We, who recently experienced the marriage of the heir to the British throne, will find today's gospel parable hard to understand. How could anyone ignore or reject an invitation to such a significant event? The key to understanding this parable revolves around a proper understanding of Jesus' first words: "The kingdom of heaven may be likened to ...." As I frequently remind my readers and students, the biblical phrase "the kingdom of God" or it's parallel, "the kingdom of heaven" usually doesn't refer to the eternal life we're expecting to experience after our physical death. It refers to God working effectively in our lives right here and now, long before we're escorted through those pearly gates.
It's relatively easy to appreciate why someone would ignore or reject that kind of an invitation. At the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus tells us that accepting this invitation entails repentance: a complete change in our value system. What we once thought important we now push to the periphery of our lives; what we once thought insignificant is now front and center in everything we do. As we hear over and over in the gospels, a sign we're working on this repentance is when people have become more important for us than our careers, wealth, institutions or even laws. Lots of people simply aren't willing to take such a drastic step in order to experience God's presence in everyone they meet and everything they do.
In the 50 year interval between the historical Jesus telling this parable and Matthew's writing it down for his readers, things happened which were eventually integrated into the original narrative. The church, for instance, had suffered persecution at the hand of some of their fellow-Jews, and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. At one point someone even joined this story of a rejected wedding feast to another parable which revolved around someone flaunting the dress code for such an important occasion. (That's why I usually omit the last four verses from the liturgical reading.) Yet Jesus' basic message still remains: those who should have been the first to hear and respond to the good news of God's kingdom among us ignored it. An unexpected and unprepared people were the fortunate individuals who eventually accepted it. A powerful message for Matthew's Jewish/Christian community, dealing with an influx of Gentiles into the church. Some among Matthew's readers would have put these non-Jews into the same category as the sinners and outcasts of the historical Jesus' day and age: the people who came to the feast.
Obviously neither Jesus nor Matthew was talking about a literal banquet, as Isaiah does in our first reading. But both could identify with the prophet's words about "removing the veil" from the Gentiles, and the fact it is Yahweh who ultimately saves us, Biblical Christians simply defined salvation in a way quite different from those who originally took Isaiah's words literally.
The belief that experiencing God's kingdom right here and now is part of God's plan of salvation is without doubt behind this section of Paul' letter to the Philippians. Once we take the steps necessary to cross into the kingdom of heaven, our entire outlook on everything changes. As Paul puts it, "In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me." He's not focused on the things most people judge essential to their well-being. Paul's value system has shifted 180 degrees.
Jack Shea once remarked that Jesus was concerned with answering just three questions. "What do you want out of life? Where do you get it? How much does it cost?"
The answer to the last question probably stops a lot of us from even exploring the first two.