Sunday of week 28 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Isaiah 25:6-10: Philippians 4:12-14.19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

WE HAVE TODAY ANOTHER PARABLE about the rejection of Jesus by the leaders of his own people. It is, as the others were, addressed to the “chief priests and elders of the people”, that is, the religious and civic leaders. The parable divides clearly into three distinct parts:

a. two invitations sent out to the intended guests;

b. a general call to all kinds of outcasts;

c. some criteria set for taking part in the feast.

People of the Kingdom

This is a parable about the Kingdom of God and about the people who will eventually belong to it. It is seen here under the aspect of a marriage feast for a king’s son. In the First Reading from Isaiah we have a graphic description of the great banquet that the Lord will prepare for his people. There will be rich food and fine wines, there will be neither mourning nor death. “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek”. There will be exultation and rejoicing “that he has saved us”.

In the parable, the king sends out his servants, referring to the long line of prophets sent to the people of Israel calling them to love and service. “But they would not come,” says Jesus.

Another batch of servants is sent out. “Tell those who have been invited that I have my banquet all prepared… Everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” When God calls there is always a sense of urgency. The only time to respond is NOW. I need always to be on the watch. That is not what happens here. We are told that those invited were simply not interested. They reacted in two ways. Either they were too involved in their own worldly interests to be bothered or else they seized the king’s messengers, “maltreated them and killed them”. We are reminded of the parable in last week’s readings about the absentee landlord sending messengers to collect the produce and the reception they got.

How many of us are guilty of the first way? To what extent, even right now, are we closed to calls from God because we are so tied up in all kinds of concerns and anxieties about things which do not really matter or about things which cannot guarantee us any real fulfilment and happiness?

Secondly, after the treatment his messengers received, “the king was furious,” Jesus says. “He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town.” This is strictly an historical interpolation by the evangelist and not really part of the original parable. It refers clearly to the sacking and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Roman imperial forces in the year AD 70. (The appearance of Matthew’s Gospel is usually set around AD 85.) As for this second way, we still see in our own day God’s messengers being arrested, jailed, tortured and killed.

The highways and byways

With the refusal of those originally invited, the king once again repeats that the wedding is “ready”. There is an urgency to respond to the king’s call. The servants are now sent out, not to the houses of the wealthy and respectable, but to the “crossroads”. These are near the gates and markets of a typical Middle East town where large crowds of ordinary people would gather. Here, they are the social and religious outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes, all those in despised trades. No exceptions are made. All are invited, good and bad alike, until the wedding hall is filled.

There is now no “chosen people”, no elite. The Church calls all to its bosom. It is, and always will be, a Church of both saints and sinners. We need to remember that there will always be constant temptations to create first- and second-class tiers of membership, always temptations for the formation of elite groups, which are “different” and, by implication, “better”. It would be so nice to have a parish consisting only of totally dedicated Christians but it would not be truly representative of the love of God reaching out to all. It would not be truly a catholic church, a church for all.

Contradiction?

Having said all this, the last part of the parable seems a gross contradiction. It seems so unjust. Having gone out to the highways and byways to bring in all and sundry without exception, how can one justify tossing out someone because he does not have a “wedding garment”? Where was he expected to get it at such short notice? Yet, some reflection will reveal that it is really part of the same teaching. The Jewish leaders rejected Jesus. Other people, Jewish outcasts and pagans, were invited to take their place at the banquet. However, it is not enough just to be present at the banquet. One was expected to come properly dressed and not in dirty and untidy clothes. This would show a total lack of respect for one’s fellow-guests.

While many, in fact all, are called to the banquet, they are expected to behave as wedding guests. In practical terms, while the Church opens wide its arms to the sinner, it expects that he make some effort to repent and be converted. It is not tolerable that he simply continue unabated in his sinful ways. That would not make any sense.

We have seen previously that, while Jesus went out of his way, to be friendly with the tax collector and the prostitute, it was not a blanket acceptance of their ways but a means of calling them to conversion and change. “Your faith has made you whole; do not sin again; come, follow me.”

The parable ends on a slightly pessimistic (or is it a realistic?) note. “For many (that is, all) are called, but few are chosen.” That is, it is a sad fact that although everyone is being called to experience the love of God in their lives, relatively few will take the plunge and really try to taste that experience. The majority take what they regard as the safer path of looking for happiness in making money, building a career, indulging in sexual pleasures, rising in the social scale, surrounding themselves with material abundance… This is what people continue to do even though that path is strewn with disappointment and pain.

Setting standards

We saw, when discussing the readings of the 23rd Sunday, that the Church, too, can and indeed must set standards of participation in the life of the community if it is to remain a credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus and as the Body of Christ. One could hardly accept as a full member of the community someone who was known widely as an unrepentant gang member involved in murder and racketeering or a terrorist committed to the killing of innocent people. For such people to stand with others at the table of the Eucharist would be altogether blasphemous and sacrilegious.

The wedding garment in the parable symbolises the wedding guest, whatever his past may have been, “putting on” Christ. Such a person, through Baptism, the sacrament by which one is given access to the wedding banquet of the Lord, has grown to be clothed in the spirit and teaching of Jesus. This is shown by the gradual transformation of his life through the influence of Jesus he experiences in the Christian community.

Thanks for the invitation

In the light of all this, we might, first of all, express our deep thanks that we have been invited to the wedding banquet of our King. The knowledge and experience of God and Jesus that our faith and membership of the Church gives us should be the most precious gift in our lives. If that is not exactly how we feel, then perhaps we should ask God to give us a deeper understanding of just what Jesus can be for us in finding meaning and happiness in our lives.

Secondly, we might reflect today on just how clean our wedding garment really is. To what extent have we really offered ourselves in love and service to Jesus and to his people? To what extent could we be considered purely marginal members of our parish community? To what extent do we give clear witness of our values and beliefs both inside and outside the community? And we might take a closer look at our lives and see if there are any behaviours or activities which are quite at variance with the kind of life and relationships the Gospel expects of us. Can I in good conscience continue wearing my wedding garment or am I living a lie in doing so? Or, on the other hand, isn’t it time I put one on?

Thirdly, we must never forget that, while as Church members we are expected to contribute actively to its life and witnessing, the forgiveness of God and of the community is always available whenever we betray its ideals.

Today’s readings tell us that God has wonderful things in store for us. Everyone, no matter what kind of past they have had, receives the same invitation to sit down at God’s table. However, having initially answered the invitation, we cannot take things for granted. There is no room for complacency. Almost more dangerous than being an obviously sinful person is being the “ordinary, run-of-the-mill Catholic”, the “Sunday” Catholic, the “I’m a good enough Catholic”, the “I’m a Catholic but not a fanatic about my religion”. These are all cop-outs. And it is not God but ourselves who are the losers. So let us pray that we may keep our wedding garments pure and spotless, that we become disciples who really hear and do the teaching of Jesus. Let us pray for a deeper faith and love and a better spirit of service and sense of responsibility to our community.

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