by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“God’s kingdom,” Jesus said, “is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn’t come!…Then he told his servants: ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find.’ The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so, the banquet was on – every place filled…When the king entered and looked over the scene, he spotted a man who wasn’t properly dressed. He said to him: ‘Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!’ The man was speechless. Then the king told his servants: ‘Get him out of here – fast. And make sure he doesn’t get back in.’” Matthew 22, 1-14
In considering the readings for this Sunday, it is essential that we remind ourselves of the importance of context. The gospel echoes the first reading from Isaiah in detail and partly in theme. Moreover, the audience gathered around Jesus would have been very familiar with Isaiah’s account of the lavish party that God wanted to throw for the people of Israel who were trying to get their lives together after the devastation and grief of a war in which there were no winners.
The second important aspect of context is that Jesus was telling yet another parable to a crowd make up of both religious leaders and very ordinary folk. Moreover, this took place in Jerusalem just a few days before Jesus was arrested and executed. While he was very clearly targeting religious leaders, who had seemingly decided in advance to close their minds to everything he had to offer, he offered a message of hope and challenge to the ordinary people whose ears and minds and hearts were open to what he had to say. The story he told echoed Isaiah, and was a double-header, containing a parable within a parable. Effectively, he told two parables. – the parable of the wedding feast and the parable of the wedding garment.
In her fascinating book entitled Short Stories by Jesus – The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, the Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine asserts: “What makes parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge…Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that parable’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.” She proceeds to explain that parables are not meant to be decoded (in the sense of having their meaning and application explained), but for promoting in their audience serious thought about right living. Ultimately, the meaning of every parable remains unfixed, and open to generations of readers down through the centuries for their reflection. She makes the point that parables are not allegories. – that is, they do not depend on anything outside of themselves for them to be understood. However, they are open to a variety of interpretations as they keep us thinking about them.
A third element of context is the fact that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a community of Christians victimised by persecution and closed-minded opposition from those intent on destroying them. Whenever they heard the word robe or garment, they thought of only one thing – their baptism into Christianity. The very mention of the garment in which we were baptised implicitly raises the question as to how we measure up each day to the responsibilities that are part and parcel of being a member of the Christian community, of being a disciple of Christ.
But first, let’s spend a little time with the reading from Isaiah. It contains a message full of hope. Isaiah presents God as one who lavishes on humanity boundless love and kindness, as one who wants to give us the very best, despite the fact that we let ourselves be drawn into conflict and violence, bringing grief to those we love. Yet, there is not even a hint of blame or a desire for retribution. The very same message is repeated in the gospel parable of the king’s invitation to his son’s wedding banquet. All the notables, those with status and class are deaf to the king’s limitless kindness. Consumed with self-interest, they pursue their own business and ignore the extravagant generosity of the king. Let’s not forget the opening lines of Jesus’ parable: “The reign of God may be likened to a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out his servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn’t come.” But the picture of God which Isaiah presents stands in marked contrast to the king in Jesus’ parable. This king is so vengeful that he has his army burn an entire city to the ground to satisfy his wounded pride. So, let’s not rush into an allegorical interpretation of the parable and equate the king with God. I ask myself if Jesus included so much violence in the parable in order to wake his audience up, simply because we have all met religious people who deep-down believe in a God who is intent on punishment, revenge and getting even. My God is not tyrannical, petty-minded, judgemental, and expecting us to be perfect. But we’ve all met people whose God is.
In our better moments, when we are inspired by Jesus and want to walk in his footsteps, we tell ourselves that we want to make a difference, we want to leave our part of the world a little better for having been in it. Perhaps we would do well to closely examine what making a difference really means. After all, Idi Amin, the former President of Uganda made a difference, but it was a difference that resulted in the annihilation of countless Ugandans. The coalition forces that invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein made a difference – a difference that has left a trail of death and destruction for the ordinary people of Iraq. Often, making a difference turns out to be an escapade into narcissism. At its best, making a difference can be shorthand for noticing issues that are troubling our world and taking some positive action to address them. We can currently see class, race and gender issues that are bringing stress and injustice to countless people, and have triggered riots and murders; there is something askew with the world’s climate; oceans and rivers are being poisoned: forests are being destroyed; there’s an endless flow of refugees around the globe; animals and sea creatures are being driven into extinction. As followers of Jesus and the Gospel, we know we have a duty to contribute to making a difference for good.
But now comes the challenge of the parable within the parable. One of new invitees who did accept the king’s invitation came into the banquet without the proper dress. The wedding garment has troubled interpreters through the ages. For St Augustine, it represented love; Calvin said it stood for faith and good works, while Luther was adamant that it represented faith. And isn’t it true that when we are confronted with puzzling things, we often turn to what we know best in trying to solve them.
Perhaps, the man without the wedding garment was just one of those people who are unable to live their lives without being critical or negative. They just have to be different, to express opposition by what they say or how they behave. Are we big enough, tolerant enough to give people like that a place at our table, a job in our company, a seat in our church? Do we continue to reach out to those who do not accept our invitations? Are there any to whom our doors are closed simply because they are unwashed, unkempt and unsophisticated?
And if we choose to interpret the wedding garment as a baptismal robe, then we will be aware of the responsibilities that accompany being baptised into Christ. We will heed the words of Gandhi, who, though not a Christian, urged: “Be the difference you want to see in the world.” If we truly accept Jesus and his Gospel, we will surely be different.