GROWING IN CHRIST
Maybe like you I found today's parable difficult to understand.
Starts off well – a free banquet to which all invited - then some poor man gets kicked out of the wedding banquet for not wearing right clothes. Very Monty Python!
The same parable appears in Luke’s gospel (and the Gospel of Thomas) minus those final verses about the man who was thrown out.
For a long time I had thought – “How unfair! How could the poor man have been expected to have a wedding garment if he had been hauled in unexpectedly from the street?” The answer is that in the original parable he had not just come in off the street.
Although it is difficult to be certain, it seems likely that the Matthew was responsible for combining two stories. He interprets the gathering in of the poor from the streets as Jesus’ prediction of the subsequent mission to those outside Israel, and goes on to add the second parable as a warning against their admission on too easy terms.
But there’s been a theme to all the parables recently - God’s inclusive love. Not just Israel – all people! The early parables were told to everyone, the just the disciples, now to the Pharisees and religious leaders. And it must have annoyed them! Everyone invited – “good and bad” – don’t you have to do anything to earn admission? Bishops might be deeply concerned!
Those ‘right clothes’ are the garments worn by those baptized into the church. So, early Christians said – “Yes, everyone invited, but you have to be baptised”. Ahhh. That’s the way in! So that poor man was excluded because he hadn’t been baptised – wasn’t ‘clothed in Christ’.
Time and time again the image of a priceless meal where rich food and fine wine are in plentiful supply has been used by those who have written about God’s kingdom. This parable that Jesus tells draws on that tradition of which the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is. 55:1-2)
The wedding banquet was one the most important and joyful occasions in the Jewish life. In this parable, Jesus develops the analogy in a variety of ways. Firstly, this isn’t just any-old wedding but a royal wedding. Now the Pharisees would have understood that the servants sent by the king were the prophets (and John the Baptist) who had been killed for criticising their political leaders.
It’s probable that the parable was expanded by the early Christians into a highly complex allegory concerning the punishment of Israel by the Romans because they rejected the gospel, persecuted the Christian messengers and put them to death.
So that’s a brief explanation of the parable. Through our Baptism we are invited to this, the Eucharistic Banquet, the foretaste of heaven.
But is that all there is to it? What are the consequences to being part of God’s reign? In our first reading St. Paul addresses that point. He doesn’t touch on our social responsibility, but calls us to develop certain qualities of life that need to be developed. None of them, of course, are unique to Christianity, but Paul is reminding us of the way we are to develop them. Thankfulness, gentleness, living ‘honorably’ and acting justly are qualities that should mark us out. Just listen to those words again: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’
What would be the consequences of developing an approach to life that is marked by rejoicing and thanksgiving, and a relationship with God which means we grow in an awareness of his intimate presence?
What sort of life are we looking for? What qualities do we want to develop for ourselves – and our children? There are, of course, many good people of all faiths and none. But what are the values that we should be embracing? In a society which is fast losing it’s religious roots, where do we gain these values? From television? The internet? Politicians? Celebrities?
Is life just about enjoying yourself, looking after your family and making as much money as you can? What gives us our moral and ethical value-system? There will always be arguments about these but ignoring the issue will surely assist the undermining of civilised society.
We may not be able to engage in the great debates on these issues but all of us can – and if we are going to live as mature adults we have a duty to – develop values in our own lives and those of our families. So Paul goes on to remind his hearers of aspects of life that need our attention: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Those words are worth pondering. His injunctions do not tell us what we should do, but they do give us a framework in which to develop our values. ”Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
In our society the loss of religious faith and practice by so many can be understood as a liberation from ignorance, superstition and constraint. Clearly, religion has often been the cause of suffering for many, both individually and corporately. In his own day Jesus was well aware of the damage religion can do and constantly taught the consequences of faith in a God of love. To accept his invitation into the Kingdom of God and to pray for its coming means that we are to live as if we were in it.
The invitation is free and the benefits are enriching – to live Christ-like lives. It is too easy to dismiss religion as irrelevant or harmful, but that is to ignore the great benefit it brings as we embrace its positive values. Otherwise we can be at the mercy of what is frequently described as our ‘lower nature’. Our participation in the Kingdom of God gives us access to those graces from God that enable us to live in Christ. To be a means whereby the world discovers its true identity.