by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding-garment?” But he was silent. Matthew 22, 1-14
I have to admit to being puzzled by today’s gospel parable for many years. I simply could not understand why someone dragged into the wedding feast would be punished severely for not wearing the appropriate clothes. After all, the poor fellow was only someone walking along, minding his own business, until he was accosted by the king’s servants and pressured to join in the lavish wedding reception. When I looked at the list of those who had already declined their invitations, and the reasons for their non-attendance, I concluded that this man and all the others who had agreed to make up the numbers were actually doing the king a favour. Besides, as the story is told, it is clear that the servants had no time to pick and choose. They dragooned everyone they could get hold of. So I could not work out why the king was so upset by the fact that there was one guest who did not have a wedding gown.
But, according to the story, the king was extremely upset. In fact, he was so upset that the only conclusion we are meant to come to is that the guest with whom he was upset must have deliberately refused to wear the expected dress. I have since discovered that many of the scholars who have analysed this parable observe that it was the custom of the time to provide wedding gowns to guests as they arrived for the celebration. So there was really no excuse for not wearing one. The man without the wedding garment was at fault, and he was guilty of insulting the king deeply. And the evidence for that is to be found in the very simple sentence that had escaped my notice for years: “But he was silent.” When the king confronted the offender, there was only silence. That silence spelt guilt. The man simply had no way of defending himself. He wasn’t speechless because of fear or confusion, or because he was overawed. He could not find even a single word to say in his own defence. His silence was his judgement on himself. That simple sentence – “But he was silent.” – speaks volumes. And I had not noticed it!
But that still does not explain the severity of the punishment the king imposed on him. Let’s take a moment to reflect on why any of us follows a variety of dress codes. We dress formally for formal occasions, and to show respect to those who have invited us to particular events. Some invitations even give us clear indicators about the expected dress code for the occasion. Not to follow it can lead to embarrassment for us and for our hosts. On other occasions, we wear uniforms to signify that we identify with a particular group. Even people who belong to criminal groups and street gangs have codes of behaviour and dress, which they must follow if they want to be accepted. But the parable tells us that the servants gathered in “everyone they could find, bad and good alike.” So nobody was excluded on the basis of his or her criminal or sinful past. And we are not told that the man without the wedding garment was one of the bad people who were brought into the celebration. My guess is that he was one of the supposedly good people, with no criminal record and no shady reputation. But, he was somebody who considered himself as being above all the trashy people dragged in from the streets, and seated near him. Haven’t we all met people who see themselves as being on a rung above everyone else, especially above those who drink too much, who have criminal records, who are HIV+, who have a physical or intellectual disability, whose appearance is grubby, who can’t keep a job, who receive social security benefits? So, how did the king feel when he looked at all the guests drawn in from the streets to share his happiness on the occasion of his son’s wedding? His joy was blown away by one, self-centred guest passing judgement on everyone else, and looking down his nose at “riff-raff” who were not up to his own standard. The man without the wedding garment could not even allow acknowledge that he might actually be no better than the rubbish people from the streets, whom he despised.
Today’s gospel parable challenges me to look at how I go about categorising others, whether consciously or unconsciously, separating them into desirable and undesirable, acceptable or unacceptable. Do I even act as though some are suitable to come into my office, to sit at dinner with me, to find a place in my school, to sit beside me at Mass, while others are definitely not?
This is a parable to press home the message that God’s love is for all. While nobody is excluded, nobody has special preference. Then again, nobody is forced to accept God’s invitation. Those who declined the invitation in the first place wanted no part of God’s kingdom, and wanted nothing to do with Jesus. They had found alternatives, and worshipped at the altars of business, wealth and every other attraction imaginable.
Then there are those who, for one reason or another have been so distracted or preoccupied with other things that they have not heard the invitation to God’s kingdom, to let God into their lives.
A 2002 article in Spirituality & Health, by a young writer, Courtney Cowart describes how a crane operator in New York volunteered to clear debris on the site of the burned out World Trade Center. Cowart recorded the crane operator’s words about how some of the categories in which he had placed young people disappeared on that unforgettable night:
“When I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids (Salvation Army volunteers), all pierced and tattooed with multicolored hair, had made a little makeshift stage. And they started to cheer as we came out, and that was it for me. I never identified with those people before, but I started crying, and I cried for blocks…I’ve been a construction worker my whole life…I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays, or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks, or those Broadway people, but now I know them all. We’re not the heroes. They are the heroes. They’ve cried and prayed out loud for me. I never thought I’d have a family like this one.”
Today’s gospel parable tells us that there is a place for everyone at God’s banquet table, irrespective of their age, race, religion or the way they dress. All that is required is a willingness to bury our prejudices and biases, and be ready to give generously of what we have, and receive humbly whatever others bring to the table – the little or much that they have, or just themselves.