Sunday, October 15, 2017

How's My Hair?

 Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 

In the spring of my first year of seminary study in Rome, my parents came over for a visit.  This would be their first transatlantic flight, and I wanted to be sure everything went smoothly during their stay in the Eternal City.  I met them at the airport, brought them into town on the train, and got them settled in their room.  My main objective for the rest of that first day was to keep them awake—knowing that going to bed at a somewhat normal hour would help them with the jetlag.  So, despite their being rather tired, we walked around quite a bit that afternoon. 

Before heading out to get an early supper, I stopped by the seminary where I found a message waiting for me at the main gate.  It contained some wonderful news: we’d been granted front row tickets for the next day’s papal audience, which meant we were going to be able to meet—and get our picture taken with—Pope John Paul II.  So we immediately walked some more—a brisk half hour across the city—to pick up our prized tickets before the visitor’s office closed.

In the midst of their exhaustion, and while verifying all the details for our early start the next morning, I remember my mother’s lone preoccupation (and she won’t be too pleased that I’m sharing this): she didn’t have a hairdryer.  For the record, I just looked over those 20-year-old photos and, I must say, even without a dryer, her hair looks much better than mine!

It’s only natural that we want to look our best—better yet, be at our best—when we have the high honor of meeting someone of importance.  And that basic human instinct lies behind the parable we’ve just heard.  Often enough (and I’ve done this myself), a preacher will use this gospel story to remind folks that it’s a good idea to dress up nice for Mass.  But the message Jesus wants to convey runs far deeper than fashion sense or etiquette.

Jesus tells the story of a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son; as in all his similar parables, we know that the king must be God the Father, and the king’s son is, of course, Jesus himself.

Have you noticed in recent years that couples are often sending out two invitations for their wedding: a first that says, “Save the date,” and a second that contains all the details?  That’s not a new trend, but was the common practice in Jesus’ day: messengers would be sent out first to tell guests that the big day was coming, and later to let everyone know the feast was now ready.  Who are these two sets of messengers?  First come the prophets, telling people to prepare, for the Day of the Lord is coming; next sent are the Apostles, who announce that what was long-awaited has now arrived.  And who are the people on that initial guest list?  The people of Israel, of course.

How is the invitation received?  Some choose to ignore it, reneging on their original acceptance—they have “more important” things to do; others outright spurn it, attacking the messengers and in so doing rebelling against the one who sent them.  Both responses have dire consequences.  The king’s reaction is rather startling and severe, but Jesus thus manages to get our attention and make it clear that, while this is simply a story, the message it conveys is pretty serious—in fact, a matter of life and death.

When those first invited prove themselves unworthy, the invitation is then extended far and wide: the mission turns to the Gentiles.  And with his banquet hall now full, the king goes out to work the crowd a bit, and his attention falls on one guest in particular: a man without a wedding garment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that a poor man is being scolded because he failed to rent an expensive tuxedo; scholars tell us the man simply hadn’t put on a clean outfit.  With little notice, my mother managed to find a way—without a hairdryer—to fix herself up to meet the pope; even with a last minute invitation, one can find the time to change out of dirty work clothes before attending a royal wedding.  And as it was for those who disregarded or despised the original invitation, so too there are consequences for those who would presume to partake of the feast when not properly prepared.

Hence Jesus concludes, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”  God’s kingdom is open to all, but not all will prove worthy of it.  Some will decline the Lord’s invitation, and so exclude themselves; other will accept the call, but then fail to follow through on all of its demands.

So, what does all of that mean for you and me in the here and now?  To figure that out, we need to answer two more questions.

(1) What character is missing from the story?  The bride, of course!  It’s kind of hard to have a wedding without her.  If the king’s son is Jesus, then what new reality is being celebrated?  The marriage of heaven and earth, of God and man, of Christ and the Church.  Which means that you are the bride!  This parable is about God’s passionate desire to enter into a personal relationship with you, to be intimately united with your soul.

(2) And what is the wedding garment we’re expected to wear?  The righteousness that comes with conversion to Jesus Christ.  What needs changing is not our clothing, but our lives; what needs to be washed clean is not our laundry, but our hearts.  We need to “put on Christ” (cf. Rm 13:14, Eph 4:24, Gal 3:27).

God has graciously extended the invitation, but as to a response, the choice is completely up to us.  This parable reveals four possibilities:

(A) We can ignore it or quietly decline, going back to our previous pursuits, acting as if nothing was really changed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as if nothing new or different is required of us.

(B) We can respond with indignation, get defensive or hostile, because the invitation to accept a Savior also means admitting that I’m a sinner who needs saving, and such a call to repentance threatens things with which I’ve grown quite comfortable, things I’ve convince myself that I need to be happy.

(C) We can allow our conversion to remain incomplete, neither ignoring nor refusing the call, but also not permitting our initial “yes” to carry through into the rest of our day-to-day life, hoping to reap all the rewards of the kingdom but without having to leave all of our old, sinful ways behind.

(D) Or, we can wholeheartedly accept it—holding nothing back.

The King of Heaven
requests the honor of your presence 
at a banquet for the marriage of his dearly beloved Son.  

How are you responding to that personal invitation?  Forget about your hairdryer!  In what sort of garment are you dressing your soul?

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