Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
Although he held no photograph in his hands, the prophet Isaiah knew how to speak of heaven in words that would make people be filled with a desire to be there. Heaven was the place of God’s great banquet, where there would be “a feast of rich food and choice wines; juicy, rich food and pure choice wines.” Who wouldn’t want to be part of a lavish banquet! Always in need of encouragement as a result of their exile, the Jewish people were comforted by God’s promise in Isaiah to “destroy death forever” at that banquet, and to “wipe away the tears from every face.” At God’s banquet there will be no room for sadness, and whatever “reproach” or dark cloud that seemed to follow the people would be removed. Yes, heaven would be a happy place. But in addition to Isaiah’s good news about the banquet, there is the strikingly bold reminder that the banquet was not intended solely for the Jewish people. Indeed, the heavenly banquet would be prepared for “all peoples,” and the Jewish people needed to get used to the fact that they were not in control of the guest list.
Fast forward several hundred years to the Gospel of Matthew, and Jesus is essentially still reminding the Jewish people about the same point: the banquet to be held in God’s kingdom is intended for “all peoples,” “bad and good alike.” Jesus, as in last week’s parable of the tenants, is still speaking in Jerusalem during the last week of his earthly ministry to the “chief priests and the Pharisees,” the religious leaders of his day. They were surely not happy at the suggestion that they would be replaced at God’s heavenly banquet by Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. Immediately after Matthew recounts this parable, “the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus in speech (Matt 22:15).”
This parable of the wedding banquet has a great deal to say about God’s kingdom and about the universal call to salvation. All people, “bad and good alike,” are called to sit down at the heavenly banquet. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we are not in control of the guest list for heaven’s great eternal banquet, and Jesus clearly teaches us elsewhere that among those guests may be some who cause us to be surprised, if not shocked. Moral standing is hardly a qualification for attending the banquet as Jesus made quite clear with the words, “bad and good alike.” If all people are invited to the banquet, without distinction, then what great honor is it to receive an invitation? Indeed, the only difference between the banqueters and those gnashing their teeth in the dark was the partygoers’ wholehearted acceptance of the invitation, and that is a most important dimension learned from today’s parable.
In what almost acts as a postscript to the actual parable, the king catches “sight of a man not properly dressed for a wedding feast.” He is bound and treated rather roughly, being thrown out into the night “to wail and grind his teeth.” Remember that the servants of the king “went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.” These guests did not have the benefit of advance notice, and so they had to have been dressed the way ordinary people of the day dressed. Even allowing the possibility that the king provided wedding garments for the guests, it is unlikely the unfortunate guest was cast into the night on account of some kind of fashion faux pas. Something much greater separated him from the rest of the partying guests, and that something has to do with fully accepting the invitation and all that it entails. Notice the man had nothing to say when the king inquired why he was not “properly dressed.” The king was like a stranger to the guest. There was no sense of gratitude for being invited, there was no indication that he understood the responsibility associated with being part of the party. The improperly dressed man was the ultimate wedding crasher, and he was unwilling to dress/behave as people invited to a wedding banquet should behave. The permanent and universal lesson taught by the parable has nothing to do with the clothes in which we go to Church. It has everything, however, to do with the spirit in which we enter God’s House.
Today, we see the wedding banquet as a symbol of Communion and our celebration of the Eucharist. Our gathering for Mass is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, the place where God “spreads the table before me,” and feeds me with the bread of heaven. It is not enough to just possess an invitation, although that is what truly unites us. Having received the privileged invitation, we are called to celebrate the Eucharist in the way that wedding guests are called to celebrate, with grateful hearts and with lives that manifest that gratitude. Our wedding garment is made of our grace-assisted works of justice, charity and holiness. Let us examine whether we have fully accepted God’s invitation to the Messianic banquet and remember that banqueting implies friendship and intimacy, trust and reconciliation. We are called to fellowship in the Eucharist, and the Mass is always a celebration, a place where like Isaiah’s heaven there is no room for sadness.
This parable invites us to consider who God is inviting to the banquet and with whom we are willing to share the communal bread and wine. We stand shoulder to shoulder at Mass with the “bad and the good,” recognizing none of us are deserving or worthy of being at such a precious sacrament. All that counts is our willingness to not only receive God’s invitation to party with Him, but also to live in such a way that others might come to know the generous love of our King and our God. We can be certain that if we live our lives the way Jesus would have us live them, “only goodness and kindness shall follow [us] all the days of [our lives], and [we] shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come (Ps 23:20).”