Sunday reflection: Matthew 22:1–14

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:1–14:

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Once again, we’re back with the discourse of Jesus and the leadership of Israel, who attempt to test Him and hear themselves judged in his reply. In this parable, we again see the old order fall of its own refusal to listen to the Word, and a new order replace it. This time, though, there is a warning for the new order too, which is that they must be prepared for the call when it comes. After all, Jesus says, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Who does the choosing, though? In the parable, it’s not really the king who chooses at all. All he does is invite. First, the king invites an entire city of guests, but they choose to reject the invitation, He sends servants to invite them again, and some ignore the call while others attack and kill the royal servants. After punishing the murderers, the king then starts inviting everyone his servants can find to his son’s wedding. And this time the hall fills up, with the good and the bad alike. When the king sees the latter, who arrived in a slovenly manner of dress, the king casts him out into the darkness after the man can make no account for himself.

Now, that looks like choosing on the part of the king, but is it really? The man could have chosen to dress properly for the occasion. After all, he had been told that this was a wedding, and a royal wedding at that. He could have put on proper garments, clean and appropriate.

But did he have time to do so? The parable tells us that the king’s servants had gathered them up where they were found, good and bad alike. This particular man had not been prepared for such a call, and had clothed himself in a way which demonstrated his unfitness for such a feast. Of course, he had no idea that the king would have called on him at that particular moment to attend a wedding feast of his son, and had not prepared at all. Implicitly, though, most of the rest of the people at this feast gathered up by the king’s servants seem to have prepared themselves, as this particular man stands out to the king when he reviews the guests in Jesus’ telling of the parable.

This parable is not difficult to understand, and probably wasn’t all that obscure to the chief elders and scribes of the time either, at least the first part of it. The first city to get the invitation was Israel, and the prophets were the servants abused and murdered by the Lord’s people. The refusal to attend would end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The second round of invitations is the church of Jesus gathering everyone else to the Father, but not everyone gathered will enjoy the feast.

This image of heaven goes back at least to our first reading in Isaiah, where the prophet tells Israel that “the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” Death will be destroyed forever, Isaiah prophesies, and the people at the feast will rejoice, “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!”

To whom we looked to save us. God invites all to the banquet of salvation, but we have to prepare ourselves for the event when it comes; we have to look for that invitation and be open to its call, preparing ourselves to receive it. The man in this parable remained clothed in his sin and iniquities, not realizing that such a call would come or would come at that moment. None of us know the moment when we will be called to the feast. We must therefore prepare ourselves by clothing ourselves in our faith and our caritas at all times. We must live the life Jesus teaches us to live in order to prepare for that call, that moment when we find ourselves in front of the Lord.

So once again, who chooses when it comes to this parable, and this feast? We do. We are all called, all invited to God’s feast. That is the expanse of God’s mercy, but His justice will also be at work, too. These are not in competition with each other, but merged perfectly in God Himself. The mercy of the invitation and the justice of allowing us to make our choice out of the gift of free will given to us by God are part of the same phenomenon. If we choose to ignore Him, He does not force himself upon us to make us slaves. If we choose sin and degradation, He does not remove that choice from us. But those choices have consequences, and Jesus makes that clear at the end of this parable.

That is, in the end, our choice. God gives us the free will to choose whether we wish to attend His Son’s wedding feast. Only in that feast, we are not just guests, but part of the Church that will be the Bride of Christ throughout all eternity. We will live in the Trinitarian divine life, where as Isaiah says all tears will have been wiped from every face. But it is our choice to prepare for that, and it will be our choice that determines whether we have clothed ourselves properly for the feast.

So in what manner should we prepare ourselves for that occasion, described so beautifully in Revelation and paralleled in this parable from Jesus? The same way any bride prepares for a wedding — with joy, anticipation, and care. One rarely sees a bride walking down an aisle with hair unbrushed, in an old stained tee shirt, torn sweat pants, and flip-flops walking toward a groom in a suit or tuxedo. I’ve been to a number of weddings and have yet to see a bride grudgingly wear a gown and put on make-up for the occasion. Most of them have insisted that everything she wore was perfect for the occasion, and extended that to everyone else within her sight, too.

That is how we should prepare for Jesus Christ, too, or at least the enthusiasm with which we prepare for the feast. No one wears sackcloth and ashes to a wedding, so why should we do so when living lives of Christian faith and caritas in preparation for the call? Rejoice and be glad. The wailing and grinding of teeth belong to those who choose it.