Sunday, October 12, 2014

Heaven's Royal Wedding

First of all, as a grandson of Italian immigrants, let me begin by wishing everyone here a happy Columbus Day! If you forgot about Columbus Day - which is easy enough to do these days - you'll remember soon enough tomorrow when you don't get any mail! Columbus Day is not just for italians, of course. Columbus sailed in service of the Spanish Crown, and so his descendants are now Spanish nobility. Columbus initiated the great encounter between Old and New Worlds, which initiated the evangelization of the American continent and which created Latin American culture. So, today is also El Dia de la Hispanidad! In my hometown, we celebrate both – with a Latino parade on Sunday and an Italian parade on Monday. So everyone is happy!

Now, as you all probably already know, the Synod of Bishops is meeting in Rome right now on the timely topic of “The Pastoral Challenges for the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” The evangelization of America famously began on this day in 1492. Evangelization has new and special challenges today, but it is as old – and forever new - as the Church itself. Indeed, 40 years ago, another Synod called evangelization the essential mission of the Church. 

And, speaking of evangelization, Jesus in today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:1-14] gives us yet another parable about evangelization and ilife int he Church and their ultimate goal, the kingdom of heaven - which, Jesus tells us, may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. In a world where resources were scarce and food supplies limited, what better image for the kingdom of heaven than the abundance suggested by a royal wedding!

As with so many of the kingdom of heaven parables, which we have been hearing these recent weeks, we are apparently intended to hear this story as a kind of allegory. The king, of course, represents God; the king’s son is Jesus; the king’s servants, sent to summon the invited guests, are the Old Testament prophets; and the servants sent out again to invite to the feast whomever they find are the apostles - and their successors in the Church. Likewise, the invited guests who refused to come represent those who resisted or opposed Jesus, while all those gathered from all over the place, both bad and good alike, would be all those others – including, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written down, many Gentiles, and which presumably also includes us, – who have responded positively to Jesus and, over time, to his Church. And, finally, the king’s coming into the hall to meet the guests represents the judgment.

Clearly, the parable illustrates God’s great desire that as many as possible be included in the abundant life he has planned in his kingdom. That said, we are left wondering about any number of things. Why, we wonder right away, did those originally invited guests refuse to come to the feast?

In what we rather pretentiously refer to as “the real world,” it is hard to imagine anyone ever refusing a royal invitation for any reason.  On the contrary, people go to great lengths to get themselves invited to all sorts of high profile events - State Dinners at the White House, for example, - and they are normally more than willing to rearrange their schedules as needed. In the parable, however, some ignored the invitation and went away, while others (even more oddly) aggressively rejected the invitation. Of course, this was not just any royal wedding, but an invitation to enter the kingdom of heaven itself. Throughout history, there have always been people who have aggressively resisted God’s kingdom. (That’s why we’ve had so many martyrs in the Church’s history – more, incidentally, in the past hundred years than in any previous century!) Even so, I would suspect that many more people probably fall into the less aggressive category of those that just ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. Their behavior is really very easy to understand. It really is very easy to become completely preoccupied with the ordinary activities and demands and business of life, with one’s own daily affairs – whether one is constantly climbing up some social or economic ladder or whether one is just getting by and making do. If this parable illustrates God’s great desire to have us all in his kingdom, it also illustrates just how easily the ordinary day-to-day stuff of life can, if we let it, mix up our priorities and get in the way of what God has in mind for us.

Now, obviously, as members of the Church, we who are here today will immediately identify ourselves with the second group – those gathered in from all over the place, both bad and good alike. It would be difficult to argue that those in this second group started out any better or were any more meritorious than those who turned down the initial invitation. But they did at least recognize the value of the invitation and were willing to give God a try. And, for those who actually follow through, that readiness to respond really makes a difference - makes all the difference in the world! Surely, it has to be quite consoling for us to hear that God’s kingdom is not some kind of private club, that there’s plenty of room for all sorts of people, from all sorts of places, of all ways of life - even for the likes of us! 

Unlike a classic fairy tale, however, Jesus’ parable lacks that classic “happy ending.” Back in our “real world,” even a last-minute addition to the guest list for a White House State Dinner would presumably know enough to dress for the occasion - although increasingly I am amazed at how many people seem to have completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to dress appropriately for any event anytime. (But that's another discussion!) In any case, when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

Now that’s what happens, some skeptics might say, when you just open the door and let anyone and everyone in. The story says both bad and good alike came in on that second round. So certainly the king can’t say he wasn’t warned! But, just because the door has now been opened to all sorts of people, it does not follow that the king has therefore completely abandoned all his expectations about how his guests are supposed to behave once inside. Being inclusive doesn’t mean anything goes. Responding to the invitation represented an initial choice to be part of God's kingdom. But, as we all know, people don’t all always follow through on their commitments. Sadly, even of those that do in fact show up, not all will follow up!

When challenged by the king, the casually dressed guest was reduced to silence. In other words, he had no excuse. Now,if there is one thing that we human beings are really good at, it is finding and making excuses for ourselves! But, in God’s kingdom, on Judgment Day the time for excuses will be over.

As already noted, the kingdom of heaven is not a private club. It extends a wide-open invitation to all - as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer, to every people, tongue, and nation.  As the parable illustrates, that really does include everyone. It includes both bad and good alike. Accepting that invitation, however, brings with it the challenge of full and meaningful membership in God’s kingdom. God's kingdom - from the initial invitation to the final judgment - is intended to be taken in all its awesome seriousness.  Otherwise, we too risk finding ourselves with no excuse, reduced to silence forever.

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 12, 2014.

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