Two things happened to me this summer in England. I was ordained and I fell in love—more or less at the same time. Such is God’s comic timing! At just the moment I am reaffirming a public commitment to a celibate life my heart is soaring in an altogether different direction.
“You shall love the Lord your God all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Those “all’s” don’t seem to leave much room for manoeuvre! But alongside them is the command, “love your neighbour as your self,” which Jesus says is “like” the first. Work that out in practice! And I’ll tell you, I tried.
But not for too long, because my doubly soaring spirit quickly took a nosedive when it became clear that my love was unrequited—to use an antique word. I discovered myself as one who loves more than he is loved—at least in this instance. And for a while that discovery was devastating. Painful, hurtful, horrible. To have been surprised by love and by rejection in one swift movement.
And of course, poor God bore the brunt of my anger, or at least felt the cold of my shoulder. Loving God with my whole heart was out of the question. For a time, even the homage of a divided heart was doubtful.
But, insofar as I paid attention to God, I discovered—am discovering—two things. One is that the love of God and the love of neighbour are inseparable. They are one. I believed that before—but now I know it. … Jesus has been saying to me, over and over, this enigmatic phrase, “your priesthood begins here.” And its true. I cannot think of any better way to begin this ministry, though I can think of quite a few I’d prefer.
The second thing I’m discovering is this. Not only have I come to know myself as one who loves more than he is loved. But I am coming to know myself as one who loves less than he’s loved. I am realising that God loves me far more than I love God—far more—and that God feels the pain of that as keenly as I have felt my own. It is a humiliating thing to discover.
But, as I stay with it, it is also liberating. Liberating because God, maker of the universe, creator of worlds, knows the pain of unrequited love, knows what it is like to love more than love is returned. God knows that experience—which is my experience and maybe yours—God knows that experience from the inside. … God, for reasons beyond me, has set aside power, and control, and invulnerability to know what it is like to love me more than I love God. That is compassion—com-passion, feeling with, suffering with—and it amazes me.
I think we all stand in this relationship with God—you and me—each of us loved by God with a love we can scarcely begin to know how to return. It’s this love which lies at the heart of the first reading today. God’s compassion for the stranger, the poor, the widow, the orphan, is exactly that—com-passion. God knows how they feel. And when they suffer, God suffers. When they cry out, God listens, because God’s heart is broken with theirs. The whole of the law and the prophets is built on compassion, on a love glides lower than death and the dark. The whole of the law is a challenge: can we be as vulnerable as God; can we let the pain of the poor be our pain—the loneliness of the stranger, the grief of the widow, the insecurity of the orphan—can we let the compassion of God be our compassion? Can we? Our priesthood—which we all share in baptism—begins here. Here is our ministry laid out. And here is God aching to love us and aching to love the world through us: in our love, in our service, in our vote, in our lives.
October 27th, 1996
What a hope there is in the vision of Isaiah! Food for the hungry. Vintage wine for the parched spirit. An end to death for ever. No more war, no more shame, no more humiliation, no more violence, no more poverty. For every suffering of Isaiah’s exiled and defeated people he promises an opposite joy. Quite a hope!
Does it seem like that today when we read the newspaper or look around our neighbourhoods? Is life a banquet or is the table empty? Is this a time of feasting or a time of mourning?
According to the Gospel the Kingdom of God which is among us now is a banquet — and not merely a good meal but a royal wedding feast. At least for the new guests invited in from all over this is, as Isaiah said, a time to be glad and rejoice. But, like all parables, the story has a catch — just as we begin to congratulate ourselves on being in the door, feet under the table, it seems we are to be unsettled again. Just as we thought this was a free invitation with no strings attached it turns out that there is a dress code and our place at the table may not be as secure as we thought. The banquet may not be for us.
Matthew is giving a dual message: as Christians we have been given the Kingdom but we can each of us lose it too. The invitation is open — and good and bad alike answer it but it turns out that not all can stay. We have to be “properly dressed,” whatever that means. Some sorts of conduct will get us thrown out of the party. There is something we have to do if we want to be able to face the King and not be left speechless. We have to have this wedding robe. What does Matthew mean?
Now, in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus, he is the last one to worry about external appearance — he’s always telling off the Pharisees for doing just that. For Jesus it’s the inside that matters not the outside. So the wedding robe can’t be about appearance. It must be something more.
Why do we get out our best clothes, all cleaned and pressed, to go to a party? Some who read this story say that the problem here is a lack of respect — that the guy here insults the King by not dressing properly. But that hardly sound like Jesus either: Jesus who mixes with traitors and prostitutes and lepers; Jesus who is blamed for being a low-class Galilean himself. Jesus is not likely to take that sort of offence.
So what’s this wedding robe all about? My guess is this. If the kingdom of heaven — the Christian way of life now — is meant to be a wedding banquet — the reality of all that Isaiah dreamed of — then the wedding clothes signify the willingness to live life as if it were a feast.
Think of the best wedding party you’ve been to and what made it so good. Laughter and solemnity, dancing and depth, conversation and communion, oh, and food more than you can eat, and drink enough to intoxicate an army! This is Jesus’ vision of our life now. The best — open to all people and with someone else footing the bill. All you have to do is turn up and enjoy yourself.
What’s the worse thing you can do at a wedding party? … Not enjoy yourself. Be miserable, wear a long face, turn down the food, refuse the wine. That’s our man in the story today. When he is asked by the King how he got in without his good clothes he has nothing to say. He is speechless. The word is literally “muzzled” — like a dog. And that says a lot. With a muzzle there’s no eating or drinking, no laughing or kissing, no words of praise or forgiveness, no song.
The invitation is made to each of us, to all of us — good and bad alike — and here we are — we’ve each accepted and come to the feast. But are we wearing our wedding robe or a muzzle? Are we enjoying ourselves? That’s the question that makes all the difference.
October 13th, 1996