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.
Like many of Jesus’ teachings, the one we find in today’s parable of the two sons is multi-leveled. On one level the message of the parable might be summed up in a proverb like “Actions speak louder than words.” On another, the parable is more subtle. Notice what Jesus does with it. He compares the chief priests and elders of the people to the son who is all talk and the tax-collectors and prostitutes to the son who in the end does the father’s will. And the example he cites to show his analogy is apt is the way each responded to the preaching of John the Baptist.
John came preaching a message of judgment and repentance. The chief priests were stung by John’s suggestion that they might be subject to judgment and in need of repentance, and so rejected him. The tax-collectors (Jews who collaborated with the hated Romans to fleece their own people) and the prostitutes heard John and recognized the truth of his words. They knew he was a prophet of God, and they knew they were in need of repentance. They may very well have felt trapped in their life and unable to change their ways, but they knew they were in bad shape and responded to John’s preaching as a flower might respond to the first droplets of rain in a parched desert.
The chief priests and elders talked a good show, and if the only norm of conduct were respectability, they’d have it all over the tax-collectors and prostitutes. The latter were definitely disreputable, but when God sent them a prophet, they believed in him because they knew what they were, and they knew they needed help.
There are any number of ways of saying all this. One would be that there are only two kinds of people in this world: sick people who know they are sick and know they need a doctor, and sick people who think they’re perfectly healthy and think they don’t need a doctor. The first can be cured. The second can’t. Peter Kreeft says it another way. He says that the two kinds of people on earth are saints who know they are sinners and sinners who think they are saints. The first can be forgiven. The second can’t.
What the tax-collectors and prostitutes had going for them was that they were in touch with reality. They know who and what they were, so they knew they needed help, and they recognized that help in John the Baptist and in Jesus much more often than the chief priests and elders of the people did.
The ancients used to say that the beginning of wisdom was to know oneself. It’s a life’s work to do so, but the more we know ourselves, the more we’ll know our need of healing, and the deeper will be our relationship to the Divine Physician. Come to think of it, It’s probably not a very healthy sign that so few Catholics nowadays feel the need for confession.
Today’s parable of the workmen being paid the same wage even though they’ve all worked different hours is one everybody loves to hate. It all seems like a clear case of blatant injustice. What could Jesus possibly be getting at? Let’s take a closer look at the parable, and let’s assume for a moment that it really does have to do with wages and work.
The first thing to notice is that those hired in the morningagreed to the usual daily wage. They didn’t start out grumbling that their employer was a cheapskate, that they deserved more. They agreed to what they considered a just wage.
Those who came later, we’re told, got the same wage but for less work, but this doesn’t mean the first group was treated unjustly; it means the later groups were treated generously. It means that those who complained (this includes us) were not striking a blow for justice; they were envious of those who got more than justice. Now envy is very understandable, but it is not a virtue. An awful lot of what passes for a struggle for justice in our world is really nothing more than envy. In itself, it’s not an injustice that some people have more than others. It’s only injustice when some, through no fault of their own, are deprived of necessities, while others have more than they need. This is not the case in the parable.
If the first workers and we are really so concerned about justice, if we are really just men and women outraged at the inequity of the situation described in the parable, then it follows that if we were among those who came later and got the same wage as the earliest group, we would give them part of our wages to balance the out-of-kilter scales of justice. Fat chance! Isn’t it odd how justice keeps changing her face depending on whether or not she benefits us?
So you see, I don’t think that even when the parable is interpreted literally we’re in a position of strength as we presume to sit in judgment on it. But the fact is that this isn’t really what the parable is about at all. It’s about two altogether different things. First, it’s Jesus’ way of telling his Jewish listeners that the Johnny-come-lately pagans are being invited to the fullness of salvation just as the chosen people were. And second, he’s telling us that no matter how late we come to work in his vineyard, even at close of day, even on our deathbeds, we too will be offered everlasting life. Understood this way, the parable is filled with encouragement and hope for everyone, even the lowest, laziest, rottenest, most God-forsaken sinner.
Now maybe I’m mistaken, but I suspect that many of us find this reading of the parable little less obnoxious than the first I mentioned. Why, we may feel, should some worthless wretch who’s never done any good, in fact has done a great deal of harm and evil, be able to repent at the last minute and get the same reward as we who have toiled all these years at being good?
Once again, this has much more to do with that little green demon, envy, than it does with bright shining justice. It assumes, for starters, that we’ve earned heaven and receive it as the just desserts of our labors. That’s a heresy. Jesus has earned heaven for us. Heaven is a gift, a mercy, not a matter of justice. It assumes further that being good is basically a bore and a chore, and that being bad is the real fun. Wrong again, and pretty insulting to God whose companionship we’ve presumably been enjoying all these years we’ve been so wonderful. It forgets that in heaven and among the saints on earth, there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over a hundred righteous folks who never need to repent. In the end, this parable, which we presume to scrutinize and put on trial, casts a bright light on us and shows just how worldly our standards are, how little christened we really are.
I have a feeling that, if one day we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in heaven, we’ll be so completely speechless with joy that it all turned out to be true and that we really made, we won’t care who else made it with us. In fact, if it’s really heaven, we’ll even be happy to see our worst enemy there by our side, transformed like us, into someone the like of whom we could never have seen on earth, unless perhaps we had lived two thousand years ago and bumped into Jesus or Mary, living in the land called Holy.