Worthiness for the Wedding Banquet
October 13, 2002
A woman decided that she was going to have a dinner party for a good number of her friends. So, she spent most of the week cleaning, baking, cooking, and preparing the table. And when everyone finally arrived and sat down to eat, she turned to her six year old daughter and said, “Honey, why don’t you say the blessing?” “Mommy,” she said, “I don’t know what to say.” “Just simply say what you hear Mommy say.” So the little girl bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all of these people to dinner?”
Like the woman in the story, you and I can occasionally have regrets about the invitations that we offer. But that is not the case with our God. For our God is a God of invitation. A God who is constantly inviting all people into relationship, inviting all to share in divine life and love.
The parable that we hear today portrays this God of invitation. It also tells us something important about ourselves and our own worthiness to accept God’s call. The king in the parable is constantly inviting people to come to the wedding banquet of his son. But, no one wants to come. Finally, in frustration he says, “Look, the dinner is ready., but those who were invited were unworthy.” What does it mean in the world of this parable to be “unworthy”? It is simple. Unworthiness consists in refusing the invitation.
Underlying this parable is a fundamental, theological belief that the invitation of God is supreme. It is really the only thing that matters. Our worthiness, our successes and our failures do not count as much as God’s call. Therefore, worthiness does not result from all the good things that we have done, but simply from our willingness to say “yes” to the invitation. Unworthiness is not determined by the mistakes and sins that we have committed, but simply our stubbornness in refusing to come to the wedding banquet.
The parable is very clear on this. Look who ends up at the wedding banquet: everyone that the slaves can bring in off the streets, the good and the bad alike. The point here is that our moral condition is secondary, secondary to God’s invitation. The banquet is ready and God wants us to come.
Now, this insight can clarify a number of misperceptions that we can have about the Christian faith. At times we may think that faith is about us being good. But it is really about God being good. At times we may think that faith is about us making the choice to love God. But faith is really about God making the choice to love us. All the good things that we do, all the wonderful qualities that we have do not make us worthy of that love. All the mistakes we have made, all the sins that we have committed, do not disqualify us from the invitation that God is offering.
God invites us, and worthiness depends upon whether we say “yes” or “no” to that invitation. To say this in another way, God does not love us because we are good; we are good because God loves us. We are good because we have said “yes” to God’s invitation and despite any of our successes or shortcomings, we have chosen to come to the feast.
Clearly, once we have said “yes” and accepted the invitation, we try to live a moral life. We try to do good and avoid evil. But, all of us know that our success in that area is rather uneven. Yet, our success or failure is secondary, secondary to God’s invitation. It is God’s call that counts.
So, never think that God loves you because you are good, because you come to church, because you give to charity, because you are a good parent or spouse or friend. All of these things are commendable. But, God’s love for you is prior to, and greater than, any of your achievements. None of the good things you do have any claim on God’s love. Because, before all of them God freely chose to create you, to save you in Jesus Christ, and to call you to eternal life.
Never believe that God has stopped loving you because you have sinned, because you have failed, because you have cheated or lied, because you have hurt other people, because you are prejudiced or selfish. God’s love is prior to, and greater than, any of your sins or failures.
Our God is a God of invitation. God invites us all into relationship, into the divine life. Our worthiness depends only on our willingness to say “yes” So, let us say “yes.” Let us forget all of our successes and failures, all of our virtues and vices. Let us simply say “yes” to God’s love. The wedding banquet is prepared. Come to the feast.
Accepting the Invitations to Life
October 9, 2005
Another week, another difficult parable from Matthew. Like last week’s parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard, this week’s parable of the wedding feast includes parts that are not only violent, but difficult to understand. Why would you kill someone who is inviting you to a wedding banquet? Why would the king send his troops to destroy the city of those who refused to attend?
Let’s start with what is clear and work from there. This parable is obviously about invitations: invitations to the banquet of life, invitations to the feast in the Kingdom of God. Invitations are significantly different from general knowledge. Many people possess general knowledge, but an invitation is personal and concrete and it demands a response. I am sure that in the world of the parable, every person knew that the king was holding a wedding banquet for his son. But that general knowledge was quite different from a personal invitation to attend.
God sends us personal invitations. We call those invitations the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and those invitations arrive in the concrete circumstances of our lives. Every person here who is a regular smoker has the general knowledge that tobacco is harmful and should not be used. But every once in a while, you receive a personal invitation from God to stop smoking. It can happen as you are watching a medical program on television, or when you receive the news of a friend that died altogether too young. Perhaps some here this morning have the general knowledge that something is going wrong in your marriage, that something is dying. But every so often, perhaps when you are looking at old photographs or watching your children play, God sends you a personal invitation to do something about it.
Many of you here have the general knowledge that you should make contact with an old friend, spend more time with your children, let a person know the truth of what I believe, find another job, or reach out and make peace with someone who has hurt you. Those ideas are in your heads. But every so often God puts in your mind a thought, or you catch something in the glance of another person, or you turn a corner and suddenly realize that God is personally asking you, “Why not do something about that now? I am inviting you to act.”
Now God keeps sending these personal invitations because God loves us and desires that we have a deeper and richer life. But no matter how many times the invitation is sent, we retain the freedom to choose, the freedom to refuse the invitation. We often take it. We tell ourselves, “Yes, that would be a very good thing to do, and I’ll get around to it. Yes, that is something that would be important for me in my life, but not today.”
Here is where the violence comes in. If we took a very literal reading of today’s parable, we could interpret that the king who sent his troops to destroy the murderer’s city stands for God punishing those who refuse to accept the invitations which are sent. But such an interpretation would be certainly wrong. There are simply too many passages in the scriptures that describe God as loving and forgiving, slow to anger and of great compassion. So we know that the violence in the parable is not describing God. It is, however, telling us something very important about the choices that we make.
When we choose to refuse a personal invitation of God, there are consequences. Those consequences can sometimes be quite violent and destructive. In short, there is a price to pay for saying, “no.” When over and over again you refuse the personal invitation to stop smoking, God is not going to punish you, but you might be facing a future that includes a violent and painful death from cancer. When you refuse the invitation to take some action to heal your marriage, God is not going to attack you, but your choice might well lead to a life that is empty or to the upheaval of divorce. When we choose to put aside to some other day the opportunity to make contact with someone that we love, spend more time with our children, tell the truth, reexamine our job, or reach out in reconciliation to someone else, God does not become angry. But we have no guarantee that the same invitation will be offered to us tomorrow. If such opportunities slip through our hands, we have to deal with the consequences.
God will not punish us, but life will. There is no more bitter pain than the realization that things could have been different if I would have chosen better, if I would have said yes to the invitation that was offered to me. This is why God keeps sending invitations, day after day, time after time. This is why the Spirit keeps personally prompting us in ways that we expect and in ways that surprise us.
You know the things to which God is calling you. You can remember all the personal invitations that have been sent to you time after time in the past. This liturgy might be another invitation to add to the list. Do not set those personal invitations aside. Do not imagine that there will be time for another chance tomorrow. Accept the invitation that has been sent. Respond to life today.
Forming a Face
October 9, 2011
Did your mother ever say to you, “Don’t make that face or it’s going to freeze like that forever”? Well, there might be more truth than first appears in this rather manipulative approach to parenting. Ronald Rolheiser has suggested that we, as humans, actually create our own faces. Rolheiser states that we are born without a face. Babies are cute and adorable but their faces do not betray any of the individuality or character that will someday develop in their lives. So if a baby is beautiful, it is the result of genetics alone. But as we begin to grow, our face begins to appear. It begins to show traits of character, personality, and attitude. Rolheiser says that around the age of 40, the lines of most people’s faces are set. From that age onward, every face betrays a certain character, a certain personality, and a certain kind of beauty.
Now the importance of these ruminations is that our faces reveal our lives. The choices we make and the people that we are become more and more displayed in the faces that are ours. Up to about 40, it’s pure genetics. This is why you can be a jerk and beautiful at the same time! But after 40, the face begins to show the choices and characteristics of our true selves. If you are a petty, mean, narrow, judgmental and prejudiced person, it is going to show up in your face. If, on the other hand, you are a generous, warm, forgiving, and loving person, that is going to show in your face as well. The older that we get, the more that our faces reveal who we are. It becomes easier for others to see our character in the faces that we wear.
This provides for us a telling connection to today’s gospel. At the end of the gospel a man is thrown out of the wedding feast for not wearing a wedding garment. Now, what is a wedding garment? A wedding garment is clothing that is appropriate for a wedding. Certainly the man who was thrown out was wearing something. But whatever he was wearing was not suitable for the feast. It is a common interpretation of the parable that the Wedding Feast stands for the Kingdom of God. If that is the case, then the wedding garment signifies those virtues and characteristics that are appropriate for the Kingdom of God, the garb we should be wearing if we are to fit into the feast. We could try to come into the Kingdom of God with prejudice and selfishness, with pride and greed, with anger and judgment. We would be wearing something, but it would not be a wedding garment because those qualities are not appropriate for the Banquet of Christ.
Each day, you and I are weaving another part of the garment we will wear at the Feast of the Lamb. The parable today wants to make sure that the garment that we are weaving is a wedding garment, a garment suitable for the feast. The older that we get, the more the garment is finished and the clearer it is to others how we will be dressed on the last day. So the parable is a warning, a warning that we choose carefully the garments that we are weaving and the faces that we are forming. Today, then, should be the day that we choose thankfulness over jealousy, generosity over greed, and openness over prejudice. Today should be the day that we reach out and try to make peace with an enemy, rejoice with someone who loves us, or give ourselves in service to those in need.
After the age of 40, there are no more poker faces. It becomes clearer and clearer the choices that we have made and the people who we are. That is why the older that we become the more important it is to make our choices carefully. There are fewer opportunities to build our character and to change our face. At the end of our lives when we enter heaven and throw open the doors of the wedding feast, we will come up to the Lord and say, “Jesus, I’m here!” How sad would it be if Jesus would look at our face and say, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?”
Come to the Banquet Today
October 12, 2014
Matthew 22: 1-14, Isaiah 25: 6-10a
A recent business survey reported that one third of American workers played hooky from their job at least one day during the past year. The same survey compiled the most creative excuses that the workers came up with to explain their absence. Here are the top five.
Number 5: “I was sprayed by a skunk.”
Number 4: “I couldn’t find my shoes.”
Number 3: “I eloped.”
Number 2: “My brain went to sleep and I couldn’t wake it up.”
And Number 1: “My cat unplugged the alarm clock.”
Now I don’t think that most of these workers intended to quit their job. They just wanted a day off. They made their excuses in the presupposition that they would work the next day. They simply judged that missing one day of work was not that significant.
But what if their refusal to come did not refer to their work but to their eternal happiness? What if the excuses they made ended up absenting them from the kingdom of God? This is what today’s parable is about. Those in the parable who refused the invitation were not necessarily opposed to celebrating with the king. They just didn’t want to do it today. They presumed that other invitations would come. But what those invited did not understand was that this was no ordinary invitation. This was no ordinary feast. This was the wedding banquet for the king’s son. That detail tips us off that the banquet in the parable refers to the eternal banquet that God is preparing for all peoples, the banquet that Isaiah describes in today’s first reading. So saying no to this invitation, is saying no to the supper of the Lamb. It is refusing eternal joy.
When people refuse the invitation, the king in the parable cuts them off. But our God is different. God continues to invite us day after day. God never tires of asking us “Won’t you come to the wedding banquet of my son?” This parable is warning us that because that invitation is so important, because that banquet is so essential, we should not postpone the opportunity of saying “Yes” to the one who invites us.
How often has God invited us to examine the prejudices that we carry? How often has God suggested that we look at the way that we judge people of another race, religion, or political view? How often has God asked us to look at the narrow way we are thinking and to enlarge it, to find new information or to talk with someone with more experience? We respond, “Yes I know I should, but not today. I’d rather keep thinking the way I do a bit longer.” How often has God invited us to do some good deed for another person, to help an elderly neighbor, to visit a sick friend, to give something of what we have received to those who have less? We respond, “Yes I’ll do that, but not today. Today I would prefer to keep my energy for myself.” How many times has God invited us to be thankful for the people in our lives, to take time with our children, to address an issue in our marriage, to be thankful for our friends, or for the people with whom we work? We answer, “Yes I know, but I am so busy. There are so many things I have to do. Let me do those things first.”
God keeps inviting us, day after day. But if we refuse too many times, our prejudices can become too set to change. Our habits can become too fixed to allow us to serve others. Our children can become too old or our marriage too compromised for us to enjoy them.
So when the next invitation comes, do not turn away. Recognize that this is not a casual or trivial request. Understand that God is offering this invitation with all of his hope and all of his love. When God asks, do not make an excuse. Do not blame the cat. Say “Yes I will come to the wedding feast of your son, today.”
Invitation as a Threat
October 15, 2017
The difficulty of understanding today’s parable of the wedding feast is the strange response of those who were invited. Some simply said, “No,” and went about their own business. But the parable tells us that the rest mistreated the messengers and killed them. So why would you kill someone who is inviting you to a wedding feast? The response seems absurd. In fact the only way I can make sense out of it is to imagine that those who responded in that way did not see the king’s offer as an invitation but somehow as an attack. They did not perceive the request to come as a gift but something that would do them harm.
How can we explain such a mistaken conclusion? To answer that question we need go no further than our own experience. As you and I make decisions and choices in our lives, denial, hurt, and pre-judgments can skew our perception so that what is a positive opportunity can appear as a threat.
There might be something wrong in your family, one of your children failing in school, or a deteriorating financial situation. But you are in denial. You don’t want to hear anything about it. Your spouse comes to you and says, “We have to talk about Billy. Let’s discuss our budget.” You explode. The response to the invitation to discuss is not simply a refusal, but a rejection with violence. “Don’t bother me. I don’t want to talk about it!” An opportunity to make progress in a difficult situation is rejected in anger because of denial.
A friend or family member may have hurt or slighted you, and you have been nurturing that pain for months. Then one day you receive an invitation in the mail to that person’s birthday party. You crumple up the invitation and throw it in the trash, muttering, “Over my dead body!” An invitation to a celebration turns violent because of hurt.
Pre-judgment also spoils the feast. Once we have made up our minds about something, once we have closed our hearts, the invitation to rethink our opinions can come across as an attack. This is particularly true in our polarized political climate. All of us have opinions and our positions are often hardened. When someone suggests that we might think a new thought, we can respond with resentment. Someone asks you, “What do you think about Congress’ approach to health care?” or “What is your opinion on the Church’s teaching on the right to immigration?” Complaints and frustrations spew out as your temperature rises. The invitation to think a new thought can appear as a threat because of pre-judgment.
Now the good news of today’s parable is that what appears to us as an attack can in fact be something very different. We believe that our God, our King, is preparing a great wedding celebration for Jesus, and we are all invited. Despite our denial, hurt, and pre-judgment, God keeps inviting us to a celebration that is hopeful and filled with joy. And even if we refuse them, God keeps sending invitations. So the next time that you feel angry because of an opportunity to talk, to heal, or to re-think something, remember this parable. That which appears to us a threat might, in fact, be a gift from someone who loves us. That which makes us angry today can, in truth, be an invitation to the wedding feast of God.