28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 12, 2014
Matt 22: 1-14
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matt 22: 1).
For the 3d Sunday in a row, we hear a parable about the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, these parables come one after the other, and they’re all addressed to “the chief priests and elders of the people” (21:23). Moreover, they come from Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem in the last days of his earthly life, at the height of the hostility toward him of these official leaders of the Jews, hostility that will lead to his arrest and execution in a matter of days.
The 1st 2 parables used the image of a vineyard to represent the kingdom of God. Today Jesus uses a different image, a wedding banquet. The image of marriage and the image of a banquet both have a long history in the Old Testament.
Marriage symbolizes the relationship between God and Israel. That symbol carries over into the New Testament, so much that marriage is a sacrament, an outward sign of a profound spiritual reality, viz., God’s love for the human race and his desire for a permanent, intimate union with us.
A banquet might be associated with a wedding but need not be. We have banquets for birthdays, sports, fundraising, civic and religious occasions, etc. They’re always associated with festivity and usually with family and some sort of fellowship or social bond, like your recent parish dinner-dance. The banquet becomes a symbol of eternal life—the festivity and family-belonging of being with God and one another: “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” we say before Communion, and that sacred verse is really an invitation to the Lamb’s wedding banquet, as you see in the original verse in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Our 1st reading today (Is 25:6-19) and psalm (23) also bring out the theme of a great banquet in the Lord’s house.
Jesus’ parable speaks of the guests originally invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son—that Son whom we address as the Lamb of God. In ancient times and even in modern times, a royal wedding and its related celebrations have dynastic overtones. To refuse to show up for the celebrations implies rejection of the king and his house. E.g., one of the issues that got Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher into deadly hot water with Henry VIII was their refusal to acknowledge the validity of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
So the king in the parable, after many of his favored subjects have rejected his rule, either by ignoring his invitation or by outright rebellion, extends his invitation to anyone and everyone: “invite to the feast whomever you find” (22:9).
St. Matthew seems to be pointing toward the extension of Christianity into the Gentile world. When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see several occasions when St. Paul preached Jesus in the synagogs of Asia and Greece. When most of his audience rejected God’s Word expressed in the life and message of Jesus, Paul would say, “OK, I’ll bring the message of salvation to the Gentiles since you’ve turned it down and they’re eager to hear it.”
Jesus says that the king’s “servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike” (22:10). Jesus’ original audiences included “bad and good alike,” and I’m sure that the people to whom the apostles preached in the 1st century did too. For sure, the Church today is made up of both saints and sinners. In the gospel 2 Sundays ago (Matt 21:28-32), Jesus explained to the hostile chief priests and elders that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21:31). Some people with bad reputations, at least, heard Jesus, believed him, and followed him toward eternal life, while those reputed to be good—those chief priests and elders—harassed him and, in collusion with the Roman authorities, crucified him.
Which brings us to this strange piece of the parable about the wedding garment. Most weddings, as you know, involve fancy dress. So it was in ancient times, especially among the upper social classes, like the royalty of Jesus’ parable. What’s implied in the parable, and presumably Jesus’ audience would have known this even tho we, in a very different culture don’t, is that the host of the wedding banquet would supply the necessary garments to guests who needed them.
That understanding casts in its proper light the episode of “a man there not dressed in a wedding garment” (22:11). This being a parable about the kingdom of heaven, we need to ask what that means. In St. Paul to the Ephesians, we find an instruction to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted thru deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on [like a new garment] the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (4:22-24), and he reminds the Galatians that, having been baptized into Christ, they have been clothed in Christ (3:27).
What this fellow at the wedding banquet has done is come to the banquet—to the kingdom of heaven, or, if you will, to membership in the Church, which is the gateway to that kingdom; to the Eucharistic banquet, which is the foretaste of the heavenly banquet—without clothing himself in Christ Jesus, without accepting and making his own the gospel message, the Christian way of thinking, speaking, and acting.
This parable is also a parable of judgment: the king judges and condemns his rebellious, murderous subjects, and he judges and condemns the one who pretends to belong to the kingdom but doesn’t behave like a proper citizen. When the king asks him to account for his unacceptable behavior, he’s speechless. What excuse will we be able to give the Divine Judge for our sins? There will be no excuses for those who haven’t repented their sins and clothed themselves in Christ.
Well, this guy gets tossed into the outer darkness—into hell, in plain English—and that’s rather a bummer of an ending for the gospel. As Jesus says at the end of other parables, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear” (Matt 11:15, etc.).
On the other hand, when “the king came in to meet the guests” (22:11), the banquet hall was full of people who’d been invited in, both good people and bad. And he found only this one ill-clad guest, only this one who was unrepentant. Isn’t it good news that so many are invited into God’s kingdom, accept the invitation, and are made welcome? “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb”!