“Everything is Ready; Come to the Feast”
Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
For the last three Sundays before today we’ve heard parables about working in vineyards, where grapes are grown to make wine.
Three Sundays ago, it was the parable about the workers in the vineyard who were all paid the same, regardless how long they worked. Then came the parable about the two sons whose father asks them to work in his vineyard: one says no, but goes after all; the other says yes, but doesn’t go. And last Sunday it was the parable of the wicked tenants who refuse to turn over the fruit of the vineyard and kill the landowner’s servants, and even his son, only to come to a wretched end, their city burned, replaced by new tenants.
Today the parable is of a wedding feast, a banquet of “rich foods and choice wines,” to borrow Isaiah’s language in the first reading. The earlier parables have been about working in the fields for a harvest to be enjoyed someday in the future; in this parable the time has come to enjoy the fruit of labor already done.
Each parable presents a different relationship: day laborers working for a standard wage; tenants entrusted with harvesting and delivering the produce; sons working for their father.
Today there are subjects invited to a royal wedding feast. There’s no work to be done today; all the people have to do, it seems, is show up and enjoy!
Of course, it does mean putting the wedding feast ahead of whatever other concerns or interests you might have. Your business. Your farm. In St. Luke’s version of this parable, the invited guests all make excuses to the servant: “I just bought a field, and I have to go see to it”; “I just bought some oxen, and I have to examine them”; “I just got married; I can’t come.”
You may have heard that in Jesus’ day wedding festivities could last up to a week. Guests traveled from far and wide, and provisions had to be made, so you had to know, at least approximately, how many people to expect.
To have basically everyone suddenly backing out at the last minute, offering lame excuses, would have been a disaster as well as a grave insult and humiliation.
On top of that, some of these invited guests, like the wicked tenants last Sunday, mistreat and kill the king’s servants, provoking him to send troops to kill those murderers and burn their city. And, just as the landowner last week, after putting the wicked tenants to death, leased his vineyard to new tenants, the king sends his servants out to bring in new guests to the feast.
These replacement guests in Luke’s Gospel are “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” and even these weren’t enough; the master of the feast wants more. Matthew tells us that the servants gathered in all they could find — the good and bad alike.
So some additional weeding-out was necessary! The man without a wedding garment, clearly, was one of the bad ones, though Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly why or what the wedding garment represents. In the book of Revelation, at the marriage of the Lamb, we’re told that the Bride, the Church, was clothed in fine linen, bright and pure, representing the righteous deeds of the saints. In any case, he was one of the bad ones.
Jesus’ Twist Endings
What all these parables have in common are different groups of people, some of whom seem at first to be in a better place or a position of advantage compared to others: the workers hired first versus the workers hired last; the son who accepted his father’s instructions versus the son who didn’t; the tenants and the invited guests on the one hand, who have a relationship with the landlord or the king, versus other random people with no such relationship on the other.
And in each case there’s a twist ending, a reversal. The people who seem to be in a better place are ultimately found to be in some way in the wrong, and those who seemed to be in some way in a bad place are ultimately blessed.
And the same pattern holds in other parables, two in particular, both in Luke’s Gospel.
Above all, there’s the prodigal son and the obedient son, which ends with the father welcoming back the prodigal, slaughtering the fattened calf for a feast, like the king in today’s Gospel slaughtering his fattened cattle for his son’s wedding feast, while the elder son angrily stands in the field outside, refusing to come in to the party.
And then there’s the parable where Jesus just comes right out and says in plain language what he’s talking about in all of these parables, all of these reversals: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee, religious and observant, fasting twice a week, giving to God a 10 percent tithe of his entire income. And the tax collector, despised by all as a collaborator with the hated Romans, considered a sinner and a renegade, a parasite and a thief.
But our Lord tells us that it’s this parasite, standing far off, not daring to raise his eyes to heaven, praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” who goes home justified, right with God, and not the pious, observant Pharisee.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Two weeks ago we heard Jesus told the chief priests, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
Layers of Meaning
God’s word is living and active. Jesus’ parables meant one thing in the context of his preaching to Jewish leaders and crowds, to those who were seemingly righteous and those who were considered sinners and outcasts — all Jews.
In the years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, these parables revealed another layer of meaning, as the apostles’ preaching converted thousands of Jews at first, but eventually was received more by Gentiles than Jews.
In particular, the Jewish religious leaders of Jerusalem rejected and persecuted the apostles and the early Christians, just as they had rejected Jesus and John the Baptist, and as Jesus said their predecessors mistreated and killed the prophets.
So the Jews who rejected Jesus and the apostles, especially the religious leaders, were like the guests refusing to come to the wedding feast for the king’s son, the wicked tenants who killed not only God’s servants and messengers, the prophets, but also his Son Jesus. And, echoing Jesus’ words in that parable, troops came, put them to death, and burned their city — Roman troops who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
And the Gentile converts baptized by the apostles were the new tenants, the replacement guests, the workers hired last, the prodigal son welcomed home.
Of course God hasn’t rejected the Jewish people, any more welcoming the prodigal son meant the father had rejected the older son. And just as the replacement wedding guests include good and bad, there continue to be good and bad among us. Among us Catholics. Among us clergy.
Listening for Jesus’ Voice Today
These parables continue to speak down through the centuries.
What would our Lord have said to Catholics of earlier centuries who persecuted the Jewish people, based in part on misinterpretations of the New Testament — holding them all responsible for Christ’s death? Accusing them of imaginary crimes, forcing them to live in ghettos and wear badges, terrorizing them with pogroms or riots, expelling them from whole countries: France, England, Spain?
What would he have said to Catholic leaders who persecuted and executed heretics? Did the thought ever occur to them that heretics and Jews might be entering the kingdom of God before them?
What would he say to us today? What would he say to you or to me?
Probably…not what we expect. Something surprising. We’ve all heard these parables so many times it can be hard for them to surprise us — though God’s word is living and active, and sometimes we can still be surprised by stories we’ve heard so often without fully grasping everything they have to say.
Which group of guests, which tenants, which sons are we more like?
We’ve come here today to the Eucharistic feast that our Lord has prepared, in anticipation of and participation in the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb. That’s a very good thing.
But perhaps other times or in other ways we offer our Lord excuses instead of obedience. Perhaps at times we’ve come to Mass without preparing ourselves as we ought to — without being appropriately attired, not outwardly but inwardly.
Who are you or I tempted to despise, as the Pharisee despised the tax collector? Is it possible some of them are entering the kingdom of God before us?
Polarization and Pharisaism
These are perhaps especially good questions to ask ourselves right now with the election looming.
We hear a lot about increased polarization in American society. Politically engaged Americans of different ideologies have less in common today with those of other ideologies than they did, say, 25 years ago, and they’re more likely to see each other in a highly negative way, to see the other side as a threat to the good of the nation — which, to be clear, they may well be!
Polarization isn’t automatically bad. Our Lord was a polarizing figure! When people hold dangerous and bad ideas, we should be polarized against them.
Polarization is one thing. The error of the Pharisees — of thinking that because we condemn the evils of other people, that makes our side righteous — that’s something else, and that error, that trap, that poison is everywhere, on all sides.
The Gospels warn us to think more of our own sins and shortcomings than those of others, to be more concerned with what may be in our own eye than our neighbor’s eye.
When we think of others, we should think first not of the sins of others but of the weaknesses of those who are weaker than we are: the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. How can we best help others with our vote?
When we pray, our prayer should be in the same spirit as that of the tax collector and the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.