Homily for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 13, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Is 25:6-10a; PS 23:1-6; Phil 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-10)
Come to the feast -- whomever you send -- bad and good alike.
Come to the feast! Whomever you send! Bad and good alike!
When you were getting ready to come to church today -- when I was getting ready -- there are three wonders that occur to me:
I wonder if you -- if I -- thought we were coming to a feast? A banquet?
And then I wonder, did you ask yourself -- did I ask myself: who else got an invitation, who else will be there with me?
You know, when you are invited to a wedding you find yourself wondering "I wonder if they are going to invite Aunt Nell? Or -- Uncle Charley?
(I have to insert a personal note here. Between the 9 o'clock liturgy and this one I got to thinking about my own family and our weddings. I had an Uncle Tom who loved to dance. And every woman at the weeding reception stood in mortal terror that Uncle Tom might ask her to dance with him. When he finally settled on one woman and asked her, all the rest breathed a sigh of relief and said, "I dodged a bullet that time! Thank God someone was willing to die for the team...")
And if we got that far in our wondering, did we imagine that those dining with us would be "whomever you find?" "The bad and the good alike?"
The parables of Jesus are wonderful literature because they can be read on many levels. When the early Christians in Matthew's community heard this story, they would have no difficulty in 'connecting the dots', as we say today. They would know just who was being referred to.
When Luke tells the same story, he says only that it was 'a certain rich man' holding the feast. Matthew makes it a story about a king. The people would know this is about power.
Those servants who went out first to offer the invitation were the prophets. The people would know that they were not listened to, and in fact were murdered because their ancestors didn't want to hear the message of repentance and conversion.
And when they heard of the king burning the city, they could see the Roman oppressors destroying the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., tearing down their holy Temple.
And who were those who were rejecting Jesus' invitation? They were the religious leaders of the people. You see, this story is not just a parable that could be dropped into Matthew's Gospel at any old place, just another moral teaching. Matthew places it within the context of Jesus' climactic struggle with the chief priests and Pharisees, during the final week of his life. He has disrupted the life of the money-changers in the Temple. Just before this story he tells them:
"I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation which will yield a rich harvest . . . When the chief priests heard these parables, they realized he was speaking of them."
And right after today's story:
"Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus in speech."
They refuse to accept Jesus and his invitation because for them religion was not conversion of heart but the fulfillment of empty external rituals, hollow legalism. As Jesus says in the next chapter:
"The scribe and the Pharisees have succeeded Moses as teachers; there for do everything and observe everything they tell you. But do not follow their example. They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on other men's shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them... They are fond of places of honor at banquets and front seats in synagogues, of marks of respect in public and being called 'Rabbi.' As to you, avoid the title 'Rabbi.'
They held to a purity code which split the world into what was 'clean' and 'unclean.' But Matthew says the servants are to make no distinctions: "whomever you find, the bad and good alike."
In Luke's story, when the first invitation is rejected he has the rich man tell the servants to go out and bring in "the poor and crippled, the blind and lame." These are maladies one isn't responsible for.
Matthew makes the point much sharper: invite the bad and the good alike. The invitation is to everyone. One writer says "Christian revelation has destroyed forever the distinction between things worthy and unworthy of God" [Gabriel Moran]
Do I believe that? Do you? That there is no one outside of God's invitation to the feast? I am reminded that this Gospel message can be heard outside church circles. In that wonderful Broadway musical, Mame, Rosalind Russell as Mame proclaims, "Life is a feast -- and there are too many poor suckers who can't even get to the table!"
All, without exception.
When we make those divisions, when we exclude some individuals or groups because we judge them unworthy, we reveal that we still do not know the God whom Jesus called "Abba", and who wills to be known as our Father.
And sadly we have to acknowledge that we belong to a people, a church that has done this down through the centuries. Our church made women into seducing temptresses or mal-formed males. We have kept people in 'bad' marriages from receiving the bread of life. (Recently in Chile there was a great synod involving the voices of thousands of the faithful, and at the end, among all the message that might have emerged, the loudest message was "we must allow people in irregular marriages to receive the sacraments." You may not be aware of it but for centuries a man who was born illegitimate --- something he surely had no power to cause or change --- could not become a priest. Even today we tell men and women who are attracted to members of their own sex that they are disordered, disfigured. And we tell women born in the image and likeness of God that they cannot really image Jesus at the banquet table. . . .
As we enter into this story, we can put ourselves into the shoes of several different players.
We can identify with those who received the first invitation and were too busy with their own agendas and priorities to accept the Lord's offer. We can say 'been there, done that.' We can identify with the servants who were sent out the second time. It's easy for us to imagine them asking one another, "Does the king really mean we're to invite them?"
And sadly we should be able to recognize in ourselves, after our long history of wars even to this day, the violence in each of us that wants to drive out the otherness which invites us to wholeness, because we do not want to pay the price of disturbing our comfort.
We know all these things in ourselves. Jesus didn't really have to reveal them, he didn't have to teach us those things.
No, finally the most difficult figure for us to identify with in the story is the king, and that's what the story is all about. The parables of Jesus are not really about us, or our morality or our ethics. They are revelations of who our God is.
And this God, our God, will have a feast! Our God's passion to be joined to this people, so wondrously created out of live, will not be thwarted. Not by our sin, not by our rejection, not by our attempt to kill the messengers. Who bear the word. As Isaiah said long ago:
For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
until they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to him who sows, and bread to him who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it. (Is 55:10-11)
Our God will have a feast, and all are invited.
We must be bearers of that invitation no matter how it -- or we -- are received.
The banquet is ready! Come to the feast! Whomever you find, bad and good alike.