Sunday, October 15, 2017

No Excuses

Jesus in today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:1-14] gives us yet another parable about evangelization and its ultimate goal, the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus tells us is like 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 Jesus’ parables, it is a kind of allegory. The king, of course, represents God; the son is Jesus; the 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. Presumably, the invited guests who refused to come represent those who resisted or opposed Jesus, while all those gathered from the streets, both bad and good alike, would be all those others – including, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, many Gentiles, 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. So, why, we wonder, did those originally invited guests refuse to come to the feast?

It is hard to imagine anyone ever refusing such an invitation.  On the contrary, people go to great lengths to get themselves invited to all sorts of high profile events, and they are usually more than willing to rearrange their schedules if needed. In the parable, however, some ignored the invitation and went away, while others (even more oddly) aggressively rejected the invitation.

The fact is that 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.) Even so, I suspect, 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 so completely preoccupied with the ordinary stuff 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 business of life can, if we let it, confuse our priorities and get in the way of what God has in mind for us.

Now, obviously, as members of the Church, we want to identify ourselves with the second group – those gathered in from all over the place, both bad and good alike. It is not that they were any better or more deserving 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 follow through, that readiness to respond makes all the difference! Certainly, 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 even the likes of us!

In Jesus’ world, in any traditional society, even a last-minute addition to the guest list for a formal occasion would presumably know enough to dress for the event - unlike in our society where many seem to have completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to dress appropriately anytime for any event. In any case, when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

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, so the king can’t say he wasn’t warned! But, just because the door has now been opened to all, it does not follow that the king has therefore abandoned all his expectations about how his guests are supposed to behave. Being inclusive doesn’t mean anything goes. Responding to the invitation represented an initial option for the 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. If there is one thing we human beings are usually very 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.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is not a private club. It extends a wide-open invitation to all, and that (as the parable illustrates) includes both bad and good alike. Having accepted that invitation, however, we are intended to take in all its awesome seriousness the challenge of full and meaningful membership in God’s kingdom - from the initial invitation to the final judgment -  lest 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 15. 2017.

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