Twenty Eighth Sunday of the Year
Isaiah shares God’s vison of shalom for all people, of a new gathering of peoples. Matthew also intends to teach us something about this in terms of a just human community and a just future. It involves peace-making; caring for the poor and creation; helping the voiceless find justice; tending to the sick and dying, as well as sitting with messy people.
Via the parable, Matthew offers a vision for a just human community to which all are invited but some refuse to participate by refusing to attend the feast. But, it is generosity, enthusiasm and delight in all people behind the strategy to save the feast/party. Clearly there is also the pain at the refusal to share this life as the king runs into problems with his guest list. The parable reveals God’s love for us and the limits to which God will go to ensure that get this inclusive invitation. But, we can miss or be distracted when God’s image is hidden in the face of the other by consumerism, discrimination, militarism, sexism, racism, fear, isolation, rugged individualism, and nationalism. We are being called to wrestle with whatever demons steer us to look away, to remain silent, to avoid being involved, as if our lives are not connected with these people. There are always people who will try to spoil or contaminate ‘the celebration’ with discord and thus exclude themselves. They are found at all levels of church and society. It is present among some cardinals as the Synod in Rome begins this month. They seem to delight in undermining the good others try to do by highlighting their flaws. Their superior, judgmental, and denigrating attitudes are contagious, and their activity can inhibit others from joining or enjoying the party. They are careful not to identify with the mob – the people dear to God’s heart. Today’s story illustrates the surprising identity of God’s chosen people who include the dregs of humanity: ‘Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the ‘chief priests and elders of the people.’’ This is the bottom line. This is where table fellowship occurs. This is where salvation takes place. These are the people and places to which God is attracted. Pope Francis says that God’s loving kindness and mercy is attracted by our need, not our achievements or virtues. This is a God who becomes so vulnerable as to join us where we are. Pope Francis, referring to the spaciousness of God’s embrace, writes, ‘No obstacles in my heart – everything is frail-boned kindness.’ According to Fr Gregory Boyle, ‘Mystics replace fear with love, vindictiveness with openhearted kindness, envy with supportive affection, withing judgment with extravagant tenderness’ (The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness).
Refusniks show themselves up where same-sex couples, intending to get married, have friends, family and colleagues will not share their joy. The violence alluded to in the gospel also exists. It may not always be physical but is more insidious in the form of homophobia. We do not know why the king’s invitations were declined. It may have been a refusal to share a space with one who had imperious expectations and used violence to punish people. In a context where the host’s social status was reflected in the number of people attending, a ‘no-show’ was profoundly embarrassing. Like some same-sex couples, the king turns to a less conventional community – an alternative community – that is responsive, welcoming and prepared to be present with love, care, and celebration. As in Isaiah, this alternative community, is one where God will ‘destroy the veil that veils all peoples’ and wipe away all tears. Can we imagine the veils of white privilege, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and all forms of oppression which keep us from truly rejoicing together and that separate people into ‘chosen’ and ‘unchosen’ are removed? The only tears to be wiped away those of joy, laughter, and love.
We must not equate the king with God, otherwise we run the risk of justifying what rulers have done with their colonial oppressive economic and military policies in the past and present, e.g., British in India, British in Australia, etc. To normalise depictions of God as an angry and violent ruler who ruthlessly punishes others results in condoning violence that dehumanises people at the margins and treats them as expendable. We have witnessed physical, psychological, and economic violence against migrants and refugees, racial minorities, and women. Nothing is more consequential than our idea of God. That idea is what calls the shots and directs our lives.
Our oppressors have skilfully acculturated us to blame ourselves for our oppression. Journalist Chris Hedges (Faces of Pain, Faces of Hope Truthdig) says that it is not by building pathetic, tiny monuments to ourselves that we become autonomous and free human beings but through acts of self-sacrifice, by recovering a sense of humility, by affirming the sanctity of others and thereby the sanctity of ourselves. The banquet symbolises God’s desire to gather and be connected to all people. God – and Jesus - is not very picky as who is included. This ‘preferential option for the poor’ holds that God’s People are not a single group, not tribal, divisive, and not anchored in illusions of separateness. Isaiah introduces the God who wants abundance ‘for all peoples.’
The treatment of the guest seems puzzling. Though seemingly violent, it should not be taken literally. The story is about generosity and how it is rejected. It would have been a great upset to the privileged and those in power to see social barriers broken by general and open invitation to all. What was available for the privileged is now open to anyone. Those who would have invited first now have to fall in line with all being invited. The final shock or upset is that all are equal in God’s reign. Those who seem to be outside the door are the mean, the unjust, the privileged who have set themselves apart from the others and do not identify with them. This is ‘hell’ of disconnectedness and isolation as expressed by ‘darkness’ and ‘gnashing of teeth.’ It can seem like ‘hell’ where there is disconnectedness, isolation, doom and gloom. The one who is turned away may have been a community spoiler who undermined the unity and peace of the gathering; who did not embody the sentiments of God’s heart of love, compassion, care, sense of interconnectedness, a passion for justice, friendship, generosity, and joy. There may be a refusal to let go of bigotry or prejudice against the one who is different. It is not about what clothes one wears but what is in the heart and living our lives in love and friendship, in peace and justice. If we are truly present, we readily witness those invited from the streets - the poor and vulnerable people, drug addicts, street people, homeless, mentally ill - tend to look out for one another. Simone Weil, never became a Christian despite being very drawn to Jesus. She found the heart of Christianity at the church door – not inside. Somehow the call is for to kneel amidst the present-day rubble or look into the graves where many people live and be present to them whether they are in Yemen, Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Aboriginal communities Brewarrina, Bourke and Moree, the rubbish dumps of Manila, the railway tunnels in Sydney’s underground stations that house the unhouses and people living with mental illness or addictions.
Today, as Jesus gives us a glimpse of his vision of God, he offers us a choice. Let us not allow the spoilers contaminate us but allow ourselves to be touched by God's desire that we — all of us — accept the invitation to enter in and fully enjoy the banquet of life set before us.