What are we to do with this parable? A spurned royal wedding invitation, murder, the burning of cities–it sounds more like a plot line in Game of Thrones than the words we’d expect to hear from the Prince of Peace, describing for us what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Bracketing the legacy of destructive interpretations that this passage is surely weighed down with – .how might it still come alive with a fresh word for us today, October 15th, 2023?
Something about this parable was unlocked for me two years ago after attending the opening mass for the global synod on Synodality, with its core themes of communion, participation, and mission. The opening mass felt like a surprising, divine invitation to come to the feast!
Pope Francis had been indicating that a big invitation was in the works throughout 2021. The preparatory document for the Synod was released in September – it was a kind of save-the-date, get your wedding outfit together, make your plans. The prelude for a remarkable invitation where no one was left out of the scope of who the Church was wanting to listen to: everyone was invited to come to the feast.
The first tier guest list was from Pope Francis to his fellow bishops – offering them a way to shepherd the church through the aftershocks of COVID, in the face of so many crises facing humanity compounded by diminished trust in the Catholic Church and in institutions writ large.
This invitation was given to bishops and extended to all: calling everyone to a radical leap of faith. To dare to listen to the Holy Spirit moving in and through each of us. If we do so – Pope Francis insists – we cannot go wrong. We can even discover depths of communion we had probably not thought possible.
The parable tells us that we shouldn't be surprised by different responses to the invite. (Everyone rejects it! No one comes to the party!)
The second time –some people in the parable react with a kind of indifference – they turn to the other business that they need to attend to.
Maybe you're in a diocese where there was already strategic planning going on and other pastoral initiatives underway and it didn't feel like there was time and energy and capacity to stop everything and do what the Vatican was asking them to do.
I don’t think everyone who turned down the invitation to go on this synodal journey is somehow unworthy to still come to the feast! In fact - plenty of reasonable people may have opted to skip out.
There are those of us who doubted that participation would lead anywhere… What would be the point? Am I just going to stir up hope only to be disappointed?
How many of us have just gotten used to not being heard - why would we risk being vulnerable and sharing my dreams?
No thanks, I’ve got to get back to my farm, I’m busy growing things there… You don’t really need me at this party.
Then there is a whole other category of reaction to the invitation. One that is overtly hostile.
Maybe this hostility has at its root a human tendency to be wary, or fearful of change. Fear can drive us to do all manner of things. In this case: to want to kill the news of the synod. Bury it. Ride out the process, secretly crossing fingers that the next papal conclave would come soon and would ensure we can go back to doing Church the way it has always been done.
As it becomes clear that this synod is real, with real authority to create real reform – the critiques are (unsurprisingly) ramping up. Escalating from being about the graphics, the questions and the process, to now questioning the Pope’s authority, sowing doubts about his vision which is saying that synodality might be the way for God to renew the Church for Gospel mission today.
In the parable, the king escalates things with the folks who want to crush the invitation and murder those who herald the news.
But Pope Francis is not like the king in this parable. He hasn’t sent out Sr. Nathalie Becquart from the Synod office to raise up armies and destroy the naysayers, burn cities, or excommunicating dioceses for lack of participation
No. Pope Francis is inviting those who disagree with him, those who are critical – saying come to the feast! Let’s go on a journey together… More than that, let’s give the whole process more time so that we don't leave anyone behind. We need each other – the believers and the skeptics – all of us are sinners in need of grace, on a journey of conversion in the Spirit!
Today friends, the hall is filled. In Rome it is filled, not only with bishops and cardinals – but college students, young adults, spiritual directors, women religious, priests and elders, canon lawyers, theologians and facilitators. And they gather not because they have all the answers about what it will take to become a synodal Church – but they gather charged with responsibility to ensure synodality is not narrowly an intellectual exercise only for the few. They are right now, experiencing synodality through listening, encounter, and seeking the Communion God offers through the Holy Spirit. Trusting that this experience will bear fruit in charting a course forward.
For those of us back home - how are we to participate? I want to turn to the end of Matthew’s parable to offer us some warning and some wisdom.
The king enters the hall and he sees somebody who is not dressed right for the occasion. This person doesn't have a word in response when the king asks him well, why aren't you in your wedding garments? What's going on?
How do we dress right for the banquet? I don’t mean, are you looking respectably modest, with your shoulders and knees covered?
I mean: do you know what feast you are invited to? This isn’t Taco Tuesday. This is the feast that we proclaimed in the first reading today from Isaiah – a feast of rich food and choice wine. A promise that the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples…Todos, Todos, Todos.
On this mountain, at this feast, God will destroy death forever.
Come to the feast! The feast we celebrate in every offering of the Eucharist that boldly proclaims: death has been destroyed.
God will continue to summon us to this table - even with us rejecting the invitation. God will continue to send out messengers to call us back in, to seek us out until all each of us know ourselves as welcome to this eternal wedding feast.
What is it we celebrate? That what has been wed forever in the flesh, the body of Christ Jesus – is the life of God and the life of humanity. At this wedding banquet – we remember we are all guests. Jesus is the host and the choice wine that sustains the festivities. We don’t need to fret about who was on the original guest list. We do need to attune ourselves to the heart of the invitation. We are invited to turn away from the paths that lead to despair and death – and risk hoping that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the Church, that it can still be a living sign of a heavenly banquet, that Jesus sustains us as we seek out ancient paths which lead to life – even as we recover paths that we have forgotten from the prophetic edges of our Church’s tradition.
To say yes to walk the synodal way is be part of God’s work, reknitting the fabric of our belonging – to God, to one another, to creation – as Christ’s living body in the world.
Whatever unfolds this month and as this process unfolds into the next year, through next October.
Whatever the church continues to discern – the canonical changes, new juridical structures, and what ministerial reforms do or do not move ahead.
Friends, let us stay grounded in the heart of the good news.
The table has been set. The feast is prepared. So let us come clothed in the magnificence of the divinity dwelling within us. Let us come as we truly are: God's beloved clothed in the divinity that radiates with each and every child born.
Casey Stanton is the co-director of Discerning Deacons, a project serving the Church by engaging Catholics in the active discernment around women and the diaconate. She most recently served as Adult Faith Formation minister at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina. She holds a BA from the University of Notre Dame, and a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School where she graduated with a certificate in prison studies. Casey spent a decade working in the field of faith-based organizing where she witnessed the impact of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development as a key anchor in efforts to promote the common good and seek justice for those on the margins. Casey is proud to make a home in Durham NC with her husband Felipe, their two children Micaela and Teddy (and “Baby Synod” who is due to arrive in mid-October, 2023!) She is inspired by Pope Francis’ vision for a synodal church, and believes this synod is an invitation for each of us to recognize ourselves as pilgrims walking together in equal dignity, seeking communion.
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