Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
On a recent morning, after listening to my wife read the gospel passage where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet, my mind, distracted by a crying child and the anticipation of a day of teaching, was able only to form a somewhat vague prayer: “Lord, help us to discern the kingdom of heaven, and to turn our hearts towards it.”
When Jesus begins this parable, Matthew has just told us that the religious authorities in the temple have passed from indignation to aggression. Only fear of the crowds is holding them back. (Mt 21:46)
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” The king giving the banquet, we read, had a special guest list. However, even though the invitation is urgent, the select group will not be bothered to come. Some, react with hostility, killing the king’s messengers. The king then sends his troops to destroy the select group and burn their city.
Afterwards, he flings open the gates, instructing his servants to bring in “both good and bad.” The banquet is now full. Still, one of the many who received the open invitation strolls in without the proper attire. Unable to give an account of himself, he is summarily chided, bound, and cast into the “outer darkness.”
The king of course is the Lord. And this display of God’s wrath and generosity is paralleled in this week’s reading from Exodus. There, the Israelites, given an opening by Moses’ delay in returning from Mt. Sinai, are exalting an object made by human hands for leading them out of Egypt. Yet, confronted by a people “quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them,” the Lord is generous in mercy.
In light of my prayer I wonder about the qualities or dispositions of these various invitees. One group that refuses to go seems familiar enough: the group who seemed simply to have more important things to do. The ones who killed the messengers display a rather shocking inner disposition. Yet I wonder, were the ones described as simply unavailable in any significant way related to those who are outright hostile? Does inattention, in some circumstances, lead to something as disturbing as aggression toward those who desire our good?
So, one characteristic of those who accepted the invitation was simply availability, which seems also to mean freedom from distraction. When is the last time, in our “multi-tasking” way of life, that, finding yourself unoccupied for a few moments, you said to yourself, “Ah, I am available to hear an invitation, say ‘yes,’ and attend to something wonderful!” If you’re like me, more likely scrambled to unearth your to-do list, or to make one.
And then there is the case of the man who made it to the party only to be confronted by the King, who reprimands him and kicks him out. The problem with this fellow seems to have been his failure to be properly dressed. To be available, and to dress properly, seem to be the qualities of the praiseworthy partiers.
Availability is certainly a challenge for many of us, but what about being rightly dressed? To get dressed appropriately implies having some ability to discern the kind of event what has been invited to attend, and as a result prepare oneself for it. I’ve noticed the way churches express themselves symbolically through what is considered appropriate dress.
Not long ago, I picked up a card for a local church with a representation of a man wearing blue jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt. “These are my church clothes,” read the card. I take the implication to have been that this church had gotten rid of the peg of preoccupation with dress on which, presumably, other churches are still hung up.
The irony, of course, is that dressing down, no less then dressing up, bears a socially encoded meaning. The card of this church, together with how its members dress, represents a conversation between churches present and past about how to rightly dress, and thus about the church’s bridegroom and Lord.
I am trained in Christian ethics, a discipline that takes the risk of trying to name some of the activities through which members of the church might discern the kingdom, e.g., by being available and rightly addressed for the heavenly banquet. The letter to the Philippians is instructive for this work in that it calls attention to the absolute necessity of exemplary members of the community for this work.
In the letter, the examples of Paul, Epaphroditus, Timothy and Christ are held up as examples to the church members at Philippi. Bringing the letter into conversation with the gospel text allows us to insert the church into the parable of the wedding banquet.
If the King’s wedding guests must be available, rather than busy with self-made sooothers for our anxieties, what is it that distracts our attention from our good, the kingdom of heaven? In our reading from Philippians, Paul comes to the reason for writing the letter, saying “I urge Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” By extension, I would say, with regard to us as members of American churches great distractions, we may be greatly distracted from authentic worship by the divisions fueled by culture wars. As a Christian of a liberal bent, I am amazed at how a mood of earnest prayer can be suddenly interrupted by a hostile thought: “Those fundamentalist… (add your preferred vilification)!”
If Paul could write a letter to Christian liberals like me, I believe he would take such thoughts, even when they never leave my head, quite seriously. For he sees the threat of division amongst the Philippians so seriously that he holds up his own suffering as a model.” Look at me!” he says.
We might be tempted to avert our eyes from such a life, in its self-emptying. “I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and offering of your faith.” It is a life that seeks to make visible the God “emptied himself…taking the form of a slave.” Will we turn away from this example of sacrifice for the good of all? I mean the common good which is not just that of immediate peace, but the unity which serves as a condition for our future work of discerning as the church the kingdom to which God invites us and which we are called to make visible in the world? Paul assures us that along this path of sacrifice we will find the ability to rejoice, for “the God of peace will be with you.” Immanuel.