Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
In Jesus’ time, the Gan Eden—Garden of Eden—was fabled among the people where the righteous would enjoy every happiness. In the light of Isaiah’s well-known prophecy that we found in the First Reading, it is imagined as a sumptuous banquet where “wine stored in the cluster of the six days of creation” would be served as the beverage. It is represented as a place where there would be no need to spread aromas and perfumes, because “a wind from the north and from the south blowing between the aromatic plants of Gan Eden would spread their fragrance everywhere.”
The rabbis continued with promises of even greater joy. They asked: “Can a guest prepare a banquet for travelers, without sitting at the table with them? Can a groom prepare a banquet for the guests, without sitting next to them?” Their answer was: “In the afterlife, the Holy One, may He be blessed, will have a dance for the righteous in Gan Eden and will sit in their midst, and each will point to him saying: behold, he is our God, as we expected him, we will enjoy his salvation.”
It is against this cultural background that the parable proposed to us today is projected. We immediately notice that the perspective of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus, however, is considerably different from that of the rabbis. They announced a Gan Eden prepared for the afterlife, the banquet of the Kingdom of God which Jesus speaks is laden in the here and now. It is the new condition wherein he who welcomes the gift of his Spirit, who believes in his proposal of joy, who trusts his beatitudes, enters.
In the whole parable, the atmosphere is one of joy and celebration, but there are also two unexpected, dramatic moments: in the center, there is a city in flames, and in the epilogue, a victim is thrown out into the darkness. We will try to grasp the meaning even of these two scenes, but we begin first to identify the characters.
The wedding feast is the biblical image of the encounter of love between the Lord and Israel. In the parable, the bridegroom is Jesus, he is the Son, and the bride is the whole of humanity which, although presenting many unattractive aspects (hate, war, injustice, tears of the innocent and so on) is madly loved by God.
The banquet is the happiness of the Messianic era. Whoever accepts the proposal of the Gospel and enters into the Kingdom of God experiences the most authentic and deep joy. In the Bible, the Kingdom of God is not compared to a chapel where everyone prays devoutly and attentively. It is not imagined as a convent where one doesn’t hear the slightest noise, where nobody disturbs the meditation and ecstasy of others, but it is a banquet, where people meet, eat, and drink their fill and talk as they party.
In the First Reading, the prophet promised that God would organize a banquet to celebrate the victory over death. Easter is the time of God’s triumph and is also the day on which the indissoluble marriages between Christ and humanity are celebrated. From then on, they no longer sense the sadness, mistrust, and despair; all deaths were won; all the graves were opened wide.
The servants who have the task of taking the call are divided into three groups. The first two are the prophets of the Old Testament, until John the Baptist. They have carried out the task of preparing Israel to welcome Jesus, the bridegroom. They have not been successful. The third group indicates the apostles and all of us; the results obtained by them are much better.
The first invitees did not come to the party; they didn’t have the heart to abandon their interests, the field, and business (v. 5). They did not need a banquet; they felt satiated, believed that they already have what is needed for a life without problems. They represent the spiritual leaders of Israel, satisfied with the given religious structure that offered them security before all and before God.
Those who are not aware of their poverty, who do not hunger and thirst for a new world, will never enter the Kingdom of God. They will adapt to the meanness with which they usually live. Only the poor are able to understand the gratuitousness of God’s love.
The guests, gathered along the streets and squares, are people of the whole world. It is no coincidence that, in the original text, the good and the bad are not spoken about—as is instead shown in our translation (v. 10)—but of the bad and the good, without distinction. In fact, it gives priority to those who do not have merits. It’s a subtle way of alluding to the complete gratuitousness of God’s love and the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
The presence of good and evil in the Church is a theme taken up again by Matthew. One who enters into the Kingdom of God does not immediately become perfect. He brings with him all his miseries, weaknesses, and moral infirmity. The people of God are made up of those who are bad and good. It is a field where they continue to grow with the wheat and tares, or a sea where a net brings together all sorts of fish.
It is an invitation to cultivate an understanding of human weakness and to keep the doors open to all in our communities. The poor, the marginalized, those who feel rejected in the Church must find a place where they feel accepted, understood and valued.
Before moving on to the second part of the passage, the detail of the city on fire (v. 7) should be clarified. It was certainly introduced to Matthew in the parable told by Jesus. In fact, the verse interrupts the story and if one takes it off, the story would flow more logically. It is difficult to imagine a banquet that begins, then, in the middle, it makes war, and in the end the dishes are still there ready on the table and the guests were still kept waiting.
The evangelist wanted to make a theological reading of the destruction of Jerusalem, which has already occurred when he wrote his Gospel. The early Christians considered this tragic event as a punishment from God for the rejection of the Messiah by Israel.
We are faced with an interpretation that strikes our sensibility. We know that God is not responsible for the disasters caused by our nonsensical behavior. It is quite an archaic way to express themselves. It is derived from the language of the Old Testament where they are often called chastisements of God which in reality are the consequences of sin. Here, for example, as Isaiah explains the disasters which Israel met: “For they have rejected the law of Yahweh Sabaoth and scorned the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore, the Lord, his wrath burning against his people, raises his hand against them and strikes them down” (Is 5:24-25). It would not be a fidelity to the sacred text, but foolish fundamentalism, repeating these expressions today that, in our culture, have a completely different meaning. It is, therefore, necessary to transpose and reformulate the image to make it understandable to our contemporaries.
Here’s how the message could be proposed today. The one who rejects the Lord’s pressing invitations to take part in the banquet of the Kingdom of God, condemns himself to destruction, will see his life reduced to ashes, and all that he built will not be noticed as it ends like fuming waste. (1 Cor 3:13).
As always though, God uses even the disasters caused by sin to bring forward a project of goodness. He lets them realize what his plan of salvation is. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the rejection of the Messiah by Israel have, in fact, facilitated the entry of the Gentiles into the Church. “You did not belong to the community of Israel; the covenants of God and his promises were not for you; you had no hope and were without God in this world” (Eph 2:12). They now can rightfully sit as guests at the banquet. The conclusion is as simple as touching: “And the room was full” (v. 10). Not one is missing; all the children are gathered around the table of the Father; the party can begin.
The curtain could fall on this sweet and charming scene. Instead, here the parable continues with an episode that seems to ruin everything. The king enters the room, browses at the guests and gets angry with a victim who did not wear the proper attire. He treats him with unprecedented harshness, even unjustified, considering the venial sin (vv. 11-13). Those who joined the joyful feast cannot but be stunned. How do you explain that?
It soon becomes evident that this part of the story is disconnected from the previous one. It does not agree with what has been said. Why wonder that there is someone without a wedding dress if the people were gathered on the street, in the fields, on the squares? It would be more surprising finding one wearing a gala attire. But what is out of place is the split personality of the sovereign. He acts like a schizophrenic: at first, he is generous and kind to the most unfortunate, then, suddenly, he gets upset, becomes terrible, even cruel.
The explanation is quite simple. The second part of the parable is not the continuation of the first. It is a new parable that is isolated and interpreted without reference to the previous one.
The theme that the evangelist wants to focus on is the possibility, even for those who have accepted the invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God, to turn away from the logic of the Gospel. They risk failure as those who declined the invitation.
The new life of the Christian is often compared in the New Testament to a new dress, worn on the day of baptism. It is not enough to have received the sacrament; one needs to assume the appropriate behavior. One cannot present oneself with the rags of old life: adultery, dishonesty, disloyalty and moral debauchery. One cannot be content to put a new patch on the old garment but needs to completely change the kit. It must set life on the altogether new values.
As for the punishment inflicted on the guest without a wedding attire, it should be noted, above all, that this rough way of expressing oneself is typical of Matthew. Only he often uses the expression “thrown out into extreme darkness” (Mt 8:12; 23:30) and “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:42-50; 23:30; 24:51 …). The other evangelists do not use such language.
Matthew writes to the Jews who are used to be encouraged and reprimanded by their preachers with thesestrong expressions. These images are linked to the time and culture of the people of Israel. This fact should be kept in mind to avoid having an absurd and even blasphemous image of God, a God without heart and without mercy.
The purpose of the evangelist is to remind Christians—of his and our communities—of the seriousness of which they assume and carry out their baptismal commitments.
The last sentence: “Many (i.e., “all”) are called, but few are chosen” (v. 14) is not related to any of the two parables that precede it. In them, the elect is many (almost all) and few are refused (only one).
We are faced with a saying that Jesus spoke in a different context. Matthew has inserted it here to shake with an affirmation the lethargy and apathy of some Christians of his community. It is often interpreted as an indication of the limited number of those who will enter paradise. However, here Jesus is not speaking of heaven, but of the Kingdom of God, the new world in which one enters by adhering to his challenging proposal of life. All are invited, but few have the courage to take the decisive step. The majority hesitates, dithers, and slackens. They are uncertain, not entirely convinced, that inside they will find a laden table. It’s faltering to give up the security that comes from what they already have. Jesus warns against the risk of losing valuable time. One could arrive late when others are already having their cake or their fruit.
READ: Jesus elaborates on the gratuitous banquet with the imagery of a wedding reception. The invited guests did not come preferring to attend instead to their own affairs. Some even did violence to the servants sent by the king and killed them. In anger, the king retaliated and having annihilated the ungrateful invited guests, he sent his servants once again to invite anyone who cared to come. But one had to be in festal garments when entering or risk the chance of being thrown out of the banquet hall.
PRAY: Today might be a good day to say a prayer of thanks to God who befriended us. Let us also pray for all people in the world to accept the invitation to the Kingdom.
REFLECT: The invitation to the banquet of the Kingdom is freely offered to all. Everyone is invited. However, not everyone accepts it. And those who accept must play by the rules of the Kingdom. That is why the one without the wedding garment is thrown out. Sometimes we have an erroneous understanding of God’s mercy – that he forgives everything and therefore, everything goes. It doesn’t.
ACT: What qualities should we develop in order to be more effective in the mission entrusted to us. Let us do something good to someone today as an act of gratitude to God.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar