by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Then the king said to his servants: “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited have proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite to the wedding everyone you can find.” So those servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
When the king came in to look at the guests, he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him: “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Matthew 22: 1-14

Today’s gospel-reading gives us a puzzling parable which, at one level, is an allegory of the boundless beneficence and magnanimity of a God who wants us all to enjoy the total satisfaction of eternal life with one another in heaven. The parable is supported by the first reading from Isaiah who, to describe heaven, used the image of a magnificent banquet with an endless supply of the finest food and wine. What strikes me as surprising is the decision by the important and well-to-do people not only to decline God’s invitation but to brutalise and kill God’s servants (the long line of prophets, the last of whom was Jesus himself) who brought the invitation. Jesus proceeded to point out that God’s goodness was boundless to the extent that nobody was to be excluded and the invitation was to be extended to everybody, to the good, the bad and the misfits alike. Then, comes the surprise; the king (the God of extravagant kindness who welcomes everybody) ejects a guest who has no wedding gown. How do we make sense of that? Did Jesus include that in his telling of the parable or is it an addition from Matthew, the scribe?

All of us are gratified by the realisation that we are on God’s invitation list irrespective of our success and failure. Decent people that we strive to be, we set our sights on doing our best to imitate Jesus and reflect God’s love to our world. We all have taken seriously the urgings of teachers, preachers and parents to dedicate our lives to making a difference. Our politicians repeatedly tell us that they are intent on making a difference in our community. We have heard speakers at university and school graduations urging our young people to focus on using their gifts and talents to make a difference. That rhetoric is code for tackling some of the many class, social and gender inequalities that are rampant in society. Today’s parable is the third one that Matthew has attributed to Jesus in the week leading up to Jesus’ mistrial, torture and execution. All that might leave us wondering what kind of difference Jesus made to his society. There were many who ignored or rejected him.

We have to remember that Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community that was just finding its way and shaping its identity. Within the parable there seem to be veiled references to significant happenings in Jewish history. The killing of servants by those who declined the invitation looks to be a reference to how God’s prophets were ignored and mistreated by the Jewish people over centuries. The reference to the punishment visited on those ungrateful and murderous invitees looks like a reference to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70AD. The invitation to all the ordinary people gathered from the town streets to come to the party is a clearer reference to the many gentiles who were part of Matthew’s community. Interestingly, the Greek word that Matthew uses for “gathered/gathering” is synegagon – suggesting that his community is the new synagogue whose people were a mixture of both good and bad.

But we still have a puzzle with the eviction of the guest without a wedding garment. He was one of those who had been rounded up to ensure there was a full complement of guests at the party. Does his eviction suggest that this God of extravagance was a bit precious? To posit that would be a contradiction of what the parable is all about. What then is the significance of a guest without a wedding garment? Surely, those who were collected from the streets would have taken time to spruce themselves up for such an important event. The one who didn’t do that was able to give the king neither an excuse nor an explanation. He clearly did not appreciate the significance of the event which he had gate-crashed. He turned up but apparently did not want to have anything to do with the king and his son. He was given the same kind of treatment as the arrogant, up-market people who refused the invitation in the first place. I suggest that Matthew included this part of the parable as a wake-up call to his community, reminding them that their baptism, their inclusion in the community meant serious commitment to following Jesus. They were not in the community simply to make up the numbers. A robe or garment was associated with baptism in the infant Church. In the baptism ritual or immediately after it, the newly baptised person was presented with a white robe, signifying the new commitment he or she had just made. Baptism into Christ is a commitment to make a difference to our world by reflecting something of the compassion, tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness and mercy that Jesus Christ lived and proclaimed in his life. That’s the robe needed by Christians for making a difference.

The great Indian leader Gandhi echoed that in an expression for which he is now lauded: “Be the difference you want to see in the world!” The true meaning of baptism is really more than just making a difference. It means opening ourselves to be made different by the mind and heart of Jesus Christ. To what extent have I allowed Jesus and my relationship with him to make a difference in me? In today’s second reading we hear Paul reminding the Christian community of Philippi that the compassion and support they extended to him in his hardships were a clear indication that they wore their baptism robes with authenticity.

The banquet to which we are invited now is the celebration of Eucharist. Aware that none of us deserves the invitation, we proclaim our unworthiness. But the invitation is not withdrawn. That in itself is a reminder to us to stop and ponder just how we welcome one another to Eucharist and to reflect on who are the people we consciously or inadvertently exclude. Moreover, if participation in the Eucharistic banquet is not something we relish, there’s something we are missing. Do we realise its significance, what it really is all about?

I conclude with a story which I believe complements today’s parable. It was submitted in 2002 to the magazine Spirituality and Health by Courtney Cowart, a researcher into the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. It is entitled “Voices from Ground Zero”. Below is an extract from that article:

Researchers in New York are collecting the stories and memories of the brave men and women who worked at ground zero to rescue and recover the victims. One such man was Joseph Bradley. Joe is a crane operator who in his youth had helped to build the World Trade Center. When he heard of the disaster, he went to his union and volunteered. They sent him to the site with a crane. No one in particular was in charge, but then in his own words: “A fire chief said he’d like to clear a debris field three feet deep with heavy iron on top…four or five ironworkers showed up and we went to work. Like a miracle, 25 firefighters showed up. And so, they worked through the long and difficult day. “I prayed for darkness because I couldn’t handle what I was seeing. After a long time of working, I was sitting on the curb with my head in my hands. It was the middle of the night. That’s when the Salvation Army kids and the Covenant House kids appeared in their sneakers with their pink hair and belly buttons showing and bandanas tied around their faces. One little girl was pushing a shopping cart full of eyewash through the muck. They came with water and cold towels and took my boots off and put dry socks on my feet. And then, as I was walking back home, a bunch more of these kids, all pierced and with multicoloured hair had made a little makeshift stage. And they started to cheer as we came out, and suddenly, I realized it was for me. I never identified with these people before, but I started crying and I cried for blocks…
I have been a construction worker all my life… I never knew anything about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or gays or people with nuts and bolts through their cheeks or pink hair, but now I know them all. We’re not the heroes – they are the heroes. They’ve cried and prayed for me out loud. I never thought I’d have family like this one.”