Mass readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 25.6-10 Psalm 23.1-6 Philippians 4.12-14, 19-20 Matthew 22.1-14
In preaching on this gospel text, I like to clear something up from the outset about the man who is ejected from the wedding banquet for not being properly dressed. In our day, this seems unfair. After all, the parable Jesus tells us is that most, if not all the guests who actually come to the wedding did not expect invitations. So, how would he be able to be appropriately dressed? Yet we have a banquet hall filled with people properly attired except him.
I’ve said before that Jesus grounds his parables in reality. So, this scenario wherein hundreds of people invited at the last minute to a wedding has to make sense or he’ll lose his listeners’ attention. And what we know of ancient near eastern culture is that when a king, or anyone of great wealth, invites a person of modest means to dine with him, the onus is on the host to provide a garment suitable for the occasion – it is very poor manners to embarrass a guest. So, those hearing this parable would assume that either people went home to change, or the many who came would have received their garments when they arrived. That’s what makes the man dressed differently such a puzzle.
Now the king does not have the fellow thrown out until he has a chance to talk to him—the king does not take immediate offense. The king may be thinking that perhaps this is the fault of his servants who did not look after this man, and this is why he asks, “Friend, how did you get in here?” It’s only when the man can’t explain himself that he is taken away.
So, the offense in this case isn’t simply coming “as you are” as it would seem that everyone arrived at this wedding more or less “as they were.”
Rather, the problem lies in the apparent obstinance of this one man who seems to think he did not have to meet the dress code – that, indeed, God invited him to come just as he was against every convention of that society in which, well, of course you have to dress for a wedding.
And that’s our problem: it’s not believable that he would not know what was expected. Rather, we are faced with the question of how could he fail to realize he wasn’t dressed properly? The question, “how did you get in here?” takes him by surprise. It’s a strange lack of awareness.
It raises for us a very real concern for ourselves, for those we love, for our neighbours, and for our enemies. Are we critically self-aware? Can we see, so to speak, what we are wearing?
St. Jerome, in his commentary on this particular text wrote that the, “The marriage garment is the commandments of the Lord, and the works which are done under the Law and the Gospel… form the clothing (Catena Aurea, 22). We can think of the imagery Saint Paul employs when he enjoins us to “put on Christ” – we are to be clothed in Christ. And yet, this parable raises the possibility that we can fool ourselves.
I look around the world today and I see a great many people who believe themselves righteous yet display remarkable inconsistencies in their beliefs and behaviours. And in these they trap themselves, yet are not aware of the snare. While I won’t get into the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet knowing something about Hamas, I have always been confounded by those who identify that notorious organization with the Palestinian cause so completely they cannot acknowledge and condemn the evils that Hamas perpetrates. We saw this in recent days when barbaric acts were not condemned, but instead rationalized by too many (university student association, labour unions, politicians both here and in other “western” countries). In this, we saw people caught in the snare; thinking themselves good people, they were faced with the barbarism of those they had hitherto given support.
That’s the difficult thing about being a Christian, one should recognize the plight of those who live in the Gaza strip, but it doesn’t mean endorsing just anyone who claims to be the champion of those unfortunate people. It means the hard work of trying to grasp the complexities of the story, and not in indulging in simplistic narratives of either side that wish to paint opponents as beyond redemption and unworthy of existence. And sadly, it looks like that kind of simplistic thinking is dominating, and we are pushed to pick sides when as Christians we really don’t want any further horrors perpetrated on non-combatants, on innocents; and, of course, we don’t want a war even as we recognize the right of people to defend themselves.
But we’re getting a lot of this these days, not just with regard to the Middle East, but just about everywhere there are tensions among identifiable groups. And where we see in North America acts of vandalism, rioting, churches being burned to the ground, people assaulted, thankfully few deaths, we see behind it the same kind of thinking.
If you’ve been hearing that this is all about “de-colonizing” and have been confused by that, it’s not you. This is the new clothing for an old poisonous idea. It builds on the current thinking that all colonial systems aren’t just bad, they’re thoroughly evil, which, again, I would say is simplistic and ahistorical thinking.
Now for most of us who hear this word, “de-colonize” that likely conjures in our minds and from our memories that process that began following the Second World War in which the British Empire was systematically collapsed. We remember the pictures of the Queen and other royals going out to nations around the world to take the salute as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new national standard raised accompanied by a new national anthem. That is, direct political control was being surrendered, and hopefully the democratic processes left in place would allow for healthy self-government.
De-colonizing as it is put forward now has nothing to do with that. It is the rejection of Western civilization, of liberal democracy, of Christian values, but it’s wrapped in the language of justice, of reparation.
We have always held that the best basis for human community is participation in society according to talents, competencies, service and sacrifice, regardless of one’s ethnicity or faith. This is an idea central to the gospel and famously articulated by Reverend Martin Luther King when he called for a society ordered not on race but according to the quality of people’s character.
This call to de-colonize takes the tragedies of history as the justification for continuing them, to exact justice upon the malefactors of the past by punishing their descendants. But even more insidiously, it involves a distortion of history, in portraying some people of the past as monsters and others as complete innocents; of attributing criminal intention to Christian missionaries, school-teaching nuns and colonial administrators who by all reasonable accounts were in the main good people hoping to do meaningful, productive work of benefit to those they were sent to serve. But such nuance cannot be tolerated, such charity not allowed. And what is so strange is to see people who haven’t any personal connection to a particular situation such as we see in the Middle East, nonetheless donning the robes of indignation and by their rhetoric feeding the fires of hatred.
The call is to dismiss the Christian message that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, and instead to insist on the centrality of identity and group membership in who we are as human beings; to see the whole of existence through this lens, and so, to pit group against group.
Now, I am aware that many who advocate for these new critical theories centred on identity, racial and ethnic in this case, argue they are really calling for a sensitivity to the past, an awareness of the legacy of empire, and so on. This is just an intellectual tool for investigating history and bringing the truth to light. But it is growing more and more apparent that the desired result of social harmony and justice is not the result of such investigation, but rather resentment and enmity. By their fruits shall you know them.
One man I rather admired for recognizing this, well, anticipating this, was the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu who led the reconciliation effort in South Africa in the years following the end of apartheid. He wrote a book about forgiving.
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth.”
But then, one moves on, resolved to not repeat the mistakes of the past. But Tutu also observed,
“We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!”
And sadly, the violence and social collapse we see in South Africa today, a country rich in resources, and filled with talents, witnesses to Tutu’s pessimism rather than his difficult words of wisdom.
What are we going to be clothed with in coming days as a world community, as supporters of Israel, as those who cannot ignore the plight of the Palestinians, as those who must address history’s legacy here at home?
Jesus found himself among competing religious and political factions, he found himself dealing with seething resentment of an empire; and he was pushed to take sides, to condemn, and yet we find him offering a constant message of reconciliation, of patience, of peace; but also, of the difficult sacrifice that calls from us to practice what he preached.
President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (Bishop William McGrattan) published a statement yesterday to the Catholic faithful in Canada concerning the “recent escalation of conflict in the Holy Land”. In it, the Bishop invited the Catholic faithful “to join other people of good will, here and around the world, in imploring God to move the hearts of those leaders engaged in the present conflict in order to decrease the acts of terrorism, cease violence and war, and resume constructive efforts that are aimed at establishing lasting peace and concord”.
I hope we can all share in this prayer.