Click here for the Sunday readings - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time [Cycle A]
What is the context of this Gospel passage?
We are nearing the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s passage takes place after Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem as part of the procession we now celebrate on Palm Sunday. The crowds have chanted Hosanna upon his arrival, and the religious leaders are actively plotting to have Jesus arrested. These chapters of Matthew are richly imbued with symbolism that would have been familiar to the Gospel’s original Jewish audience. For example, Jesus rides into town on a donkey, an explicit reference to Zecariah 9:9, which reads, “Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, Humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Matthew is making it as unambiguous as possible: this Jesus is the King, the Savior of Israel who has been foretold throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Following his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus famously drives the money changers out of the Temple, to the abject horror of onlooking the religious authorities entrusted with its care. He then spends the next several days teaching in the streets and performing miracles to cure those who were considered unfit or unclean for full participation in Temple worship. It is at this point that the religious leaders have had enough and demand to know (in our readings from several weeks ago), “By what authority” Jesus is doing all of this. Today, we are in the third consecutive week of Jesus’ multi-part answer to their challenge, which takes the form of a series of parables in which he draws upon imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures to impugn as unfaithful both the leadership of the Jewish people (the chief priests, Pharisees, and Scribes) and the Jewish people as a whole.
So what is this parable about?
As with any parable, there are multiple layers of interpretation, but this one is more of a straightforward allegory than most. The King is God. Those who are invited to the wedding feast are the Jewish people. The servants the King sends out to announce the feast are the Prophets of Israel, who were ignored, rebuffed, or even killed for their efforts. The guests who were not originally invited--who were in fact considered unfit or unwelcome--are the Gentiles. The individual who makes it into the banquet, but ultimately gets thrown out for being improperly attired, is representative of those Gentiles who initially accept the invitation, but who do not take the necessary steps, once invited, to prepare themselves for full participation in the life of the Church.
Jesus is both admonishing the Jewish people for their failure to heed the words of the prophets--the servants God had sent out to announce His plans--but also warning them that, if they did not change their ways, others (the Gentiles) would be the ones invited in their place! He is likewise saying, though, that simply being invited is not enough, for the very acceptance of an invitation requires us to “change our clothes,” which was very often a metaphor for an internal spiritual conversion.
What does this have to do with us?
It’s worth noting why the respective guests don’t come to the wedding. What’s perhaps most fascinating is the fact that not all of their reasons are “bad,” nor are their motives “evil.” Some of the guests heard the invitation, but they were too busy looking after their own estates. One, we are told, went away to his farm, another to his business. Surely those are not bad reasons for missing a feast! (After all, wedding banquets went on for days! Who has the time to just pick up and leave the farm or business unattended for a whole week? If anything, it seems like quite a responsible move to decline the invitation and make sure the business keeps on running, right?
The invitation we receive is to a banquet! A feast! Can you think of any celebrations you’ve been to that are more overwhelmingly joyous than a wedding reception? We think the brides on television sometimes go overboard, but weddings in the ancient world lasted for days and could cost a family’s entire life savings! They were all-out, save-nothing-for-later affairs involving the finest wine, the choicest foods, and the most exuberant dancing!
This is the metaphor that Jesus invokes to describe life in relationship with God! Our acceptance of following “the Law,” living in accord with God’s will for us, should not feel like a boring, uninspiring affair, much less a funeral. Life as a believer should be one of song, dance, food, drink, friendship, laughter, community, and joy! Pope Francis has recently reminded us of this as he has emphasized the JOY of the Gospel and the happiness that ought to radiate from within if we are living an authentically Christian life.
Like the guests invited to the wedding feast in this parable, we too, very often ignore or reject an opportunity to live in the joy of the Gospel, because we become so focused on attending to the serious business of every day life. Think of your own life... can you remember a time that something that should have been an invitation to a FUN event, like a party, happy hour, or wedding, came to feel like an obligation, or, worse, a burden? How backwards is it when we become so obsessed with our work that we see taking a break to celebrate a friend as representing “something we have to do,” rather than an opportunity to have fun?
It is good and appropriate for us to be serious and earnest in our worldly affairs. But today’s Gospel reminds us that the joy of life in faith compels us to take breaks from that seriousness and to celebrate! And of course for us, as Christians, there is no greater celebration than the one that takes place at the banquet table of the Lord, here at Church each week. The Mass, we proclaim, is the greatest celebration we could imagine. And yet how many times do we, as contemporary, 21st century believers, offer precisely the same excuses that the guests for the banquet provide in today’s parable? How many times do we miss out on an opportunity to celebrate the Mass with friends and family because we “have too much work to do,” “can’t afford to take a day off,” or, worse, just don’t really feel like motivating ourselves go to?
The life of a believer should be one of joy, Jesus insists. And that joy is nowhere more palpable than when we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord each week. This week’s Gospel provides a powerful reminder that, far from being some burdensome obligation to show up in order to make someone else happy, our invitation to attend the Mass ought to be an exciting opportunity to come together with friends in order to eat, to drink, to sing, to dance, and to be full of joy. How blessed are we, who are invited to this banquet!
Questions for Reflection
1.) Have you ever been invited to an event that, on some level, should have been “fun,” but because of other life obligations, felt like a burden? Did you go? Did you enjoy yourself?
2.) We refer to Mass as a celebration, and, indeed, the priest is described in the official liturgical texts as the “celebrant.” What is your experience of the Mass? Does it feel like a joyful celebration? If so, what parts give you the most joy? If it does not, what parts do you struggle with? Do you think that there is anything you could do to get more out of Mass?
3) Do you ever find yourself so wrapped up in work or other responsibilities that you feel unable to attend Mass? How do you think you might be able to integrate the message of today’s Gospel into your own spirituality as you attempt to accept God’s invitation in your life?