It’s not surprising that on more than one occasion Jesus uses the imagery of a banquet to describe heaven. It’s true that no image can capture the reality of which St. Paul said, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the mind of anyone what God has in store for those who love him,” but if we’re going to try to imagine what heaven is like, a banquet or wedding feast, with its food, family, friends, and a general feeling of happiness and well-being at least hints in the right direction. So, as I say, it’s not surprising that Jesus uses such imagery.
What is surprising, and disconcerting, in the parable we hear in today’s gospel is the reaction of those invited to the feast. We’re told that initially everyone who was invited refused to come, that when the king sent servants to repeat his invitation, some again refused and went on their way; others actually killed the messengers! It looks as if Jesus’ parable is less about heaven and more about the waywardness and cruelty of the human heart, and a look at the news each day suggests that he wasn’t exaggerating the human capacity for stupidity or brutality. We’d like to think such behavior is the exception to the rule, and it very well may be, but what if it’s possible to refuse heaven in less stupid and brutal ways?
C.S. Lewis, the famous English author of The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote a little book called The Great Divorce in which he imagines a busload of people driven from hell to heaven where they’re offered admittance. Shockingly, but I think realistically, all but one of the passengers refuses the invitation to heaven. A man is offended at the suggestion that he’s being forgiven; he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. A woman looks through the Pearly Gates and sees to her horror someone against whom she’s long held a grudge and decides that if that’s the kind of person residing in heaven, then she wants no part of it. And so on, until all but one of the passengers on the bus chooses to return to hell.
The Great Divorce—the title refers to the divorce between heaven and hell—is a very unsettling book because, if you’re like me, you’ll see a bit of yourself in many of those who choose to walk away from God when it becomes clear what acceptance of God and his heaven actually entails. So even though Jesus’ parable may seem extreme in its picture of human depravity—a good attention-getting device—it’s intended to encourage us to look seriously at those seemingly minor flaws in our character, which seen in the full light of Christ might prompt us to turn from God rather than have to swallow our pride, resentment, self-pity, or admit our all-too-human imperfections.
What though of the last part of the parable? This is more than a surprise; it’s a shock and seems terribly unfair. Someone is invited to the feast with no warning, no time to prepare, and accepts, but when the king sees him without a proper wedding garment, he ties him up and throws him out. What the heck are we to make of this? .
Well first, it’s very likely that the king, having invited unprepared bystanders to the feast, would have provided wedding garments for his guests, as restaurants used sometimes to provide a jacket for those who didn’t realize they needed one to dine in that particular establishment. The fact that this man wasn’t wearing one, therefore, indicated a cavalier, presumptuous attitude. He didn’t think he needed one.
Second, when the king questions the man, we’re told that he was reduced to silence. Fr. John Keep, whose website I’ve recommended to you before (www.fatherjohnkeep.org), says that the man’s sin was in his silence. He failed to say he was sorry. He wasn’t contrite. Fr. Keep says that given the weakness of human nature, it’s not likely any of us will become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, something Jesus tells us we must do; but, says Fr. Keep, if we can’t all be perfect, we can all be contrite. We can all say we’re sorry and mean it. For Fr. Keep the wedding garment is simply contrition, sincere sorrow for sin.
It’s important that we try our best to be the people God wants us to be. It’s just as important that we are sorry for our sins, failures, and bad habits and inclinations. One of the reasons it’s so good to go to confession regularly is that it’s excellent preparation for the great confession we’re all going to have to make when we stand before our Maker and Judge. When that day comes, the problem won’t be that God may throw us into the outer darkness. The problem, if there is one, will be that we may have nothing to say to God, or worse, that we may tell God he has nothing to say to us.
Confession is very good practice for the ultimate encounter. How foolish not to take advantage of as many dress rehearsals for that encounter as possible.