28th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Without a Wedding Garment

Framed above the desk in my office at home, are the two center pages of the October 11, 1962 special edition of L'Osservatore Romano, marking the opening session of the Second Vatican Council.  The photo which spans these two pages depicts the Council Fathers, bishops from five continents, seated in St. Peter's Basilica as they listened to the opening address by Pope John XXIII:  "...the Church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this Ecumenical Council, desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness..."  A bold caption at the top reads "Cristo è Qui" (Christ is here).

That was forty years ago.  It was a time of joyful expectation, a time when our Church Fathers attempted to translate ancient truths into a language that the modern world could understand, digest and make its own.  It was a moment in our Church's history that celebrated and affirmed our place in this troubled world and everyone's right to be a part of this great mystery.  As John XXIII went on to say: "... everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church."

That was forty years ago.  The world is still a troubled planet and our Church, sad to say, is still struggling to speak with the voice of truth.  Words are only as strong as the actions that prove them to be valid.  And a community is only as strong as the love that binds its members together.

Recent activity within the Church makes one wonder what kind of community we actually are.  I have read with great interest - and dismay - the opposing viewpoints over the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document that will be used in the Vatican-mandated program of visits to 229 U.S. seminaries.  The document is actually a series of questions that should be addressed regarding the "human, intellectual and spiritual" formation of those preparing for the priesthood.  Only one question deals with the issue of homosexuality, and yet this one issue has sparked a controversy that has further divided a broken community. 

Perhaps this is due to an opening comment made by Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, who is coordinating the visitation by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education of the Holy See, about not admitting to candidacy for the priesthood adult men who have engaged in homosexual activity or who have strong homosexual inclinations.  Archbishop O'Brien has since clarified his position: "I was reflecting my personal opinion and ...as visitation coordinator, I do not speak in an official capacity for either the Holy See or the USCCB [U.S. bishops' conference] on this matter." Perhaps, as visitation coordinator, the Archbishop should have kept his own opinions to himself.

But more importantly, perhaps the wrong questions are being asked.  The people of God deserve psychologically mature priests who aren't engaged in an eternal and ego-driven struggle with their own problems, who are prepared to serve, to teach and preach - with integrity and honesty.  We need enablers of community, bridge-builders, compassionate reconcilers.  Before asking how well one is preparing for priesthood, perhaps more significanat questions should be asked regarding the nature of priesthood itself.  Perhaps we need to move away from the "mystique of priesthood" and concentrate more on the "servant priesthood" that Jesus preached. 

In any event, commentaries from both sides of the issue - and the attitudes they betray - point to the fact that we are a long way from the welcoming, loving and compassionate post-Resurrection communities that gave us our faith to begin with.  Ours is a community polarized by religious and political ideologies that have little if anything to do with Gospel values.  And this is very disturbing.  To seek a smaller, more purified or "orthodox" church goes against everything that Jesus said and did.  Likewise, to spend so much energy in an effort to distance ourselves from those who think, act or live differently than we - to separate ourselves from those who don't live up to our standards - smacks of arrogance and hypocrisy - the two things that Jesus most adamantly condemned during his lifetime.

There is only one standard for our community of faith, that set by Jesus himself - clues to which we find in Scripture.

Over the last few weeks we have been reflecting on parables taught by Jesus immediately after his final entry into Jerusalem before his death.  These were directed towards the religious community and leadership of Jerusalem at the time and pointedly illustrate the powerful message of the Gospel and the consequences of failing to recognize it. Each is an easily deciphered allegory, a type of parable in which every detail is given a symbolic meaning.

The parable of the two sons is found only in Matthew's Gospel, and it repeats The Lord's demand for a conversion of heart. The second son knows the right words, but his response is hollow. The sadder-but-wiser reaction of the first son is more genuine. He repents and proves it by action. Jesus blisters his opponents by turning the parable on them. Their hearts are hard and cold, and it is the tax collectors and prostitutes (whose lives had once been a "no" to God) who now enter the kingdom. 

The parable of the vineyard plays the same melody but with different words. The Lord's vineyard is tended by laborers who prove to be faithless.  They reject the servants of the landowner who come to claim his harvest. Finally the landowner sends his son, the "heir." But the wicked tenants eject him from the vineyard and kill him. What will be the fate of people so blind that they kill the landowner's son? Matthew draws out the consequences in a simple verse: because Israel has not responded to Jesus and his Gospel, the kingdom is taken from their charge and offered to others, "who will produce its fruit."

The last of the trilogy (today's parable) makes it clear that these lessons from history are meant to alert the Christian community to the consequences of failing to give Jesus full and genuine response to the Gospel. The story of the wedding banquet plays out its own sad story of refusal. The feast is all prepared but the invited guests are unimpressed. They refuse to come, some going calmly about their usual business while others turn ugly and kill the servants who announce the feast. The king's reaction is ferocious. The invited guests are punished and their town destroyed. And now the son's wedding feast is thrown open to everyone, "bad and good alike."

So far, so good. But the story is not over. The king comes into the banquet hall and finds a guest without a wedding garment. Judgement falls on this man, too, and he is thrown outside into the darkness. The message is clear. The Gospel makes the same demand on all, invited and unvited alike. No person or group, or group of leaders can be smug about their membership in the Christian community.  The test of genuine conversion of heart and a life of loving service is applied to all. Anything less - a community without its harvest, a church without its wedding garment - will be cast into darkness.

"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son." We have heard these words so often throughout our lives that we sometimes take them for granted. We have all received the invitation - an invitation not simply to a banquet, to but to life in its fullness. And if God is so willing to give of Himself - so totally - to us, what then is our responsibility in accepting that invitation?

Jesus pulls no punches: We will have to put aside anything and everthing that separates us from one another.  By what right do we judge each other?  By what divine mandate do we ask "Who are the good, who are the bad?" We need to look beyond this banquet and the already-gathered guests and ask "What about all the other people from the 'main roads' that we may meet along the way?"   Isn't it time we come to the realization that we have all been invited to the banquet? 

Cristo è Qui and the Christ we meet at this wedding banquet is all inclusive; he wants everyone in; everyone to eat and be treated as guests, with dignity.  We, the people of God, must find ways to travel to the main roads and to the places we might not normally frequent, to those we might not normally see as brothers or sisters, to reach out to people whose needs we must address, those we can treat as "guests."  

Because, after all, that's the way we have been treated.  And because "everything, even human differences, leads to the greater glory of the church."