TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY A 10/9/11
It’s always nice to get an invitation to a good meal, especially when you know ahead of time the menu
is first class.
The menu is described in the first reading, from the great prophet Isaiah: rich food, choice wines, and then
repeated for emphasis “juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” Best of all, the invitation comes from God, guaranteed
by God’s absolute fidelity to His promises.
We shouldn’t be completely surprised God’s invitation to a meal. There have been many hints that
such an invitation would come. Think of the Exodus, when the people journeyed through wilderness to Canaan, the Promised Land.
During their dangerous journey through arid wasteland--a land yielding no food–God gave them food from heaven, manna.
As the Bible tells it, every evening the Israelites gathered up a bread-like substance, which was just enough to feed them
for the next day. Not luxurious, but enough. The Exodus was the central event in the formation of Israel, and it should not
surprise us that, when disaster struck and they lost their land, people would hope for a new exodus in which God would once
again bring them back and give them bread from heaven. So when they thought about the future, they thought about a banquet.
The Last Supper that Jesus celebrates with his disciples is right in line with this expectation. He is the messiah,
the Christ, and it was expected that the messiah would signal a restoration by giving a banquet, even a modest one like Jesus’
dinner. That dinner was a hint of the banquet to come. It’s our Eucharist today–modest yet signaling something
much more. We enjoy the Eucharist today, but believe it is a harbinger of something to come, a preview of coming attractions.
What I have just said is “background” to today’s Gospel, which relates one of the strangest
parables in Matthew’s Gospel.
One reason for its strangeness is that Matthew’s version of Jesus’ parables usually contain an added
message to the church of Matthew’s time, decades after Jesus spoke. Because of this, Matthew’s version of the
parable can help us very much to live a more Christ-like life.
Here’s a quick summary of the parable. A king sends servants to invite people to the wedding of his son,
but those invited refuse the invitation and even beat and kill the servants. Enraged, the king punishes those originally invited.
Then, in a surprising turn, he tells his servants to go out into the main roads and invite anyone they meet.
They gather all they find, “bad and good alike,” and the hall is filled. When the king comes into the hall, he
finds a man without a wedding garment, and has him thrown out, into the darkness outside.
I suspect that you are puzzled by two things. The first is: Why did the king invite “the bad and good
alike? We usually invite only “the good,” our friends and relatives to a wedding. In fact, we try to strike troublesome
people from the guest list. Why invite “the bad?”
The second puzzle is the man without a wedding garment. How could you expect someone invited at the last minute
to purchase proper attire? And why treat the guest so harshly, “cast him into the darkness outside”?
The answer to these questions will teach us much about the kingdom of God.
First, the king sending his messengers into the main roads and inviting all they find refers to the mission
of the Church beyond Israel to the nations of the world (Matt 28:18-20). People who had not been invited before suddenly discover
they have been invited, and seemingly without admissions requirements. We are those people, some of them disreputable, that
have received the call to enter the banquet of the kingdom.
Take note of an important point. We have no control over the guest list of the banquet. We can’t erase
the names of people we don’t like or people we think are unworthy of being in the same banquet hall as the king (and
ourselves!). In the banquet hall, in the church, we may find ourselves standing next to someone who is “bad.”
But, remember, what the king’s servants’ did: the “they gathered all they found, the bad and the good.”
I suspect that many of us would be reluctant to go to a banquet if the guests were not “respectable” or “well
mannered” or “nice people.” But the Church consists of people God invited, not people we invited.
And this brings us to the second point–the man without a wedding garment tossed into darkness.
We are probably not supposed to see the man as a part of the wedding in any realistic sense. Rather, the little
story seems to be an illustration of an important truth about Christianity. Those invited to the banquet of the kingdom include
“bad” as well as “good.” The community of the kingdom is a mixed bag–a situation that will last
until the judgment (cf. Matt 13:24-30, 36-43). As Brendan Byrne has written, “the man without a wedding garment represents
all those who accepted the invitation but did not, within that calling, undergo the conversion of life required by entrance
into the final kingdom. At the judgment–imaged by the king’s coming in to see the guests (v. 11)–they will
be found lacking the wedding garment of good works and suffer the exclusion described in familiar Matthean terms” (“cast
him into the darkness outside”).
So the Gospel today invites us to see our future as a happy one–we have an invitation to eat at God’s
banquet, enjoying the divine presence and nourished by our closeness to God and the fellowship of the saints. But it also
challenges us not be complacent about our inheritance in the kingdom. We have to respond, conversion to the Gospel is a daily
task, and we await the king’s coming to join him in a final sense.
In the meantime, it is sobering to realized that “many” (= “all”) are called to the
banquet of the kingdom, but “few” (= “not all”) are “chosen” (= “destined to enter”).