Today’s gospel is the third parable that Jesus told in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion. His listeners were both ordinary people and chief priests and elders. He continued to be confrontational with the chief priest and elders. Ultimately his responses to the questions they asked of him with the intent to trip him up will lead to his death. Because he got the better of them, he was deemed too dangerous to be permitted to continue his preaching and teaching.
We might wonder what is going on with this story about a wedding feast – held by a king, no less! Jesus’ ordinary listeners would have known and understood the characters he spoke about in previous parables – vineyard owners and the people who worked for them. Many of them had experience working for the wealthy landowners. The chief priests and elders, who were usually pretty well off and owned large tracts of land themselves, would have been growing increasingly uncomfortable as they listened.
Now Jesus is asking the people to use their imagination and envision what it would be like to receive a wedding invitation from a king. Who on earth would refuse an invitation from a king? Ordinary people would wonder why one would pass up free food and drink, especially when it is expected to be of high quality. Apparently the first group of guests has other things they are busy with. They are too busy with their jobs, their property; and all the things they believe define their worth in the world. They just can’t be bothered with attending a party to celebrate with the son of the king.
Then there those who are not content to send back the rsvp declining the invitation, they actually murder the people who delivered the invitations. That’s a literal take on the saying, “don’t kill the messenger.” The people listening must have immediately grasped that it was not just treachery against the king, it was downright stupid. They probably anticipated the reaction of the king, who does not take this lightly. He sends his troops to destroy those who committed murder, and burned their city to the ground.
Now the king has a problem – all the food and the best wine are ready, but there are no guests. He isn’t going to let his son’s wedding take place without a big celebration. His solution is to send his servants out to invite everyone they meet to the party. He tells them that all those on the previous guest list were unworthy, now they will invite everyone in town both “good and bad.”
What made the previous guests unworthy? They refused the invitation. Therefore, the worthy are those who are happy to receive and accept the invitation. All that really matters is that they show up, ready and willing to enjoy a good meal and accept the hospitality of the king. It doesn’t even matter if they are “good or bad” as Jesus says. It seems as though the story should have ended there, with a great party and a happy ending.
Instead, Jesus throws another, unexpected curve. Have you ever worried about what to wear to a wedding? I’m pretty sure the guys are thinking, No, I make sure my suit is clean and polish my shoes and I’m good to go. But it can be more complicated for us women, so bear with me for a moment. I presided at a wedding yesterday, and I had to find something appropriate to wear. Initially I was pleased to find in my closet a two-piece dress, which could function as a suit with my clerics, but then I sprained my ankle. That meant wearing a pants suit, which worked better with my air cast. Although I wasn’t as pleased with the choice, I wasn’t worried that I would be thrown out of the reception for wearing it!
In Jesus’ story, the king mingles with the guests and sees one hapless individual who is not dressed in the right garment for the celebration. This is not a question of designer clothing – the people who were invited off the street were not wealthy, and they were dressed appropriately, so it couldn’t have been that difficult to obtain the right garment for the occasion. So, what does this mean? If the king represents God, and Jesus is the son, would God really be that picky about what we wear?
As you have probably guessed by now, this has nothing to do with the latest fashion for weddings. It has nothing to do with clothing at all. It is all about the attitude with which we approach God and our celebrations of the saving grace we receive from God’s son, Jesus. The person showed up at the party but was unwilling to take on a celebratory attitude. He didn’t really want to participate in the celebration with the king and his guests, maybe he just wanted free food. As Sister Mary McGlone notes in her commentary on this text in Celebration, “he was like vinegar in a milkshake, he curdled the atmosphere.”
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah describes another party. The time frame is the 7th century BCE, after the defeat of the Assyrians, who had ruled over Israel for about one hundred years. The people are emerging from a time of chaos, destruction and tyranny, they are dressed in clothing more suited to mourning than celebration. But then Isaiah describes a big celebration, a surprise party that God has planned for humanity. The guest list for that banquet is totally inclusive, the food is the very best, the wines are the very finest, and there is no dress code. We are told that the veil that now covers the earth, the shroud that is made up of all the things that separate us from one another and that cause violence and bloodshed – whether it be differences in race, in ethnicity, in religion, in gender, in sexual identity or inappropriate use of power and authority – will be destroyed. All the guests at the party will be happy to participate in the celebration of the fruition of God’s kingdom as God originally intended it to be.
Today we view that banquet as eschatological, that is, planned by God for the end time. That is why we often hear this reading at funerals. What have we learned from these readings? First, we have to accept the invitation, and then we have to come with the right attitude. We have a foretaste of that banquet when we approach God with a celebratory attitude, when we are glad to be thankful for the saving grace we have been given. We can help to create an atmosphere that gives others a foretaste of that celebration when we live our lives in accordance with God’s intentions for us, when we pursue the kind of true compassion, generosity, mercy, justice and righteousness for all people that Jesus described over and over again in his stories and illustrated by his example. When we approach the altar for the Eucharistic feast we model the attitude we will bring to the great banquet yet to come, God’s ultimate surprise party for humankind. It isn’t about appearances, it is about what is truly in our hearts. Amen.