Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
|Robert James Magliula|
The Gospel this week conjures up the unexpected, and also the confusing. This is the second of two parables in which Jesus teaches his audience to expect the judgement that awaits those who decline God’s persistent invitation to practice the ethics of the kingdom. The parable starts out in a rather normal way, but quickly takes a bizarre turn. There’s a reason for it. Matthew brings his own intentions to bear in the story.
A simpler, perhaps earlier, version of this parable is found in the Gospels of Luke (Ch.14) and Thomas (Logion 64). The probable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem suggests Matthew’s attempt to pull Jesus’ teachings forward into the new circumstances that have taken a heavy toll on his community. The terrible images of a destroyed city, a desecrated holy place, and a crucified humanity, have been burned into their minds. These are also the daily images that pass before our own eyes.
Matthew moves from parable into allegory with a more exaggerated set of circumstances: an invitation to a royal wedding extended to assorted guests who---to a person---not only decline but violently fend off the invitation to the point of provoking war. No sooner are substitute guests persuaded to attend the banquet than one is called out for being underdressed for the occasion to which he could not have expected to be invited. The urgency of the warning surpasses the logic of the narrative.
We’re confronted with outrageous behavior on all sides, not only by our standards, but especially in the culture of Jesus' day, with it’s sacred duty of hospitality. It would have been unforgivable for guests or hosts to behave in this way, even in the original parable.
Jesus often made unusual and uncomfortable comparisons in his parables to challenge the assumptions of his listeners. We are as confused, and surprised by this story, as those who first heard it. We don’t know what to do with those scriptures which reverse the rules as we know them, especially challenging our conceptions about who is in and who is out. The temptation is to ignore them, or explain them away. We get the connection between the kingdom and people being invited in from the streets, but then there is the unexpected and extreme behavior of the king toward one of the guests.
There's a way of understanding this story, of taking it seriously and to heart, without taking it literally. Yes, it is deliberately provocative by challenging our preconceived ideas about God and God’s kingdom. It is telling us that it will be like nothing we can imagine. It reminds us that our knowledge and understanding are limited. Even though we are made in God’s image, we are not God. The most we can hope for in this lifetime are glimpses of the kingdom—through story and scripture, through our prayer and experiences. If we are open to the Spirit, if we listen and pay attention, we can catch a glimpse of the kingdom.
I think that Matthew used this story about the kingdom for more than shock value. He wanted to expand people’s perceptions and ground them in the circumstances they faced. He was not saying that the kingdom is like the king or the banquet or the guests. He is saying that the kingdom of heaven is beyond our expectations, beyond our assumptions, beyond what we can analyze and think through. It is always more than what we can see, that God will always surprise us, will always confront us with the unexpected. The point is for us to try to be open to more, not just to rest in the comfortable assumption that we know all about God.
In converting the parable to an allegory, Matthew is telling us what he sees as the central movements of God's actions for us. He insists that the host will go to great lengths, and look in improbable places, to extend invitations to all. He insists that the only sufficient credential for a place at the table is a transformed life. He intimates that not all who believe themselves as guests at God’s banquet actually belong there. The unrobed wedding guest does not show the fruits of living as a guest at the banquet of grace. His downfall comes the moment when asked by the host to account for the way he appears, he is speechless. Gospel living only begins with the invitation that goes out to all. It cannot remain a mere idea. It requires a transformed life, living in a new way, as those who put on Christ. This can seen as a wedding garment, or a baptismal garment, so that the outward effects of Gospel choices will finally settle in the heart.
Within the Christian community there are a range of responses to the invitation. Some want the safe, soft, side of discipleship. Some shy away from the more difficult inner and outer work of practicing love for self and others. Some want the blessings but do not share in the concrete work of service through outreach and social justice. Many are silent and speechless. God comes to us in surprising and unexpected ways which always unsettle us and unmask our fearfulness of life and love.
Throughout Scripture the table serves as a metaphor or word of hope even in the midst of harsh circumstances. Isaiah’s proclamation gives us a glimpse of God’s desire for all gathered together as one. The abundance and inclusivity of this vision are dramatically different from our living from scarcity and fear. God invites us to partner in this vision in our lives. Transformation comes in willing what God wills. The parable leaves us to ponder the question: “How do we appear?”