We must earn our way into the kingdom

  • September 27, 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 9 (Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14)

Isaiah’s vision of God’s banquet is a gourmet and wine connoisseur’s delight: rich foods and the very best, well-aged wine and all of this in abundance. God is not stingy but generous beyond imagining. God’s kingdom is always cast in terms of a banquet and this is a theme that will continue through the New Testament. 

But food and drink is not the main focus of the vision. The feast will take place on the mountain of the Lord — an echo of the covenant at Sinai but also in the ancient world a place where humans and gods meet. But of even greater importance is the fact that it is intended for all peoples — this is not a feast for the in-crowd or elect. Already a new universal understanding of God has dawned. But the blessings far exceed a fine meal. God is going to remove the dark and heavy burden that oppresses all peoples — death and the accompanying dread and fear. Added to that is the wiping away of tears and the end of suffering — in other words, everything that people have yearned for since the beginning of time.

We might ask the inevitable question: When? But this is not something that is just around the corner, nor is it a promise of the proverbial “pie in the sky” after death. It is a comforting vision of a loving and generous God and an encouragement for all humanity. It is meant to assure us that whatever suffering and tribulation humanity will undergo — and there will be a lot — it is not our ultimate destiny nor is it God’s last word. God intends happiness, peace and salvation for all people and will not be thwarted. But when it will happen depends heavily on human co-operation and openness to grace. In a world where negativity seems to rule it is important to keep this vision in our minds and hearts as an inspiration and source of hope in dark times. God is the one who will be our sustainer and redeemer.

Lacking basic needs is not a pleasant experience and most people yearn for abundance. But Paul is somewhat indifferent to either plenty or lack — he makes the best of whatever circumstances in which he finds himself and has a sense of contentment. The gift of God’s strength enables Paul to rise above his external circumstances and his weaknesses. When the focus is on God rather than self we are less constrained by limitations. We have far more than we think.

One would think that everyone would be quite eager to attend the heavenly banquet described in Isaiah’s prophetic vision. What earthly reason could one have to refuse? And yet Matthew’s parable describes just such a reaction. The king invites many people to a formal wedding banquet for his son. But those invited offer a barrage of excuses and even ridicule. They can’t be bothered and are not the least bit interested. Some even mistreat and kill the servants bearing the invitations. The spurned king exacts a terrible vengeance, killing the murderers and burning their city. It seems a bit much. He then invites the general public and the nobodies to the banquet. As in previous passages of this nature, the intent is to delegitimize the Jewish people and install the Christian community as the new people of God — something that we firmly reject today. At the same times it illustrates the all-too-human response to divine invitations.

We are often immersed in our own concerns and really can’t be bothered. Perfunctory or conventional religiosity is one way of getting off the hook — sort of a virtual refusal. But what of the poor fellow who was humiliated and unceremoniously ejected from the banquet? It seems a bit unfair — the expulsion was merely because he wasn’t wearing his Sunday best. The story makes a hard but valid point. Being invited to God’s banquet should not be taken for granted. There is no free pass to the kingdom. In the Bible garments signified one’s inner state and putting on formal dress would have signified gratitude at being undeservedly included in the celebration and given honour to the king. How have we responded to God’s many graces and blessings?