The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

Reflection & Dialogue: All welcome within the Church, but a wedding garment of grace called for.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 25:6-10). The Lord will prepare a banquet, and will wipe away tears from every cheek. In the biblical work we know as the Book of Isaiah there are prophecies and various collections of prophecies. One of these is the collection in chapters 24-27 which is now generally referred to as “The Apocalypse of Isaiah” because it passes beyond current questions to events of the end time and the final victory and judgment of God. In between the description of these final events there are psalms of supplication and thanksgiving. The designation of the collection as Apocalypse is not altogether exact, but it does contain aspects of this literary genre that will occur later in the Book of Daniel, Zechariah 9-14, the apocryphal Book of Enoch and in the New Testament Apocalypse (Revelation) of John. It is believed that the Apocalypse of Isaiah cannot be earlier than the fifth century B.C. No doubt, the word of God as presented in the various pieces of this collection gave direction and encouragement to the people of Israel in the post-exilic period.

The sections immediately preceding today’s reading, in rather apocalyptic language, speak of God’s impending judgment of the world. He will punish the host of heaven in heaven and the kings of the earth on earth. And then the Lord of hosts will reign (as king) on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders he will manifest his glory. This is followed by a hymn praising God for the wonderful things he has done. He is said to have destroyed an unnamed fortified enemy city, while he himself has been a refuge for the poor and needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Next follows our present reading, still in somewhat apocalyptic language. God is to introduce a new world order, symbolized by the rich banquet of food and wine he is to prepare for all peoples, with rich and juicy food and fine strained wines. Still in apocalyptic imagery, all the people are represented as being dead, covered by a mourning veil and the death shroud. God will remove this veil and shroud. Death (personified) is represented as the enemy of God. God will be victorious over this enemy; he will destroy Death, swallow it up, and remove the tears of mourning from all affected by it. He is also to remove the shame, the disgrace, of his people everywhere on earth, although we are not told what this shame or disgrace is; possibly death itself. This is all presented as God’s word: “For the Lord has said so”.

The people are represented as responding to this great vision of the future: it is the advent of their God, the salvation for which they had hoped for so long. It is a call for rejoicing, that the hand of the |ord rests on Mount Zion, “on this mountain”, on Jerusalem.

There is no mention of a Messiah in this text, and one would not expect this in such an early passage. But it does speak of the kingdom of God, of God reigning in Zion. And later Jewish reflection will connect this text with the Messiah, giving rise to the rich belief in the Messianic banquet, which explains its choice as a background for today’s Gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 22[23]). In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell for ever and ever.

Second Reading (Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20). There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. In this brief reading Paul bids farewell to the Christian community of the church at Philippi, the only community from which he would accept aid, which was given to him generously. But Paul was ready for any hardship which his missionary endeavours would bring him, be it poverty or plenty. He is conscious of being able to overcome any trial through the strength that comes to him from God. He thanks them for their support, and ends with words praising God.

The Gospel (Matthew 22:1-14). Invite everyone you can find to the wedding. Today’s Gospel reading, with the well-known parable of the invitation to the wedding feast, provides ample material for reflection. It connects us with the Old Testament preparation, New Testament fulfilment and the Early and later Church application. It has an Old Testament connection, since it clearly presupposes the prophecy of the promise of the messianic banquet, read today as first reading. In that reading God promises that he would prepare for all people a banquet of rich food and fine wines. He would remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, wipe the tears from every mourning eye and destroy, swallow up, death for ever. His people Israel are presented as responding to this vision, that this is the God in whom they had hoped, and that he had now saved them. Matters are different with regard to the parable of the wedding banquet, addressed to the leaders of the Jewish people, the chief priests and the elders of the people. The parable is about a king (God) who had prepared a wedding banquet for his son (Jesus). The invitations had been sent out, and the king’s servants sent twice to remind the invited guests of this. On both occasions the invitation was refused, that by the first messengers (by the prophets of Israel?) somewhat politely; by the second (the apostles) harshly, by abuse and murder. (At the second refusal Matthew says that the king in fury killed the murderers and burnt their city, possibly a later insertion by to evangelist referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.) Given the refusal to the banquet of the king’s son by the chosen guests, the king now orders his servants to invite and bring in from the roads everyone they could find, good and bad alike, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. The original parable probably ended here, as it does in Luke’s Gospel. The point made was that the originally invited guests, refusing the invitation, that is the Jewish people, would be replaced by others, the Christian community, persons of all sorts. The mention of the good and the bad alike in the wedding feast could have created problems for the Christian community, called to be the light and salt of the earth by their good works. To obviate misunderstanding, Matthew adds an appendix, probably from another parable, on the wedding garment, implying that all are welcome in the Christian community, but that repentance and Christian living are required. The parable has a message for our day when many say that despite the Church’s message of welcome for all, many feel unwelcome: the divorced and remarried barred from Communion, questions regarding homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce and many other matters. These are currently being discussed by the Church. Reflection on today’s parable may help understand the situation, and work towards a solution.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: All welcome within the Church, but a wedding garment of grace called for.

The Church likes to portray herself as an open church, open to everyone, irrespective of race or social class, with compassion and understanding for the poor and the marginalized. This can even be proclaimed from the altar: all are welcome here. But in our own day, in the society in which we live and within the Church itself, there are individuals and groups who do not believe that they are welcome within the Church, such as the divorced and remarried who are barred from receiving Holy Communion, active homosexuals, those in gay unions or gay marriage, people involved in extra-marital sexual activity, advocating freedom of choice with regard to abortion, and others besides. Those who condemn or do not accept such persons are sometimes, if not often, accused of laying heavy burdens on them, and occasionally even compared to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, of whom Christ said that they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

            This question is being closely examined today by the Church authorities themselves. It is an old problem, going back probably to the days of the evangelist Matthew, and it is possible that today’s Gospel reading may give a better understanding of the problem. Everybody, sinners and others, are called by God to enter the Church, and the Church must be the messenger of God’s mercy for the entire world and for its own members. Christ invited all, weary and carrying heavy burdens, to come to him to find rest, saying that his yoke is easy and his burden light. We should also remember, however, that he also told disciples that if they wanted to be his followers that they should deny themselves, die to themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Central to the Christian message is that of dying and rising again with Christ, dying to an old way of life and living a new life in Christ.

To return to the questions under discussion: we may, indeed we must, say that the Church, that is all of us, must be understanding and compassionate, not putting on other people’s shoulders burdens hard or impossible to bear. But with regard to the questions currently being raised, the Church must examine closely whether all or some of them belong to what is regarded as the deposit of faith and morals, that is unalterable truths, or are just part of a way of life and belief that belong to past ages. Although there have been, there are, and there will be, sinners within the Church, all are constantly called by God to repent. The Church is a light for the world. The followers of Christ are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, through their good works. These are truths to be considered in the consideration of the questions now being raised and discussed.

            The teaching of the Church, of the Gospel, must be looked on as Christ’s teaching. It is Christ who is speaking through his Church. Christ invites the weary to come to him and take a rest, today as he did while on earth. He would still say that his yoke is easy and his burden light. But Christ also said that his followers must die to themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Let us pray that the present questioning and discussions will issue in a better knowledge of Christ and his yoke and the burdens he asks believers to carry.

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