Our personal conversion is our wedding garment
Sunday Homily for October 12, 2008
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (28A)
By Father Alex McAllister SDS
In our Gospel readings for the past few Sundays the parables have been about vineyards, today the parable is about a banquet. These images of the Kingdom are quite intentionally about joyful things such as the production of wine and wedding feasts.
Jesus does not present the Kingdom as something boring or ordinary. No, he presents it as happy and joyful and so he uses the nearest analogies he can find.
This is important because if we ask outsiders what they think about the Kingdom of God then they probably don’t think of it as very exciting at all. They don’t have images of anything joyful going on there. Most likely they will tell you that their image of heaven is of spending eternity sitting on a cloud plucking a harp!
We should do all we can to dispel such negative images of the Kingdom. But then perhaps the best way to dispel them is to try and look a little more joyful ourselves. When people want to hear a positive message they instinctively turn to positive people. Let us do our best to ensure that they instinctively turn to us!
Today’s parable is a very curious one indeed. The first half, though, is fairly clear and we recognise immediately that it is about the refusal of the Jews, the People of God, to accept Jesus as the Messiah. They reject the invitation of the King and are punished for their selfishness and so the King then invites others to the wedding banquet.
The servants are sent out to the highways and the byways to bring in everyone they can find to participate in the feast. So far so good. But then the King inspects these guests and picks on the man without a wedding garment and throws him out in the most brutal way — with his hands and feet bound.
Suddenly our hackles are up because we don’t understand why this poor man hustled into the feast should be so badly treated just because he doesn’t have an expensive wedding garment.
Actually, if you are puzzled and can’t understand this business with the wedding garment you are not alone. Scholars have been baffled by it down the centuries because there are so many incongruities in the story.
I think that what we are dealing with is, in fact, three separate stories or sayings which Matthew has tacked together. All the Evangelists had to do this; you must acknowledge that it would be impossible to summarise these three eventful and crucial years in the life of Christ without a good deal of cutting and pasting.
The first story occurs in a similar form in Luke but stops at the point where the people from the highways and byways are brought in.
There are some differences however, and in Luke there is no reference to the first group of guests being punished by soldiers or having their city destroyed. Perhaps Matthew has included it because his readers were trying to make sense of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.
I regard the second section abut the white garment as a second story, one perhaps given by Jesus on a different occasion but included here by Matthew simply because it is also about a wedding feast.
If we look at it separately we can see that it makes perfect sense standing on its own. Everyone realises that it is not enough to experience the call of Jesus; we know that we also have to make a personal conversion. It is this conversion that the wedding garment most probably signifies.
Now I have absolutely no evidence for this, but it could be that the wedding garment, which was presumably white, is a reference to the white garment we receive at Baptism as a symbol that we are cleansed from sin.
The Christian life can never be something merely passive; it is not like that man who just turns up because he finds the Christian community welcoming. No, it requires a life-long determination to be free of sin and needs a serious commitment to the Gospel.
The third section of our text is the very last verse which, in my opinion, is also included here because Matthew, in his process of cutting and pasting, finds that it sort of fits.
I say ‘sort of fits’ because there is a major inconsistency with the previous few lines. Jesus says “Many are called, but few are chosen” but actually in the story it is just one man who is slung out of the wedding banquet, all the others are permitted to remain. It should be ‘Many are called and most are chosen’ –but that’s not what Jesus said!
Whatever the context, this saying of Jesus easily stands alone as one of the most memorable Gospel truths. We know from our own experience that Christ calls a lot of people in an extraordinary number of ways and in all kinds of circumstances. But we know just as well that not everyone stays the course.
People fall away from the practice of their faith for many different reasons; some through laziness, others through lack of perseverance, or failure to give the Gospel a real priority in their lives.
Some are led away by sin or a false intellectualism; others because they have failed in some area of their lives and have the false notion that God will never forgive them.
We have seen all these things in the lives of the people around us. But we know that there is always a way back for them and we should take it upon ourselves, given the right circumstances, to do what we can to gently help such people back to the practice of their faith.
By the way, we shouldn’t get upset at this process of stitching together a series of different sayings by Jesus. Matthew was doing his best trying to make sense of a whole body of material. He personally witnessed most of the things that happened to Jesus and heard him speak on numerous occasions. And without a doubt Jesus repeated himself from time to time, as anyone would to different audiences.
The important thing is not so much where and when Jesus said this or that but the content of his message. We have been reading through Matthew’s Gospel for almost a year now and we surely agree that he communicates the teaching of Jesus in a beautiful and most convincing way.
Let us not forget that we have the same task. We too must tell the story of Jesus and communicate the essence of his teaching, each in our own beautiful and convincing way.