Homily for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14
11 October 2020
In today’s gospel, we hear the last of Jesus’ parables in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom. Once again it is directed to the chief priests and the elders – those who pride, or at least content, themselves on being the religious leaders and exemplars for the people. Once again the parable transforms into allegory with dollops of what the modern day film censor would call gratuitous and excessive violence. This time it’s a wedding feast. The groom is the king’s son. As was customary, invitations had already been sent to the special guests. The king’s servants were then despatched to remind the invitees that the wedding was imminent. From the very beginning the story runs off the parable rails and into the thickets of violent allegory. The guests refuse to come. The king despatches another set of servants to implore them to come. But they just weren’t interested. Everyone had a better offer. Then, as in the previous violent kingdom parables, the servants are seized, maltreated and killed. Before the bride and groom can exchange vows at the sumptuous wedding feast, the king despatches his troops both to murder the special guests who would not come and to destroy their town. The town having been destroyed, presumably everyone from the richest to the poorest has been rendered homeless. Having destroyed their homes and livelihoods, the king was still keen to invite the townsfolk to his son’s elaborate wedding. The servants ‘collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike’. The wedding hall was then filled with guests and the celebrations got underway.
You’d think the king could take a break at this stage and just enjoy the night, making the best of a bad lot. But he spots one of the late invitees without a wedding garment, so orders that this badly attired gentleman be bound hand and foot and thrown into the darkness ‘where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth’. It’s one hell of a wedding. Being a priest, I know that wedding receptions have many depths and eddies of emotion at play. I have often observed that one of the blessings and burdens of being a priest at a wedding reception is that you usually get to talk both to the happiest and saddest people in the room, including the newly weds and those who have gone through the most bitter divorces.
Last week’s parable ended with the declaration to the chief priests and elders: ‘The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ This week’s ends with the chief priests and elders being told, ‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ Scripture scholars tell us that this is a well attested Semitic idiom meaning that all are called to the banquet of the kingdom but not all are chosen. Everyone is invited to the table of the banquet, but to remain at the table of the Lord, something is expected of us. There are no reserved places for those like chief priests and elders, or those who received the first round of invitations. One scripture scholar notes:
In extreme cases, the impression is given that one’s oppressive socio-economic, political and physical circumstances merit right status before God. Surely, this is the opposite error theologically of maintaining that health, status and wealth are the sure signs of God’s favour. Being an outsider will not of itself make one an insider. While God’s grace invites all to the table, appropriate response keeps one there.
During this past week, Pope Francis issued his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, literally translated as ‘all brothers’. In his previous encyclical Laudato Si’, Francis wanted us to see how everything is connected. He reflected on his choice of the name Francis, following in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi who ‘shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’.
His focus in both encyclicals is on the poor:
“Indeed, when all is said and done, [the poor] frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality.”(#49)
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis wants to demonstrate how everyone is connected, particularly those who lead the Church and those who are poor or marginalised, those like the disabled, the unborn and the elderly; the unemployed, the migrant and the refugee. He wants us to be able to see everyone as brothers and sisters.
He reminds us: “Some parts of our human family… can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly.” (#18)
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis gives us a splendid reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan. As Cardinal Czerny SJ explains, this second chapter of the encyclical is a pastoral lesson for us as to how we should see, grasp, understand and respond to the one who is other, the one who is poor.
Francis challenges us:
“Every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country. They may be citizens with full rights, yet they are treated like foreigners in their own country.’”(#97)
Should we not be first attentive to those who feel that they are treated like foreigners in their own Church? Francis’s universal vision and invitation in this encyclical, echoing today’s parable in which all are invited to the wedding feast, is clouded by the continuing incapacity of our Church and its leaders to fully and equally include women at the table, demonstrated by their exclusion even from the title of the document, ‘Fratelli Tutti’.
Pope Francis writes:
“(T)he organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.” (#23)
Reading these words this week, I reflected that on the morning after the federal budget, the coverage on ABC Radio National was led by a leading journalist Fran Kelly, interviewing a panel of three: Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, Michele O’Neill, the President of the ACTU, and Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of ACOSS. All women! All there on merit! We as a Church are just so far behind, with our decisions and reality telling another story. It’s as if we are not even listening. We have lost the right to preach to others about according women the same dignity and rights as men. Many reputable Catholic women wrote to the Holy Father before the publication of the encyclical pleading with him to change the title of the document to something more inclusive, something which could be heard as being less sexist in the twenty-first century. Their cry went unheard. They wrote:
“[T]his issue presents a problem for many who would otherwise be fully engaged with the encyclical and committed to working with you for lasting social, spiritual and environmental transformation. At best it is a distraction, and at worst it is a serious stumbling block. This unfortunate situation can be very easily rectified by the inclusion of ‘sorelle’ as well as ‘fratelli’ in the title. This would ensure that translations must include sisters as well as brothers in all languages, and it would prevent any misunderstanding as to your intended audience. We know that such a minor modification would be in keeping with the spirit of Saint Francis, and with your own intentions. We urge you to show that you are indeed open to dialogue and are listening to the voices of women. It would be a powerful message that you have heard us, if you were to make this one small change to the title.”
No change was made. Whatever the considerable virtues of the document, it stands with the exclusively gendered title Fratelli Tutti. We have cause to rejoice that Pope Francis tells us in the encyclical that the Church “works for the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity. She does not claim to compete with earthly powers, but to offer herself as a family among families, this is the Church, open to bearing witness in today’s world, open to faith hope and love for the Lord and for those whom he loves with a preferential love. A home with open doors. The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother.” (#276)
We need to ensure that all brothers and sisters have a place at the table. And those of us who think we belong at the table need to dress ourselves and address others appropriately. Putting the violence, the regrets and no-shows, and the destruction of the town behind us, let’s enjoy the wedding banquet, and pray together the prayer Pope Francis composed at the end of Fratelli Tutti:
“Lord, Father of our human family, you created all human beings equal in dignity: pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter, dialogue, justice and peace.
Move us to create healthier societies and a more dignified world, a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war. May our hearts be open to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
May we recognize the goodness and beauty that you have sown in each of us, and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects, and shared dreams. Amen.”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).