spirit are honoured by God?
The people who heard Jesus didn’t honour such people, and neither do we. God honours them; but we honour the winners.
To follow the ‘Jesus way’, we need a change of mind. The Jesus way honours the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who bug you because they want justice and can’t stop working for it, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer because of all this.
So when Jesus says
you are the salt of the earth…
you are the light of the world…
he is talking about the poor in spirit, the mourners and the meek, and to those who honour them.
He is not talking about those whose horizons are limited by visions of success, money and power, and who honour the famous and influential.
Jesus honours losers and seekers and the powerless, and teaches us to do the same.
Does that even make sense?
It wasn’t anything new. The prophet Isaiah was teaching something similar hundreds of years earlier:
When you fast, Isaiah says, don’t make yourself look miserable, share things around!
Loose the bonds of injustice,
undo the thongs of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free,
break every yoke.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, over them,
and do not hide yourself from your own kin.
In other words, honour the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the naked. Honour their perspective, try to see things from their point of view. Show mercy to them, seek justice with them, work for peace among all people. That is fasting according to Isaiah! Fast from your fantasy lives which are centred on success and celebrities; choose to give life!
Let me say I fail at this very often. I continue to be seduced by stories of the successful, the men of the world, those who climb to the top even if it’s on other people’s backs.
It’s then I have again to look at Jesus. What do I see? A man hanging on a cross, beaten, mocked and bleeding. A man of shame, a man without honour in human eyes. But infinitely honoured by God.
I see a man who is
poor in spirit
seeking God’s justice
pure in heart
and suffering to death for all of this.
I see The Light of the World, I see The Salt of the Earth, and I am challenged once more to re-pent, to re-think my life.
Then I begin once more to glimpse what Jesus means about our being the light of the world. I remember that we shine only as we reflect Jesus. We shine as we allow the Spirit of Jesus to shine within us—to transform us as we together walk the Jesus way, the way that aims for the love and compassion and mercy of God to be seen and shown in human relationships.
Honour belongs to the poor in spirit, starting with the suffering Christ on the cross. Amen.