As a child I used to look at my religion as the means to get God to do what I wanted God to do. Because I was a member in good standing of the true, founded-by-Jesus church, I presumed God was more attentive to my prayers than to those of Protestants, and valued them infinitely more than the prayers of non-Christians.
But as an adult student of Scripture I discovered an entirely different dimension of faith. My relationship with God no longer guaranteed I’d get more “stuff” than those non-relating individuals around me; it simply provided me the means of seeing the stuff God already was offering, even before I prayed for future stuff.
Isaiah is certainly looking into the future when he promises, “On this mountain Yahweh of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines . . . he will destroy the veil that veils all people . . . he will destroy death forever . . This is Yahweh for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us.”
Knowing nothing of an after-life as we know it, the prophet can only hope that Mt. Zion will one day be transformed into a heaven on earth.
Yet Matthew’s Jesus has a different message. Employing the banquet imagery developed by Isaiah, he informs his followers that this long-awaited meal is now being served! There’s just one hitch. “The banquet is ready,” he states, “but those who were invited are unfit to come.” Somehow those who for centuries were anticipating this tremendous event excuse themselves when they find out the date and place.
Jesus’ point in telling the story is to remind Matthew’s community that the celebration isn’t going to be canceled for lack of participating. “You must go out into the byroads,” the king commands his servants, “and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.” The meal is still being served, even if it has to be eaten by those (Gentiles) who didn’t have it on their schedule.
One of the fundamental mysteries of early Christianity was the realization that an event prayed for and anticipated by Jews for over a thousand years was largely ignored by those same people when it finally took place.
This seems to be why Paul ends his letter to the Philippians with the comment, “I am experienced in being brought low, yet I know what it is to have abundance. I have learned how to cope with every circumstance – how to eat well or go hungry, to be well provided for or do without. In him who is the source of my strength, I have strength for everything.”
Eternal circumstances aren’t very important for persons of faith. What one really needs, Paul believes one already has. That’s why he states, “My God . . . will supply your needs fully, in a way worthy of his magnificent riches in Christ Jesus.” The riches others are searching for are already part of our lives. We need only imitate Jesus to access them.
Jesus’ historical ministry seems to have revolved around encouraging people to shift their religious concentration from praying for future good to finding and recognizing the good God is already providing. It takes deep, mature faith to achieve such a transformation; a determination to relate to God and others in a new way. Instead of being just the means to achieve something, God and other are already something. It’s an invitation we can’t ignore.
(Don’t worry about the confusing end of today’s gospel. How could someone pulled in off the street be “properly dressed?” In a pre-gospel stage, the community collected Jesus’ parables according to topics. We’re dealing here with an independent parable. Though, like the prior parable, it ahs something to do with a wedding banquet, it addresses a different problem and conveys a different message.