28th Sunday of the Year
Isaiah shares God’s vision: one that seeks the good or shalom for all people. This vision encourages us to collaborate in helping to bring about a new gathering of peoples. This happens when we throw ourselves into the work of peace-making; caring for the poor and creation; helping the voiceless find justice; and tending to the sick and dying. Jesus puts flesh on this parable where by sitting with the poor, outcasts and sinners, he lives out God’s desire to be with us. When people unite with one another they are doing the work of love and taking the opportunity to be part of the transformation of society.
In the gospel, it is generosity, enthusiasm and delight in all people that lay behind the strategy to save the party. There is also the pain at refusal to share this life. Matthew intends to teach us something about the just future - a vision for a just human community to which all are invited but some refuse to be part of it. Isaiah wants to reveal a God who is a refuge for the poor, the needy and those in distress. It has been said that the human mind is a factory of idol making. Whether our idols are gun ownership, nationalism, the flag and anthem, prosperity, consumerism - they tend to be grounded in ideologies that put our interests ahead of the well-being of others, the Earth and God. People put their trust in power, privilege and possessions with questionable security. The privileged may have walls to hide behind, but these are temporary.
The message of consumer society to those at the lowest rung of society is loud and unrelenting: You are a failure. It celebrates those who wallow in power, wealth and self-obsession. It promotes the lie that if one works hard and is ‘clever’ then success will follow. Our oppressors have skilfully acculturated us to blame ourselves for our oppression. Chris Hedges (Faces of Pain, Faces of Hope Truthdig https://www.truthdig.com/articles/faces-pain-faces-hope/) 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.
So the banquet symbolises God’s desire to gather and be connected to all people. We also see that God – and Jesus - is not very picky as who is included in our circles. It is expressed in the term ‘preferential option for the poor.’ The parable reveals God’s love for us and the limits to which God will go to ensure that we have received this inclusive invitation. But, we can miss sharing in this vision, and invitations for intimacy, which include justice and peace making, and seeing God’s image in the face of the other. Consumerism, discrimination, militarism, sexism, racism, fear, isolation, rugged individualism, nationalism can distract us. To accept the invitation is contrary to the spirit that sets people and nations against each other; that puts us in a world of radical economic inequality and injustice; that causes us to look away when people come to our shores seeking protection. This is not the agenda of those present at the banquet.
The bottom line is that God’s reign is celebrated with the destitute and sinners. Table fellowship occurs with the poor, with people who seem of no account to the world to be, people who fall through society's cracks and live on the streets or hang around street corners. Some sleep in the underground stations, or on presbytery porches or underneath our churches and cathedrals. Mostly these are homeless people living with mental illness who risk abuse, assault or more seriously death. But this is where salvation takes place. These are the places to which God, through Jesus, is attracted to. 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.
The treatment of the guest seems puzzling. Though it seems strikingly violent, it cannot be taken literally. It is about generosity and rejection of generosity. The great upset in today’s parable to those in power and privileged is the general and open invitation where social barriers are broken. What were seats for the privileged are now open to anyone. The final shock or upset is that all are equal in God’s reign. It destroys the view that sacred geography determines one’s place in God’s reign. God is not a real stickler for propriety and protocol and we see this in Jesus’ social encounters that manifest the importance of love and friendship. Those who seem to find themselves at the door are the mean, the unjust, the privileged because they have set themselves apart from the others that have been embraced. This is ‘hell’ of disconnectedness and isolation expressed by darkness and gnashing of teeth. The one who is turned away could have been one who is a spoiler in the community. It is not about being good or bad but one who undermines the unity and peace of the gathering. He does not identify with those off the street? He does not live out the sentiments of God’s heart such as love, compassion, care, inclusiveness and sense of interconnectedness, a passion for justice, friendship, generosity and joy. He refuses to let go of bigotry or prejudice against the different ‘other’. It is necessary to reject the divisive programming we have inherited and embrace the interconnected reality we are called to. As the USA approaches the presidential elections, many (including religious leaders) see in the present government a saviour for their white privilege whilst denying justice to those excluded and even killed under the dog-whistle of ‘law and order.’ A just future requires the inclusive, just, equitable passion for making our world safe for everyone and the desire to make sure we all thrive together. If any are left out of that just future, it will be because they could not stomach the lack of distinction between themselves and their fellow guests that characterizes themselves as somehow superior. It won’t be because they’ve failed to accept an invitation for themselves.
So, it is not about clothes but what is in the heart and how connected we are to living our lives in love and friendship, in peace and justice. If we talk to and/or observe, we can see that the people who were invited from the streets - the poor and vulnerable people, drug addicts, street people, homeless, mentally ill - who also tend to look out for one another, leaving the mean and small of heart behind. It can seem like ‘hell’ (even without knowing it) where there is disconnectedness, isolation, doom and gloom. Simone Weil, though very drawn to Jesus never became a Christian, found the heart of Christianity at the church door rather than 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 mentally ill, etc. The gospel is calling us to wrestle with the demons that might steer us to look away, to remain silent, to do nothing, as if our lives are not bound up with these people. There are always people who will try to spoil or contaminate ‘the celebration’ with discord and thus exclude themselves before being evicted. These are found at all levels of church and society. They prey on others and delight in undermining the good others try to do by highlighting their flaws. We see this in the treatment of women, people of colour and LGBTIQ people. They appear to be onside but actually pollute church and society from within. 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.
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 and 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.