‘Do you know who I am?’ asked a man angrily at an airport check-in desk. A resolute attendant manning the desk grabbed the microphone and asked over the PA system: ‘Can anyone help? This man doesn’t know who he is.’ This is an old joke, but I couldn’t find one any better than this; and it pops into my mind every time I meet or hear about pretentious people claiming some form of special status or who expect extraordinary treatment because of their perceived self-importance.
In today’s gospel Jesus seems to give some advice on table manners at parties and on how to throw a party. Or rather, that’s what comes across if you interpret this passage literally. In fact, Jesus refers to something much, much more important and much deeper; table manners can be just a reflection of that something. We are talking about self-perception; who it is that I consider myself to be.
Most of us define ourselves by comparing ourselves to other people, whether we make that comparison sub-consciously or unconsciously. This tendency to make comparisons plagues virtually every aspect of life, be it wealth, appearance, outlook, skills, talents, deficiencies, shortcomings… there are so many words in English that I could use for this list, and besides, it would take a couple of hours just to get through them all. Generally speaking, we perceive ourselves to be either better or worse than others. I remember my first parish priest, who had such a high opinion of himself that everything had to be done for him by the housekeeper; although he was perfectly able-bodied, he declined to sully himself with practical matters. And I made a resolution never to become like this as long as my health permits. So, I do all the housework myself, and I consider that to be a kind of noble thing. But then, I adopted this attitude as a result of comparing myself to that poor man. And somehow I fell into the same trap: I considered myself to be better than him…
Finding your own value without resorting to comparison presents a huge challenge. It requires significant effort to look inside oneself with honesty. It involves looking for answers to the question: ‘Who am I?’ – without reference to other people and to mitigating circumstances – either over a PA system or in the comfortable environment of your own mind. I think that today’s second reading can be rather helpful here. In God’s eyes ‘everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven.’ God created each and every one of us as a unique human being, valued for him- or herself. In God’s eyes, each and every one of is a VIP. God loves each and every one of us with such fullness of overwhelming love that it is simply not possible for him to love us even more. I’m certain that discovering this love was a moment of great freedom for myself (and indeed for each human being), because all of a sudden I didn’t have to compare myself to others anymore in order to find myself worthy and valuable. From that very moment on, I could develop myself – not in order to please anyone and win favours, but in order to serve others without being exploited or abused.
A lawyer died. At exactly the same moment, the Pope also died. They arrive at the gates of heaven at the same moment. As they’re getting their heavenly vestments, the Pope gets a plain white toga and wings, like everyone else, and the lawyer gets a much finer outfit, made of gold thread, and Gucci shoes. Then, they get to see where they’re going to live. The Pope gets what everyone else gets, a replica of a Holiday Inn room, and the lawyer gets an 18-room mansion with servants and a swimming pool. At dinnertime, the Pope receives the standard meal, and the lawyer receives a fine and tasty meal, served on silver platters. By this time, the lawyer is beginning to suspect that an error has been made, so he asks one of the angels in charge, ‘Has there been some kind of mistake? This chap was the Pope, and he gets what everyone else gets, and I’m just a lawyer and I’m getting the finest of everything?’ The angel replies, ‘No mistake, sir. We’ve had lots of popes here, but you’re the first lawyer we’ve ever had.’