The Wedding Feast of the Kingdom
(Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today present an image of our life under Godís direction as a rich banquet, an experience of festivity and fraternal sharing, and the removal of all divisions. Jesus points out however that not everyone accepts the invitation to join in this feast. Preoccupied with other concerns and goals some people prefer to exclude themselves from the salvation God offers.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the Eucharistic banquet let us call to mind our sins and faulty choices, and ask God for his forgiveness.
One of the problems in trying to get to grips with the message of the Bible is that the background and the experience of the people who wrote it are very different, and very remote, from ours.
Reading the Bible now means moving into a different world even when we're talking about the basic elements of Christian faith, and we can be conscious of this every week in church when many of the Scripture passages used in the readings don't automatically strike a chord.
Many Christians today, for example, think of salvation, and what it consists of, in highly individual terms. They understand "salvation" mainly in terms of the particular beliefs they subscribe to: that Jesus is God, that he rose from the dead, and so on. If you agreed with a list of beliefs Ė the articles of the Creed, perhaps - then you're "saved".
That's an important enough part of it, but when we turn to the books of the Bible the authors paint a different picture of what salvation is about. When the Bible talks about salvation, it doesn't talk mainly about individual beliefs. It usually conjures up images of human fellowship or life in community - but without the various forms of suffering and unhappiness that are an inevitable part of most people's lives.
One of the stock images of salvation in the Bible is an image of a great feast, or a great banquet, with more than enough food for everyone, and no one left out. So we get Isaiah's description in the first reading today:
"the Lord will prepare a for all peoples,
a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines.....
he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples,
he will destroy death forever".
Christ, in his turn, uses the same kind of image, in the gospel:
"The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding..."
These images, and the mentality that lay behind them, might be a bit remote from our way of thinking about our future life with God, but there was a reason why the Jewish faith imagined salvation in terms of a banquet or a feast.
The experience of most people in ancient times was of not having enough, or at least of having to struggle to produce the crops and keep the herds of animals that were needed to feed everyone. Most people's everyday experience was an experience of lack, or scarcity.
So the most obvious way to imagine a situation with God ruling in it - which is what salvation really means, after all - was to picture the opposite: lavish supplies of food, an overabundance, and an atmosphere not of anxiety and struggle to survive, but of festivity and fraternal sharing.
But in spite of this appealing image of what life with God consists of, not everybody, apparently, wants to join in. This is the important aspect of todayís gospel reading. In Jesusí parable there seem to be two types of people who refuse the invitation to join in and two different reasons for their refusing.
On the one hand there are the people who are indifferent, or apathetic. They're more interested in their own immediate affairs, their lives are filled up with other concerns, and the call to conversion just goes over their heads. They haven't time to give God a serious place in their lives.
Then on the other hand there are the people who react angrily, with irrational violence, and they seize the king's messengers and kill them. Jesus was reflecting on his own experience: the reactions he encountered to his own proclamation of Godís Kingdom. And as with the other parables we can apply his teaching here to our own experiences and circumstances.
Occasionally we read stories in the Catholic papers about church activists becoming tired and jaded and demoralised. Nobody seems to be interested in what they're saying, nobody shows any enthusiasm for the Christian message. Often there's positive hostility from people who think that religion is a waste of time.
The only answer to that predicament is to say that it wasn't all that different in Jesus' own time, or in any time. Itís easy for us to forget that most people were indifferent to what Christ had to say and a lot of the people who did listen to him rejected what they heard. Others were positively hostile and eventually decided to have him silenced.
Jesus finished off the parable in todayís gospel with the line: "Many are called, but few are chosen". If that was a fact of his experience of ministry - in a society saturated with religious ideas and religious thinking - then it's hardly going to be any different in our time, when it's normal not to have any kind of religious faith at all - at least not in any serious our committed way.
In periods of decline and decadence thereís a danger of getting into too much of a worldly mentality about the Churchís work, and worrying about numbers and targets and success rates and so on. Jesusí teaching today is the antidote to that.
There's no way of measuring the "success" of a Christian community - not in any obvious and visible way, anyway - and when we start measuring the things that are visible - the numbers attending church, the amount of money in the collection plate, maybe - we're concentrating on the wrong things. These aren't usually the way the Holy Spirit makes himself present and active, at least if the authors of the Bible are to believed.
So those are some of the reflections I think that lie behind this parable in the gospel this Sunday. Real conversion and a genuine taking-on of the vision of God's Kingdom, and being changed by it, are pretty rare. Most people are interested in other things.
But the other half of the message is that this shouldn't stop us from delivering the invitation anyway - and then there might be some surprises for us in the people who do finally come and take part in the banquet.