“Accepting the invitation” Reflection & Lectio Divina

Reflection for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, entitled: “Accepting the invitation” by Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 22,1-14

Today Jesus is speaking about God and his Kingdom in a familiar image that is easy to understand, that of the banquet. We are accustomed to celebrate significant moments in life by sitting down at table with those we love most. The preparation for any big feast includes preparing a good meal and inviting our best friends. Jesus tells us in the parable that God will do the same for us, but only if we want to be invited, if we take the invitation seriously and act on it. However, as Jesus relates, it was the invited guests who endangered the feast the king wanted to organize. Some found an excuse to absent themselves, others turned up without the proper attire. It was of no benefit to the king having a well-prepared banquet when he had no guests. There is no use in God deciding to have a feast if we who are invited do not want to take part.

1 Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: 2 ‘The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. 3 He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. 4 Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” 5 But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, 6 and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. 7 The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. 8 Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, 9 go to the crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding.” 10 So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, 12 and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” 14 For many are called but few are chosen.’

I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it.

This third parable concludes Jesus’ reply to the questions concerning his authority. He does not give a logical argument but rather an image – that of a wedding feast. There are two scenes: the preparation and the celebration.  None of the three parables replies directly to the question put to Jesus when he drove the robbers out of the temple. He uses different images to explain why the Jewish authorities do not accept the good news. With a thousand excuses they have rejected the salvation of God offered them in his person and through his ministry.

The parable of the wedding feast has only one actor, a king who is about to celebrate one of the most important days of his life, his son’s wedding. The account consists of two quite separate parts: the immediate preparations and then the unexpected celebration of the feast. It begins with the list of invited guests already drawn up. The king wants to celebrate, and he takes it for granted that he can count on the invited guests. Then the unexpected occurs. Most of them offer some excuse for not coming and some even maltreat the messengers sent by the king. Refusing the invitation is already a grave offence, but injuring and killing the messengers is an unpardonable injustice. The king’s reaction is more than reasonable. It is just what we might expect from a king who is used to receiving respect.

What happens next, in the second scene, is not what we might expect. After his initial disappointment he insists in celebrating his son’s wedding with anyone he can find.  The originally invited guests did not deserve to share the feast, but those who just happened to be walking the roads deserved it even less. Those who were invited first surprised the king with their refusal. The second group of guests – some of them good and some not so good – were surprised to be invited. What is very clear is that the king was determined to celebrate the feast and to fill the hall with guests. He brought in everyone he could find. It is surprising, then, that he should react strongly when he met one guest who was not properly attired for the feast.   This man had been invited but never thought of changing his clothes. He was offered a free meal and did not think it necessary to dress specially for the occasion.  The king’s reaction was serious and disproportionate.

Just because the man had been invited unexpectedly at the last minute, did not mean that he could dress any way he liked. The king’s feast ought to be celebrated in the best manner possible, even if the invited guests were not the best. The fact of being invited has consequences, and anyone who participates must make the necessary changes.

The final sentence is a general saying that gives the key to interpreting the parable: not everyone who is invited, is chosen. Not all who are invited will share the king’s table or his fortune. Even those who are invited gratuitously and unexpectedly, are not certain of their place at the Lord’s banquet.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text is saying to life

The parable of the royal wedding describes an unusual way of acting on the part of God. He wants to celebrate a feast and he invites those he thinks are his subjects. He does not limit his joy to a few intimate friends but he invites all his subjects. Surprisingly, people who would never dream of disobeying the king’s order, refuse to follow his wishes. They don’t feel obliged to do the Lord’s will because it was not imposed as a command. They disobey the Lord’s wish more readily than his command. What upset the king was not their disobedience but their unwillingness to share his joy. They were not the loyal subjects they pretended to be. For the king, nothing is more important than the joy of seeing his son married. Everything else comes second. Even if the guests do not come, the feast should not be postponed. And so, he looks for guests among the poor at the crossroads. This makes the invitation even more gratuitous and shows how exceptional was his desire to celebrate the wedding.

God wants to share the feast and he does not impose many prior conditions. But he does demand of his guests a minimum of respect. The invitation to share in the feast is unmerited, but the guests must not take advantage of the occasion. They are expected to accept the invitation and come properly attired. Anyone who does not change his attire and clothe himself with joy, does not deserve to share the Lord’s happiness. God does not want to share his happiness with those who do not accept it. Sitting down at table with the Lord implies accepting his joy. The God of feasts does not tolerate spoilsports or killjoys.

It does not require great imagination on our part for us to see ourselves reflected in the attitude of the king’s servants who had so many other things to do that they did not have time to share in his joy.  We too refuse to give God what he wants of us, because he does not actually demand it of us. We think we have greater freedom when we ignore God’s will.  We are willing to obey him when we have to, and we think obedience is enough, but we don’t see the need to go so far as to make him happy.  Like the invited guests who chose not to share in their king’s joy, we go through life without experiencing the joy that God gives. We accept only his commands and ignore his wishes. Anyone who lives only by obedience, even if he excels in obedience, never ceases to be a servant. Those, on the other hand, who come to share in the Lord’s joy, cost what it may, will discover that they are no longer servants but friends. The servant may be more obedient than the friend but the friend shares intimately in the life of his master, in his wishes and plans. We do not know what we are missing if we reduce our relationship with God to merely obeying his commands. God would make us divine if we could only satisfy all his wishes!

God is hurt less by our disobedience that by our refusal of his friendship. The king was not unduly displeased by the absence of the invited guests. He was able to replace them with others from the highways and byways. What displeased him most were the excuses they offered. They were so busy about their own affairs that they had no time for the king’s feast. They were more interested in their own activities than in the king’s celebration, more preoccupied with the ordinary things of life than with the extraordinary banquet given by the king. Nothing is more important to God than joy. He delights in sharing it. He wants people to choose freely to share his banquet. He wants to be the friend of his invited guests rather than the master of his servants.  His intimate friends know this, and they will never leave him. If they lose one of God’s feasts, they risk losing God himself who wants to celebrate a permanent feast.

Like those who were invited first, we could become so preoccupied with our own problems that we do not have time to share in God’s joy.  We could become so concerned about our own possessions – the things we have and the things we would like to have – that when God calls us to be part of his joy, it never enters our minds or our hearts. Is it not wonderful that we have a God who thinks about us when he is happy, and wants to have us with him when he is planning a feast? And, as Jesus points us, even if we refuse the invitation, God still goes ahead with his feast. The royal banquet was not postponed just because the invited guests did not turn up. Like the king in the story, God will go and search for other guests among the poor and the needy. To ensure that he has guests to share his banquet, he will fill his house with those he finds living on the street.

Even today, God punishes those who do not accept his invitation by passing it on to others who are more willing to celebrate with him. God’s choice is purely gratuitous. His desire to celebrate the banquet is not based on reason or logic.  It does not require great merit on our part for us to be deemed worthy of being invited to his banquet. If we allow him to make us happy, we will be considered worthy of his invitation.  All he needs are people who believe that he wants to make all his invited guests happy.

But the fact that God wants to share his happiness does not mean that he does not demand some level of respect from the people he invites. Sharing in the banquet is not based on merit but no one should take advantage of the occasion. Happiness demands that we acknowledge that all is gift and grace. Sharing God’s company should change our behaviour. If God’s joy does not change us, and his invitation does not make a difference in our lives, then we do not deserve God’s time or attention. But, fortunately for us, God is not like that. He desires for all his guests a joy that will change their life and their behaviour. The God of Jesus does not want to share his joy with those who do not allow themselves to be filled with his happiness. Anyone who does not change and clothe himself with happiness does not merit the Lord’s joy. God does not want to share his joy with those who do not accept it. Sitting down at table with him means accepting his happiness. The God of feasts does not tolerate spoilsports, people who refuse to be happy.  We are spoilsports whenever we refuse to allow ourselves to share God’s happiness and to be changed.

Unfortunately that is often the impression we Christians give, especially perhaps those of us who assist most frequently at God’s feasts. Our celebration of the Eucharist, for example – and this is only an example – is of little value if we do not experience and bear witness to the joy of having God as our host and our friend. If after so many celebrations of the Eucharist God has still not made us happy, and if after so many invitations to share his life and joy we still do not consider ourselves friends of God, we have missed out on the feast and on God himself.  But God will not be outdone – he will go out to the crossroads and invite other guests, and celebrate his feast without us. That would be a real tragedy.