THE JOY OF CHRISTIAN LIVING
Is 25:6-10; Phil4:12-14, 19-20; Matt 22:1-14
In today’s Gospel (Mt. 22, 1-14), we hear a parable about a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. Those invited did not come for so many reasons, so in the end the king allowed the gates of his kingdom to be opened to all, and his hall was filled with guests. Yet someone came without the right garment. He probably thought that with all kinds of people invited to the party, he could go unnoticed.
1. GOD’S INVITATION
A study of world religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc., shows that, apart from Christianity, these faith groups hold that it is the people who look for God. On the other, in Christianity, it is God who looks for people. For instance, in the parable of the lost sheep, and that of the lost coin, God’s relentless search for his people is very evident. Again, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father (God) searches out for his lost son. It is God who takes the first initiative for our salvation. Therefore, in today’s Gospel text, God in his characteristic manner searches for his people by issuing an invitation. He invites us to come to his Kingdom which is described like a wedding feast where everybody is well dressed, putting on glowing and happy faces.
God is also inviting us to be always joyous, vibrant and alive. But unfortunately, many people think of God’s house as a place for “seriousness”, a place to close one’s eyes and pray; but not a place of “happy celebration”. They do not imagine that it is a place where one can have fun. Today’s parable paints a different picture. It depicts the Christian assembly as a gathering of those who are called to the Lord’s party. In the Eucharist we say of ourselves, “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” The Lord invites us to a supper, a banquet, a feast. A wedding feast is a place in which people put on jubilant and bright faces, not a place where people sit with stiff faces as if for fear that their faces would crack in case they smiled.
2. HUMAN RESPONSES TO GOD’S INVITATION
The parable shows us three possible kinds of guests. There are the absentee guests who initially accept the invitation, but when the time comes to honour the invitation, they draw back. There are the guests without wedding garments who attend the feast but do not take the trouble to prepare adequately for it, as the occasion deserves. And then there are the guests with wedding garments who make the necessary preparation to present themselves fit for the king’s banquet.
a) The guests who refused to come: These are people who respond to invitation with indifference. Because of this, they are absent at the wedding. The terrifying thing about the absentee guests is that they are not sinners. They are generally engaged in legitimate, not sinful activity. One goes to his farm, another to his business. These are necessary and useful occupations. In fact, any responsible person should attend to his/her livelihood and to his/her responsibilities, or else the family will suffer. Sometimes what keep us away from the joy of the kingdom is not sin but preoccupation with the necessities and responsibilities of life. To be serious with our job is a good thing, but when our job keeps us away from attending the Lord’s Supper, then it has become an obstacle. It becomes a killer of joy that hinders us from experiencing the joy of the Lord. There is a saying that “the good” is the enemy of “the best”. We often settle for the lower quality. If only those absentee guests knew what they were missing by not attending the feast! There are people who attend church service with the aim of just fulfilling a “Sunday obligation,” for fear that God does not count it against them as sin. This kind of fear-mentality is not Christian. On the other hand, if only people knew that they are missing out on the fun of celebrating and feasting with the Christian community, they would probably come to church every other day.
b) The guest without the wedding garment: Here, we may ask why invite people to a banquet if you are going to reject them? Were they not all called and welcome? Why are some people who are already in the promised banquet being excluded for the feeble-sounding reason that they are improperly dressed? Could it not have been that the man who refused to put on the “wedding garment” suspected that he may contract some disease, like the Corona virus, from that robe? In any case, all these speculations are beside the point of the parable.
i) The point of the parable is: if you must go a dance, you must wear your dancing shoes. If you must go to a wedding, you must wear your wedding garment. By not wearing a wedding garment, one is physically in the party, but one’s mind and spirit are not there. The man in the parable was in the feast but he was not in the mood for feasting. Jesus hates this kind of lukewarm, uncommitted, attitude. In fact, it is better not to attend at all than to be there and ‘yet not there’.
ii) Furthermore, as individual Christians, this parable has another big lesson for us. It reiterates the open-door policy of the Gospel texts of the last two Sundays, Matt 21:1-43. Those Gospel texts narrated how the Gentiles and the sinners would be gathered into the God’s Kingdom. In today’s text, Jesus says that the king, in order to supply his feast with guests, sent his messengers out into the highways and byways to gather all available people into the banquet hall. Now, it is true that the door is open to all people. All are invited – sinners and righteous, unworthy and worthy persons but not all are allowed to stay. When these quests come, they are requested to put on a “wedding garment” (Matt 22:11). Accepting Jesus’ invitation means accepting the responsibility and challenge of Christian discipleship. It means accepting to live a life which seeks to fit the love which has been given to them by being invited into the party. God’s grace is not only a gift; it is a grave responsibility.
A person cannot just go on living the life he/she lived before he/she met Jesus Christ. He/she must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness. Mere membership in the church or in religious organizations and apostolic groups or charitable institutions does not guarantee us salvation. To own salvation, we must have a virtuous living. The door is open; but the door is not open for the SINNER TO COME and REMAIN A SINNER, but for the sinner to come and BECOME A SAINT. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that if we are baptized in Christ, we must be clothed in Him. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). Christ is the only adequate banquet garment.
iii) The way in which a person comes to anything demonstrates the spirit in which he/she comes. If we go to visit in a friend’s house, we do not go in the clothes we wear in mechanic’s shop or to the farm. Although we are aware that it is not the clothes which matter to the friend; it is not that we want to put on a show. However, simple courtesy demands that we should look tidy. It is basically a matter of respect that we should present ourselves in our friend’s house as neatly and orderly as we can. The fact that we prepare ourselves to go there is the way in which we outwardly show our affection and our esteem for our friend. In the same way, we should treat God’s house.
This parable has nothing to do with the clothes in which we go to church; it has everything to do with the spirit in which we go to God’s house. It is profoundly true that church-going must never be a fashion parade. But there are garments of the mind and of the heart and of the soul that we must take time to prepare. These are “garments” of expectation, of humble penitence, of faith, of reverence. Without these types of garments, one is not worthy to approach God. Too often we go to God’s house with no preparation at all. In order to make our worship worth what it should be, everyone coming to church has to prepare him/herself for a fruitful celebration, by a little prayer, a little thought, and a little self-examination. It is in and through such Eucharistic celebrations that great things happen in people’s souls, in the life of our families, the Church and in the affairs of the world.
c) Thirdly, there are the guests who attend the wedding feast: These people responded by taking care to appear in the proper wedding garment. They are the only ones who have fun and enjoy the party. They are the models whose example we, Christians, should follow. Today’s gospel sends a message to those who are keeping away from the Lord’s Supper that they are missing out on the joy of life. To those of us who have accepted the invitation to come in, this parable warns us not to take God’s grace for granted but to clean ourselves up and become the most beautiful person that we can be in God’s sight. This message ties with what St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians. He reiterates that LOVE must be the clothing to complete and unify all those who have accepted God’s invitation. “Above all these, put on love, which binds everything in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Col 3:14-15).
3. CALLED TO CELEBRATE IN “COMMUNION”
When Jesus issues his invitation in today’s Gospel, he expects that the invitees gather together as one, in spite of their various backgrounds and origins. If God invites a person to be a Christian, he expects him/her to be a Christian in and through a group, a community, a faith community (SCC), a parish. We often hear some people question why they should be forced to “come together” in order to pray (more especially during this time of the scare of the Covid 19 Pandemic). One hears questions like: “Must I go to church to pray?” “Why do I have to go to a priest to obtain forgiveness for sin?” “Why must I go to Mass, receive the Eucharist, in order to commune with God?” The answer is very simple. We must do these things because the Lord Jesus has determined that this is what must be done. In teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus said, “When you pray say, “Our Father!” The whole gathering, the whole community, prays as one. Jesus never taught us to pray say: “My Father”.
The Second Vatican Council emphasizes the community aspect of Christian gathering in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: “To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in the Church, especially in the liturgical celebration. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass . . . He is present in the sacraments . . . He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church . . . He is present, finally, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised “Where two are three are gathered together for my sake, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:20) (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 7). The early Christian community thrived in the togetherness of those who assembled for the Lord’s banquet, because the Lord was always present in their midst. A person can pray by him/herself; he/she can walk in the woods and commune with his/her God; but one cannot be a Christian according to the directions of the Lord Jesus, without communing with others.
To be a Christian as Jesus intended, one must commit him/herself to a community of faith and take a share in responsibility for that community. It is only through, by and in the community (parish, family, etc.) that true Christian action and joy become possible. Today and always, as we come to receive the body of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that we are not acting as individuals. Instead, we are in communion with Catholics throughout the world. We join the Holy Father as he celebrates Mass in Rome; and we join the individual congregations everywhere throughout the rest of the world. We celebrate together the same banquet of the birth, the life and the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as we all praise our God. That is the essence of our Christian joy!
4. THE JOY OF CHRISTIAN LIVING
Many Christian believers seem to see Christianity as a burden. They do not seem to understand that the Christian faith is liberating, and that being a member of God’s kingdom – of God’s church, is like being part of a wedding banquet instead of a funeral procession. Some people think of the Christian life as a series of do’s and don’ts that are designed to get them “pie in the sky when they die”. They see their lives as drudgery meant to earn them a place in heaven when they die. Those who think this way actually miss out on the fact that faith is meant to lead to joyous living, to abundant life. Faith leads to a happy living which, while not free from earthly troubles, it is rich and deep and full of peace, that peace which Paul calls “the peace which surpasses understanding” (Phil 4:7).
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, the letter in the Bible that is called The Letter of Joy, recommends to his audience four simple ways in which Christians can begin to experience the joyful peace of God. Through these four ways, they can put on the “wedding clothing” provided for us by Christ and so earn our place at his wedding table. (Phil. 4:2-9). “Always be joyful, then, in the Lord; I repeat, be joyful. Let your good sense be obvious to everybody. The Lord is near. Never worry about anything; but tell God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petition shot through with gratitude, and the peace of God which is beyond our understanding will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honourable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire — with whatever is good and praiseworthy. Keep doing everything you learnt from me and were told by me and have heard or seen me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you”.
a) First, Paul recommends that we REJOICE IN THE LORD. Here, he reminds us that the Lord is ever NEAR to us. There is nothing in our physical appearance that shines or looks as good as rejoicing. In fact, nothing is quite as infectious as rejoicing. (For instance, once I start smiling and laughing before an audience, it takes very little time for all to begin laughing also. How infectious it can be! Try it briefly!)
b) Next, Paul then goes on and says: “Never worry about anything; but tell God all your desires of every kind in prayer and petition shot through with gratitude”. The thing that prevents so many Christians from putting on the “wedding clothing” of God and enjoying his banquet is anxiety and concern for daily responsibilities. Our justified worries over our social obligations, the need for relaxation, the pressure of work, our time with our family, the demands of friends which leave us no time for prayer or for Sunday Mass, have often stolen our joy with Jesus Christ.
c) The third thing that Paul recommends is that we should fill our minds with good things: “with everything that is true, everything that is honourable, everything that is upright and pure, everything that we love and admire — with whatever is good and praiseworthy.” When we make it a habit to look for these higher goods, joy cannot possibly escape us.
d) Finally, St. Paul recommends we should imitate what we have learnt from his own personal conduct. By practicing those characteristics of faith which we have seen and admired in others, we will discover for ourselves the joy of the Christian life, a life that is more than do’s and don’ts, a life that has richness to it, a life that shines and gives comfort and joy to others, much in the same way that the happiness and joy of a wedding feast gives to everyone a feeling of the blessedness of life. Rejoice in the Lord always – again I say – Rejoice. AMEN