Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 25: 6-10A; PS 23: 1-6; PHIL 4: 12-14, 19-20; MT 22: 1-14 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101214.cfm
Currently, I’m back in the saddle. A dear colleague of mine is continuing her courageous fight against cancer. So I was asked to fill in for her teaching a religion course called “Poverty and Social Justice” – the very topic I’ve been struggling to understand and explain to students during my 40 years at Berea College in Kentucky. I have 19 very interested and wonderful students. Most of them are juniors and seniors, even though Religion 126 entry-level.
Together we’ve looked at the experience of white Appalachians, African-Americans in Mississippi, and people living in the former colonies of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. My students are watching “Democracy Now” each day as it deals with issues like ISIS, Ferguson, and voter suppression.
However, the most important lesson I’ve been trying to drive home in “Poverty and Social Justice” is an understanding of Christianity that Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council, and liberation theology term its “preferential option for the poor.” That option holds that God’s People are not a single national group. Rather, God’s chosen are the poor and oppressed whom Christians have been taught at best to pity or treat with “tough love,” and at worst to despise as unworthy. The Hebrews were merely the paradigmatic example of God’s own choice of the poor as a divinely revelatory people. The poor show us what God is like.
I bring all of that up because today’s liturgy of the word is really about the preferential option for the poor. Our sources pressing that idea include two exiles (Isaiah and Matthew), a prison inmate (Paul), and the Son of God revealing divinity veiled in a working-class prophet who ends up being arrested, tortured, and a victim of capital punishment.
The first selection from Isaiah introduces the theme of “chosenness” by describing what God holds in store for the wretched of the earth. In a word, God’s will is abundance for all those currently experiencing painful exile in Babylon. Those are Isaiah’s words: God wants abundance – but “for all peoples.”
No harps and clouds here; no abstract heaven. Instead, Isaiah envisions God’s utopia taking form here on earth, in a particular place – on “this Mountain” Isaiah says (referring to the exiles’ motherland). There God’s Kingdom will take the form of a huge picnic – an outdoor feast of incomparable abundance. On God’s mountain, all will engorge themselves, Isaiah promises, “with rich foods” and cups overflowing with “choice wines.” The prophet repeats the phrase twice for emphasis: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
The feast will be a celebration of Enlightenment – of revelation or removal of the “veils” or barriers that separate human beings into “chosen” and “unchosen.” Isaiah predicts: “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.”
Notice this promise is inclusive. Again, it is directed to “all peoples,” not to a single nation. It is addressed to suffering and exiled people who find themselves in a “web” of death, tears and blame caused by deceptive divisions into nation states.
The theme of God’s all-inclusive, life-giving kindness is reinforced in today’s responsorial – the familiar Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” According to the psalmist, God is the one who fulfills everyone’s desire for food and water, wine and oil for cooking. In addition, God provides rest, refreshment, and guidance. The courage God gives removes fear of evil and threat. All of that is music to the ears of the poor and deprived.
In today’s second reading Paul touches a similar chord. From an imperial prison (perhaps like Abu Ghraib), he writes, “God supplies whatever you need.” Imagine Paul’s courage! “Yes, I’m distressed,” he writes. “But don’t worry about me. I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” Here then is a prisoner whose experiences of abundance are not contradicted by their opposite. Paul’s own experience of abundance and deprivation keeps his outlook positive and is the basis for his confident promise, “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
And that brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel selection. It’s a parable illustrating the surprising identity of God’s chosen people. The parable is addressed to the “elders and chief priests,” the political leaders of Jesus’ day who thought of themselves as God’s elect. The tale ends with the familiar tagline, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” But mystifyingly, its point seems to be the opposite: “Few are called, but many are chosen.”
I mean today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable about a king inviting his rich friends (the few) to his son’s wedding feast. It’s a party characterized by abundance reminiscent of “the juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” in today’s first reading.
In the story, that feast is already prepared. But the king’s rich friends exclude themselves from its abundance, preferring instead the pursuit of their individualistic pleasures and profits. Some are so ungrateful that they mistreat and even kill those proffering the king’s invitation. All of this, of course, is Matthew’s thinly veiled reference to the way Jewish leaders treated God’s messengers, the prophets whose line for Matthew culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.
Thinly veiled as well is Matthew’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier in the year 70. Matthew writes, “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” According to Matthew, then, Jerusalem’s fate was the karmic result of the rich and powerful dishonoring prophets like Jesus and refusing to enter God’s kingdom with the poor and oppressed.
It is at this point that Matthew (and presumably Jesus) makes the point about the real identity of God’s Chosen People. The king says, “’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.”
There you have it: God’s New People are the dregs of humanity like those my class is studying. They are from the streets – the good and bad alike.” That’s the very point Jesus’ parables have been making for the past few weeks: Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the “chief priests and elders of the people.”
But wait; there’s more.
At this government-provided feast of free food, choice alcoholic beverages, and even (it seems) free festive clothing, one person insists on differentiating himself from the rest. He refuses to change his clothes – always a literary (and liturgical) marker for change of lifestyle. At bottom, it’s a refusal to identify with the street people particularly dear to God’s heart.
According to the story, this karmic choice leads to unhappiness – to sharing exterior darkness suffered by the rich Refuseniks whose city was earlier destroyed by imperial armies.
So although the few were called, the many are chosen. Once again, that’s good news for the kind of people my “Poverty and Social Justice” class is studying at Berea College.
What then of Matthew’s tagline that says the opposite – that many are called, but few are chosen?
I think it can only be a koan-like saying we’re meant to puzzle over in the light of the seemingly contradictory message of today’s parable. Perhaps it refers to the few (the 1 %?) whose selfish choices exclude them from God’s New People as though they selected their own destruction on purpose. They are the few self-chosen for destruction.
What do you think?