One of the weekend’s top headlines here in Ireland was the story of a French couple who had to call off their wedding three times due to coronavirus restrictions. On Sunday, following a rather spontaneous decision, they eventually got married in Dublin airport. The ceremony was limited to a small circle: those who could not attend or even be notified “will learn [the news] in some way,” the bride jested (RTÉ website). The experience of a small wedding is shared by so many who had been looking forward to their “big day” amidst family and friends this year.
Today’s Gospel tells us about a wedding whose attendance is small for a very different reason. There is a king who organises a glittering feast for his son and sends out invitations. The guests, however, instead of dressing to the nines and getting themselves into partying mood, freeze him off with all sorts of excuses, confabulated or not. It does not stop at this rude behaviour. Some of the invitees resort to violence and, the ultimate rejection, even kill the postman. The king, in return, gets so irate that he has the murderers butchered and their homes reduced to ashes. It is a horrific spiral of violence which, were it a real incident in our days, would fill the papers not only for a weekend but for weeks and months on end.
The parable speaks of violence and has contributed to the perpetration of violence over the centuries. Born out of the tensions between the early Christian and Jewish community it became one of the many justifications for Christian anti-Judaism: the people of the covenant rejected God’s invitation, killed the prophets and the Christ, and were punished by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Subsequently, their heritage was taken from them and given to the people of the new covenant, i.e. the Church. It took the catastrophe of the Holocaust for the churches to realise that this theology was as wrong as it was lethal. Equally, Luke’s version of the gospel was used against dissidents within the Christian community. Augustine and others referred to the “compel people to come in” (Luke 14:23) to justify force and, in the case of Aquinas, even death sentences against heretics. The parable of the wedding banquet left a trail of blood in the history of the Church. It was, to put it plainly, an abuse of the Gospel.
What to do with this passage then? Maybe it is helpful to remember the vulnerable situation of Matthew’s young Christian community and its search for identity with and in relation to itsJewish mother community. Groups under pressure are more liable to use polarising language. In many ways, we Christians today find ourselves in a similar situation, grappling with our identity in a world that increasingly dismisses us as irrelevant. Are we able to build an identity that embraces both tradition and what is new? Or are we taking refuge in our own sureties? Do we really have to fall prey to using violence in our language and to thinking in terms of who is in and who is out?
Maybe we need to go back to the French wedding couple in Dublin airport. They had planned for a big occasion – like the king in the Gospel. The coronavirus led the couple to the most unlikely of wedding venues. We can be sure that they will make up for the party that hasn’t happened yet. When the king’s plans were thwarted, he began to look differently and widenedhis circle of guests. Unforeseen circumstances brought out creativity in both couple and king.Looking at the history of God’s people right from the beginning we can see the trail of God’s ever creative response to our rejection of his invitation. God has never given up on us. Who are we to set boundaries to God’s infinite longing for inclusivity?
As I am putting the finishing touches to this reflection, the sad news reaches me. Our beloved Sister Margaret MacCurtain has died. Margaret accompanied me during my early years of formation. Later, we lived together in community. There, I was once more blessed by the richness of her company and the breadth of her mind. Margaret embodied her religious name Benvenuta (Sister Ben) through her great capacity to welcome everybody and to embrace very different points of view. Margaret loved people and believed in them. She lived inclusivity – and surely enjoyed a good party. Margaret, may you rest in peace. We will miss you.
Sr. Sabine Schratz OP