Scripture and the Liturgy

Dressing for Success: 28th Sunday in OT

The standard of dress at Mass has declined in recent years.  People show up looking like their ready for the beach or a football game.  Some pastors are calling attention to this problem.  I agree–I’m all for encouraging modesty and taste in the way we physically dress for worship

But our external dress is not the main point of this Sunday’s Readings.

What kind of “clothing” does the King see us dressed in at Mass this weekend?

Our readings for this week begin with Isaiah’s famous prophecy of a feast on Mount Zion:

Reading 1 Is 25:6-10a

On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
a feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations;
he will destroy death forever.
The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from every face;
the reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said:
“Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!
This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”
For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Scripture records four historical feasts that were provided on Mount Zion.  David gave a feast for the people of Israel when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem (2 Sam 6).  Solomon gave a feast when the Temple was completed and dedicated (1 Kings 8).  Hezekiah celebrated the Passover for all Israel at his own expense (2 Chron 30).  Josiah did the same (2 Chron 35).

All these previous free feasts on Zion were liturgical celebrations led by David or one of his descendants, either celebrating the Sanctuary or the Passover.  These themes come to a head in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the same mountain, in which the Son of David leads a Passover (cf. Luke 22:1-2; John 19:14) and a renewal of the Sanctuary (John 2:19-21), providing a perpetual feast at his own expense (Luke 22:19).

The Responsorial Psalm reflects these themes as well:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6

R. (6cd) I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

Several of the features of the Psalm are striking when read in a Eucharistic context.  Verse 2 reads literally, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”  Mark and John may well have had this verse in mind when recording the Feeding of the 5,000, a proto-Eucharistic miracle.  Both remark on the plentiful green grass at the site of the feeding, and record Our Lord telling the disciples to “make the people lie down.”  The 5,000 came to experience Jesus as their Good Shepherd; we share their experience in the Eucharistic meal we are about to celebrate.

Psalm 23 also includes themes of resurrection.  Our translation of verse 3 reads, “He refreshes my soul.”  The Hebrew could be translated, “He makes my soul (or ‘my life’)  return.”  The Lord also leads the psalmist successfully through the darkness of death (v. 4) and back to the Lord’s own house, the Temple (v. 6).

Another notable feature of the Psalm is the paradoxical presence of the Lord’s peace and comfort in the midst of danger and death.  The Psalmist walks through the valley of the shadow of death (v. 4). (One wonders if the “valley of death” is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom [Heb. ge-hinnom, later gehenna] where the ancient Israelites burnt their children in sacrifice to idols.) He is surrounded by his enemies (v. 5).  One might ask, If God is such a good Shepherd, why didn’t he take David out of the valley of death and remove all his enemies from him?  Yet this is the mystery of redemptive suffering, the mystery of our participation in Christ’s passion.  For Christians who participate in the paradoxical path of Christ, the Eucharist becomes this meal “prepared before me in the presence of my enemies.”  It is our nourishment and consolation, our meal of resurrection (the “return” of our “soul”) in this “Valley of Tears,” in the midst of the Kingdom persecutions that lead to our blessedness (Matt 5: 10-12)

Happily, the Second Reading continues to develop the theme of God’s provision in the midst of distress:

Reading 2 Phil 4:12-14, 19-20

Brothers and sisters:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.

My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.

The secret Paul has learned of dealing with all circumstances is this: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  He knows God will supply his needs, as well as the needs of other Christians.  This does not mean we will never face hunger or even death; our true “need” is God Himself.  He always provides for this “need” for those who seek Him.  The vision of Himself, which David described as “dwelling in the House of the Lord forever,” is the final provision of God for the needs of his people.  As Exodus 24:11 says, “They saw God, and ate and drank.”

The Gospel Reading is the Parable of the Wedding Feast:

Gospel Mt 22:1-14

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
“Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.”‘
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The King is obviously God.  The Son for whom the Wedding Feast is given is, in light of the Old Testament, the Son of David, who enjoyed divine sonship by virtue of the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; 89:26-27).  Nuptial images abound as descriptions of the relationship between the LORD and Israel (Hosea 1-3; Isaiah 54; Jeremiah 2-3; Ezekiel 16, 23; etc.).  Less noticed are the passages which reflect a nuptial relationship between the Son of David and Israel (2 Sam 5:1; 17:3; Psalm 45; the Song of Songs generally).  The role of the Son of David as bridegroom to the people is part of his representation of God his Father.  The spousal character of the Father is reflected in the Son.

Some parables Jesus tells are reflections of everyday life experiences; others are deliberately unusual or even hyperbolic.  This parable falls in the later category, because the behavior of the invited guests is outlandish.  Jesus’ hearers would recognize this as a strange story.  The twists and turns of the plot are dictated by the reality Jesus is describing through these figures, not by the customs of ancient Near Eastern royal weddings.

Those who are “invited” to the Wedding Feast are the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who should have been in the best position to recognize the Jesus as the Son of David. In light of last week’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33-46) and Jesus’ Lament over Jerusalem (“O Jerusalem … killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!” Matt 23:37), the “city” of those who mistreat the servants of the king is Jerusalem, and the parable gives us an obvious prediction of its destruction in AD 70.

The command to “go out into the streets” to invite “whomever you find” refers in part to the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the “riff-raff” of whom we spoke almost two months ago for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time.  What Jesus prefigured by the healing of the Canaanite women, he is predicting through figures in this parable.

The King’s hall being filled with guests both “good and bad” calls to mind the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, and the Parable of the Net (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43; 47-50).  In all these parables, the point is that the Kingdom of God is not simply a reference for the next life or “heaven.”  It is a present reality, established already during Jesus’ ministry and manifested in the visible Church, which includes both saints and sinners.  Schismatic movements that attempt to eradicate all the “impure” from the visible Church are sometimes well-intentioned, but always misguided.  Reform movements that call everyone to repentance, however, are always welcome.

This brings us to a discussion of the “wedding garment” that a certain guest lacks.  Two other biblical texts are relevant to understanding this symbol:

 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

Also Revelation 19:7-8:

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;  it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

In light of these nuptial “clothing” texts in both the Old and the New Testament, we can make a strong canonical argument for understanding the “wedding garment” as “righteous deeds”—that is, behavior that corresponds to the God’s grace and to the invitation to the divine wedding banquet.

Therefore, this parable weighs against a view of “salvation by faith alone” if by that phrase one means a person can believe and be saved without his or her life and behavior being transformed. 

It is necessary for salvation that we change, that we actually live holiness.

At the same time, in both Isaiah and Revelation, it is God who clothes his Bride in the Wedding Garment.  Thus our holiness comes from God, not our own effort.  The Christian life consists in allowing the Holy Spirit to change us and our behavior.  So the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

§2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God … the saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven … In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works … I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself”—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Let’s use the occasion of this weekend’s Eucharistic celebration to make a good examination of conscience.  Are there “dirty rags” in my life that I am holding on to?  What is keeping me from letting Jesus clothe me in garments of purity?  What can I do this week to let him strip off those sorry rags and put his white robes on me?  Is a visit to the confessional or my spiritual director in order? 

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