28th Ordinary Time • 10/12/14 • Isaiah 25:1-9, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14 • Leora Weitzman
Today’s Isaiah and Gospel readings contain a disturbing mixture of violence and grace. In order to be able to embrace them fully as good news, I needed a way to reconcile the violent images with a totally loving God.
There is some precedent for treating ancient stories allegorically, as portrayals of the community within the self. For example, I’ve heard the story of the Israelites’ liberation from enslavement by the Egyptians interpreted as an allegory for our liberation from enslavement to sin or addictions. When I apply this lens to the parable of the wedding feast, it comes alive for me as a spot-on depiction of a common human experience.
We’ve all experienced a half-conscious awareness or intuition trying to get our attention. This can be anything from a little warning sense that now is not the time to say what we’re thinking… to a deep knowing about our life path.
The first nudging of that hidden awareness is represented by the royal couple sending out its first invitations. If we listen and obey, all is well; we’re at the feast with everything we need. But sometimes we don’t listen the first time.
So the royal couple, our inner wisdom, sends out more invitations; the sense that we should stop and listen to some inner voice grows stronger. When that happens, I may feel irritated. I realize I should set my aside my surface thoughts, my planning or calculating or re-hashing, but I don’t want to. Truth be told, I’m a bit afraid of the changes I may be asked to make. So I turn on the radio… or think of something I need to shop for. I drown out the messenger thoughts. As the story says, I kill the messengers.
This doesn’t work forever, though. When we keep pushing down a nagging inner voice, eventually we reach a point where we can’t keep doing what we were doing. This is the part of the story where the royal couple – still our inner wisdom – seems to take revenge. Our relationships or health begin to suffer, or our job dries up on us. Though this is simply the price of not listening sooner, it can feel brutal. The story is merely being true to our experience when the royalty burns the “city” of the parts of the self – or ego – that wouldn’t listen to the message. The “city” that’s destroyed is the structure of habits and practices that these ego parts built into our current way of living.
In the raw space that opens up, we may experience a kind of conversion, a readiness finally to give the inner voice all our attention. There is no part of us that it works to keep aside. We realize that the “bad” and the “good” travelers on our inner thought pathways are equally relevant to the message; the parts of ourselves we used to reject are as necessary as the ones we thought worthy. The spiritual life encompasses our whole selves. The royal couple, our inner wisdom, invites all of us to the feast.
In Luke’s version of this gospel, the parable ends here. Matthew, whom we heard today, is the only other teller of the parable, and only he adds the wedding robe ending. I don’t believe he means to undermine the theme of inclusive acceptance. Rather, he’s drawing attention to a paradox about it. Although heaven’s invitation is extended unconditionally to all of us, our acceptance of it does incur a kind of obligation.
What is the nature of this obligation? In Jesus’ time, according to one source, wedding robes were provided by the host. So the choice not to wear one suggests deliberate rejection… perhaps even disrespect. As for the robe itself, it’s been compared to putting on Christ, sharing the grace that we’ve received.
To be invited unconditionally, and yet obligated to share, introduces the paradox of faith vs. works. For me, this paradox pops “works” out of the dimension of impossibly earning God’s already given love into a new dimension of paying it forward. I learn that salvation is not solitary. (The parable of the unforgiving servant, also unique to Matthew, teaches a similar lesson: I haven’t completely accepted my own forgiveness until I’ve forgiven others.)
I suspect that in heaven’s eyes, paradoxical as it sounds, accepting God’s love is identical with paying it forward. These are not two movements, but one graced flow.
We can feel this by reframing what we are. I tend to think of myself as a closed container waiting to be filled. (In my mind’s eye I see a classic metal garbage can.) If I do get filled, I don’t want to turn right around – or over – and pour myself out into another container. Being filled and emptying seem like opposites.
But now put the can end to end with other cylinders. Imagine them not as metal, but as segments of a bamboo stalk. Clear out the solid nodes that divide the segments. Each segment then becomes a channel whose very nature is to be open at both ends. It’s perfectly formed to be a carrier or conduit of something – water, Spirit, life – into the segments beyond. Being filled from one end… is part of being emptied through the other… thus making room to continue being filled… One graced flow.
Outside my imagination, I experience this when the right words or movements come through me and land just where they’re needed. I’m sure you have times like this. J It’s an experience of communion and abundance, sharing and being filled. Truly a feast.
Getting there can be grittier. To be able to “hear” what to do or say – and be willing to do it – we may have to clear out the nodes that divide “our” segment from others’. We may have to give up judgments, expectations, and more, to release what divides us and melt into the union of the feast.
This is where Paul’s letter comes in, urging two women he used to work with to be of one mind. He doesn’t tell us why they disagreed, but I can identify with them. A couple of years ago I quarreled with a woman who’d trained me and was now downsizing her school. I blamed her bitterly for destroying what she’d created. And then I remembered that, like Paul’s co-workers, we were actually on the same side. It was because I loved her teaching methods that I was upset at their becoming less available. Might I not be dwelling on a mote in her eye while ignoring a beam in my own?
To heal our friendship, I needed awareness of how much choice I have about my own attitudes and habits of thought. This is an awareness that can be strengthened by meditation and practice. Using this awareness, we can catch ourselves making snap judgments and ask God to help us let them go.
For example, here goes the boss changing his mind again. Oops – judging. Help. Or: what an irritating voice. Clearly a shallow person. Hold on. Why do I find it so irritating? Help me see what’s really true here.
I did this over and over with my feelings toward the woman who’d trained me – and some others while I was at it – and gradually a great peace began to seep into my days. Not a peace reached by rationalizations, but a peace reached by letting go of knowing. The nearest thing I’ve felt to the peace beyond understanding.
What if Isaiah’s “ruthless aliens” and their city, which God is praised for destroying, represent judgmental thought constructs that we haven’t been able to dislodge on our own? When we ask for help, God shatters these internalized judgments for us, leaving peace behind. Now we are open to inner and outer communion … that is, the feast God sets before all peoples.
Even the psalm can be read allegorically. I’ve often wondered why the psalmist has God set a feast before me “in the sight of my foes.” Wouldn’t a feast without foes be nicer? Well, yes, but it wouldn’t be a true portrait of the spiritual life. The true portrait is that even when our most addictive thought-patterns are present and tempting, the feast of God’s peace is within our reach. The feast is there, and an active choice is required. This is simply a picture of what the spiritual life – the reign of heaven – is like.
This brings us full circle to the reign of heaven in Matthew, where the feast is open to all, and an active response is required … the putting on of a wedding robe, sharing the grace we’ve received. Let us remember that there is no sacrifice in this sharing. For our true nature is not that of a closed container, but of a channel open at both ends, in full communion with the Source of grace and the whole creation to whom it flows.