Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14
Equal Dignity for All
Have you ever helped someone get ahead in life? How has the experience improve that person's dignity?
Self-determination is one of the great American myths. We can achieve whatever we desire, as long as we work hard and keep our eyes focused on the goal. No class barriers will stop us. No social order can deny us. The small person can become great. Giants like John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates have shown us the way!
Obviously, class barriers and the social order at the time of Jesus held people in their place. But, to the surprise of his audience, Jesus painted the Kingdom as a feast of equals. Equal in stature. Equal in dignity.
When Jesus visited the Temple, the priests and leaders questioned his right to teach the people.
1 After he answered the challenge of the Temple leaders, Jesus told them, 2 "The Kingdom of heaven is like this story. A king planned a huge feast for his son's wedding. 3 He sent his servants to visit all the guests on the invitation list. But, none of the guests wanted to come. 4 So, he sent more servants with a message. 'Tell everyone who was invited, 'Listen! Everything is ready. Come to the feast!' the king said. 5 The guests didn't care, however. Some went back to their farms. Others went to the business they owned. 6 The rest grabbed the king's servants, beat them, and killed them. 7 The king became very angry. He sent out his soldiers who killed those murderers and burnt down their city. 8 Then, the king told his servants, 'The wedding feast is ready! 9 Go and visit every street corner. Invite as many people as you find to the wedding feast.' 10 Those servants went out and brought together everyone they found, both bad people and good people. And the wedding hall was filled with guests."
11 When the king entered to visit his guests, he saw a man who did not put on wedding clothes. 12 'Friend, how did you get in here without the right clothes?' The king asked. But the man remained silent. 13 So, the king said to the waiters, "Tie him up and throw him out of here! Drop him off in the darkest part of town where people cry and grind their teeth.'
14 Jesus finished the story with its moral, "God invites many people into his kingdom. But only a few choose to answer 'Yes'."
1 And, having answered (the chief priests and scribe's challenge to HIS authority in 21:23), JESUS again addressed them in parable stories, saying, 2 "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who planned a wedding feast for his son. 3 And, he sent his slaves to call on the invited to the wedding feast, and they did not want to come. 4 Again, he sent others slaves, saying, 'Tell the invited, 'Look! My dinner I have prepared. My bulls and fatted calves, having been butchered, and all things are ready. Come to the feast!' 5 But they who did not care went away, one who went to (his) own field, one who went to his trade. 6 But the remaining (guests on the list), having taken hold of his slaves, abused (them) and killed (them). 7 However, the king was angry and, having sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and their city he burned down. 8 Then he said to his slaves, 'Indeed, the wedding feast is ready. But the ones having been invited were not worthy. 9 Go, then, into the intersections of the main roads and, as many as you find, call to the feast.' 10 And, having gone out, those slaves on the streets gathered together all whom they found, both the evil and the good, and the wedding (hall) was filled with those reclining (at table). 11 But, when the king came in to see those reclining (at table), he saw there a man not having put on the wedding clothes. 12 He said to him, 'Friend, how did you enter here, not having wedding clothes?' But the (man) was silent. 13 Then, the king said to the servants, 'Having bound his feet and hands, throw him out into the farthest darkness. There it will be crying and the grinding of teeth.' 14 For many are called. Few are chosen."
Like last week's study, Christians have interpreted this parable in a straight forward fashion. The king was God. The king's son was Jesus. The invited guests were the Jewish leaders. God's servants were the prophets of Israel and the Christian missionaries. When the leaders rejected God's invitation to the Kingdom (i.e., faith in Jesus as the Messiah) with violence, the messengers went onto the by-ways and preach to everyone, Gentile and outcast. Through the rejection of the Jewish leaders, the Kingdom spread to a universal dimension. [22:1-10]
Entry into the Kingdom, however, began with conversion. One said 'No' to a former life of sin, and said 'Yes' to God's new life. The white baptismal garment of the Christian neophyte represented the life of conversion. Long and white, like the wedding garment portrayed in 22:11, the baptismal garment served as an outward sign to the believer's inner assent. Without conversion (represented in the white garment), anyone who tried to enter the Kingdom would be rejected by God. As Jesus stated, "Many are called (by God), but few are chosen (by saying "Yes" to his call). [22:11-14]
While this brief account accurately described the parable's interpretation in Christian tradition, it does not adequately address the parable's shock value. In the time of Jesus, society had certain social and economic barriers. In the Roman empire, five percent of the population held ninety five percent of the wealth. These percentages also reflect the general ratio between the aristocracy and the general population. Ancient people viewed wealth as static and distributed according to divine will. They held social status in the same way. The rich and privileged would always remain so. The poor would always serve the well-heeled.
Social functions like a royal wedding feast reflected the general social outlook. Only the privileged would gain invitation. And the seating arrangements at such functions indicated the importance of the guest in society. The higher in status sat closer to the host, while the lesser sat further away. One knew his place in society based upon his seat at dinner.
As Jesus told the parable, he first shocked his audience with the king's multiple invitations and the guests' rejection. Both indicated the king's perceived weakness. The king needed to remind his nobles of the celebration. And the nobles believed they could ignore or even defy the king's command. [22:3-6] One of two outcomes were possible. Either the weak king would fall. Or, the nobles underestimated the king's true power and would be crushed. [22:7]
Jesus again shocked his audience with the king's next move, a invitation to the general population. The invitation went out in the form of a royal decree which was announced in the marketplace (where the main travel routes converged). [22:8-9] Through this decree, the king broke the social barriers of his kingdom. The seats of the privileged were open to anyone. All were now equal in the eyes of the king. And all, the upright and the outcast alike, took advantage of the invitation. [22:10]
The place where Jesus preached (the Temple) gave the parable its final shock value. This feast of equals was God's Kingdom! This vision opposed the general belief that Temple and Jerusalem in general mirrored the Kingdom and its priorities. Contemporaries of Jesus believed God dwelt in the Temple, specifically in the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant lay. The structure of God's Kingdom spread out in concentric circles from this point. Outside the Holy of Holies lay the altar and the sanctuary for the priests. Next lay the worship area for the Jewish faithful, first for men, then for women. Outside the Temple proper lay the so-called "Court of the Gentiles" for those non-Jews who held the Jewish God in esteem.
As the Holy of Holies represented the dwelling place for God in the city, so the city represented God's dwelling place for the world. Pious Jews in the Diaspora expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once in their life. Pious non-Jews visited the city to pay homage to the God they also worshiped (see Isaiah 56: 6-7). As the center for worship, Jerusalem was the center of the world in the Jewish mind (see Zechariah 14:16-19). It made sense that this holy geography would apply to the status of people within the geography. The priests and scribes stood first in the Kingdom, then the faithful, finally the Gentiles.
This parable destroyed any notion that social place within the Kingdom depended upon one's standing in sacred geography. Jesus was not as radical as the Essences, a movement that held the Temple was so corrupt (since the priests collaborated with the Romans), stepping to the Temple made one impure. But, with parables like this one, he did criticize the Temple leadership. Their status and heritage did not insulate them from God's wrath.
God turned the social order upside down in his Kingdom. As the king, he called many times to his people and their leaders. And many times, he was rejected. While false religiosity of the leaders made God look weak, God actually used their facade as a means to spread the Good News to all, outcast and Gentile alike. God raised the lowest to the dignity of his child. Those who claimed honor in the Kingdom would be reduced, or even rejected. Truly, many were called, but few were chosen. [22:14]
Catechism Theme: The Characteristics of Faith (CCC 153-154, 160-161, 163-165)
"For many are called. Few are chosen." [22:14] Matthew presents us with a very difficult verse to understand. After all, isn't everyone who is truly called chosen by God? What is the difference between God's call and God's choice? Doesn't this verse smack of predestination, the belief only God chose a few and damned the rest?
God, indeed, calls us all to himself. And he calls us to love. Love requires two people freely giving themselves to each other. Force does not have a place where love reigns. (So much for the notion God predestined those he saved!)
As God calls us all to himself, he gives us the power to respond. That power is faith, to trust in God and assent to his truth. In this sense, "faith is a gift from God, a supernatural virtue infused by him" (CCC 153). Faith is grace. In other words, we can describe faith as God's love reaching out to us and his love in us reaching back to him. Without God's initiative of love, we could not know God or have a relationship with him.
As love is free given, it is freely received. As a free acceptance of God's love, faith is truly a human act, for God does not impose love on his creatures (otherwise, it would not be love). Faith maintains our dignity as human creatures, for it is a supremely free act.
Yet, we cannot be saved without the faith God gives us. God reaches out to us with love, and his love carries us back to him. Faith is our simple "Yes" to that love. While God's love might seem faint or absent at times, he still points us toward our ultimate destination, life eternal with him. Faith is our road to eternal life.
God calls us all with his love. His chosen are those of us who freely say "yes" to his call of love.
Have you ever stopped to realize you were God's beloved? Have you ever reflected on the dignity of others as God's beloved? How does that fact change your outlook on the world?
Jesus' parable forces us to rethink our notion of place in the grand scheme. God creates us with equal dignity, and he expects us to treat others in the same way. How we respond to his expectation measures the quality of our faith. For, God is the Father of all, his Son is the savior of all, his Spirit is the power of faith in all. We have no claim over his favor.
Does the actions of others cause you to look down on them? Pray for the power to see them as God's children. Look for an opportunity to affirm their dignity.