Isaiah 25:6–10a; Philippians 4:12–14, 19–20; Matthew 22:1–14
My roommate in college had one other roommate before me a year prior. This young man had been given a car as a graduation gift and was then sent off to a private school, Gonzaga, for his first year of college. Clearly, this young man was given great gifts and privilege, and you’d think he would be very happy to have the advantages he had. Yet he squandered his year at Gonzaga, and he did intentionally reckless things with his car, to the point of causing fairly significant cosmetic damage to it—as well as to the property of others. Rather than treating these gifts with gratitude and respect, he treated them with utter contempt.
I wonder how his parents felt when they saw the wreck of his car limping home at the end of that academic year? Do you think they’d be likely to give him such gifts again?
The nature of a gift is that it’s given freely—at no cost to the one receiving. It makes no sense to give a gift and expect a gift back. Otherwise you really don’t have gift. You have trade. Now, there’s nothing wrong with trade, but the natures of trade and of gift are distinct: one being essentially directed toward gaining for oneself what one wants or needs, while the other being directed toward the other. Giving of gifts is by nature directed to the other.
Whether the gift you give is a small object, a banquet, tickets to a special event, or something greater, the joy of the giver comes in the giving. A true gift is also one in which the giver invests him or herself to some degree in the gift. It could be a small investment, but a gift is not given with complete disinterest. We give a gift to leave something with the one who receives it. Sometimes the gift one gives is the self, as in the Sacrament of Matrimony or a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
That is part of the message we get in our readings this week—the gift of self. I think Isaiah 25 reflects this complete gift of self, which is the most common image of God’s relationship with Israel in Hebrew scripture. The Lord provides for everyone a feast of rich food and choice wines, wipes away all tears, removes the shame of the people. We so frequently hear in these passages, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
I had no idea just how many times this clause was repeated in scripture, so I did what any pentagenarian does when faced with such perplexing questions: asked the Google, and the Google told me…
Okay, I don’t really say “the Google.” I’m a techie, so I “Googled” it…
and I found that there are at least 43 verses in which this clause in some variation exists in scripture. “I am your God, and you are my people.” That is the language of covenant, and that is the language of gift. And God is the good father who loves to lavish good gifts on His children. Now we can make small covenants, and we can make large covenants. But God doesn’t bother with small covenants. He is all in. He gives Himself completely in all things. He goes so far as to ratify His covenant with us with the blood of His Son. That, my friends, is commitment.
Think of the famous image from the Sistine Chapel of the creation. God is reaching out, stretching to touch Adam, while Adam lounges back and weakly holds out his hand. I think it captures not only God’s commitment to us but our hesitation to join in God’s plan.
That’s really what this gospel reading is about. The king invites the regular guests, perhaps the nobility in the neighboring areas, those who are accustomed to fine things. They can’t be bothered, preferring what they have to what is offered. They mistreat his messengers and regard his invitation with contempt rather than gratitude. So the king instead invites everyone else—the people in the streets, the modest farmers and merchants. Of course, Jesus is telling the chief priests and elders of Israel that they have squandered the invitation that God has offered them as the People of God and that God will make a new covenant with all people, with those who are not of the House of Israel.
The perplexing part of the story comes when we get to the man without the wedding garment. He comes to the wedding feast without a wedding garment, and for this, he is bound hand and feet and cast out. What is happening here? It seems unduly harsh for a merciful God.
This is where we have to key into what Scott Hahn calls the “holy ‘huh.'” The “holy huh” is that sort of moment of discord that we get when something in scripture violates our expectations. Everything is going along fine, but then something comes up that just seems to be blown out of proportion. This particular passage raises in my mind a really big “holy huh.” Jesus does that a lot, and that is part of the power of His words, cutting through joints and marrow, as the author of Hebrews put it. Whenever you get that “holy huh,” you need to stop and look again at what’s being said because you might otherwise miss something important.
So what is Jesus talking about here? The king has invited everyone, after his initial invitations were rebuffed. You would think that someone who throws his doors open to the mass of humanity would be a bit more inclusive and wouldn’t just toss someone out for not dressing properly. So something else is happening here.
The wedding garment represents preparation, openness to gift, a receiving and grateful heart. There are different ways to receive a gift. You can receive it as if it’s a favor you have to repay. You can receive it with sincere gratitude. Or like my college roommate’s friend, you can receive it as if it’s one’s due or as if it were beneath you, with resentment and bitterness.
Have you ever given a gift to someone who isn’t receptive? Who doesn’t really want your gift? It’s a pretty awkward situation. If we look back at the scene of Adam and God in the Sistine Chapel, what people often miss is that God’s other arm is wrapped around Eve. The Father wants to give Adam the greatest blessing—bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. In Hebrew, that is a superlative. When Adam says that about Eve, he means that she is the very best of him. God the Father is just waiting to knock Adam’s socks off with this incredible gift of Eve, but Adam can barely lift his hand to receive her.
That’s us, far too often. We don’t see the tremendous gift that God has already given to us. We want more. And even the gifts we have, we don’t recognize. I read an incredible story of faith in the most unlikely place—GQ Magazine. I wouldn’t have bothered except that it showed up on my Facebook feed and was recommended by a very well-known deacon who is also a long-time news person. It was an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian and current host of the Late Show. Now, Colbert is a cradle Catholic and quite open about his faith. I don’t necessarily agree with his take on all points of Catholic doctrine, but he understands grace very well. In this interview in GQ, he talks about a major event in his life—the death of his father and two brothers when he was 10 years old. Now, for most of us, we would have that encounter, and we would hold nothing but grief and bitterness. But Colbert doesn’t have that perspective. What he said—and it was frankly shattering to me—was this.
“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
“I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” He recognized that while he lost father and brothers, his suffering was not pointless, and it led him to be the person he is.
I could say that about so many things in my past and even about experiences I now have. I love the thing I wish had not happened. That is an attitude about receiving gifts that we should all adopt. That’s what Stephen Colbert gets—that it’s all a gift. All of it. Our sorrow, our joy. Our pain and prosperity. All of it is a gift from God, and all of it can be used to bring about good by God.
But we don’t see the gifts God lays before us. We want to turn away the very things that would draw us closer to Him, if we would only let them. The difference between a saint and most of us is this openness to the gift. Many of us come here to this altar with a sense of privilege and demand, as if we are owed a good homily and an inspiring liturgy, without ever considering what a gift it is we’re given in our Eucharist, in this foreshadowing of the eternal wedding feast of the lamb. St. Augustine long ago remarked on this graciousness of God in the Eucharist: He wrote,
No one has his guests feed upon himself, and yet this is precisely what Christ our Lord does; though host, he himself is both food and drink. The martyrs recognized the food and drink they were given, in order to make repayment in kind.
To make repayment in kind. God gives Himself to us fully and completely. Are we prepared to give back to Him fully and completely?
In this feast God puts on the table before us, He doesn’t just give the best of what earth has to offer. He gives Himself! This is why scripture speaks of God’s relationship with Israel in terms of marriage, because God is giving us Himself completely and totally: body, blood, soul, and divinity!
But how do many of us respond to this invitation? How many of us look at coming to Mass as a chore? How many of us look at God’s gifts as our due? Our right? How many of us come to this altar, this banquet, without a wedding garment? Without being clothed with a proper sense of gratitude for everything—literally every thing—that God has given to us?
God invites all of us to the feast, but we have to be open to the gift and ready to celebrate appropriately.