“Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, … everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” (Mt 22:4)
As I guess we all know, the Cardinals and Bishops from all over the world have been meeting in Rome over the past week, and this extraordinary synod” will continue into next week. They are joined by a number of other people, including a few married couples.
This is because their topic, their theme is the Family, the Church’s teaching about all these difficult issues, practice and rules over the family: sex, marriage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and so on.
These are big, important and serious issues, and there is a lot expectation surrounding them.
And while people, particularly people in the press, are looking for sweeping changes in the Church’s teaching - communion for those who are divorced and remarried, marriage in church for those who have been divorced, the blessing of homosexual unions (“gay marriages”, as they may be called), a less censorious attitude to sex outside marriage, heterosexual as well as homosexual - I think they are likely to be disappointed.
However, perhaps the issue, and therefore the outcome, will be less about changes to the Church’s teaching, and more about changes to the Church’s attitude.
In many parts of the world homosexuality is still illegal and punishable in law, sometimes even by death. In some places sex outside marriage (fornication) is illegal, and divorce difficult if not impossible. Children of such relationships are unwelcome in faith schools and disadvantaged in society. And these attitudes, perhaps in a lesser way, seem to affect the Church. We hear of stories of priests who refuse to baptise children of unmarried couples, for instance. Or who put obstacles in the way of those who are living together from having a wedding in Church (though I have to say I find the logic of this rather impenetrable). There have even been claims that there are Churches in North America with signs at their doors saying “Gay Couples not Welcome Here”.
[However - it may be that the picture (above) indicates that the sign was left by a protester, rather than being a message coming from the Church].
Yet, While we may regret many of the changes in attitudes and moral standards we find in our own society, much of this hard, discriminatory and frankly unkind attitude would be quite unacceptable to us. We might understand why it comes about: if something is wrong, as one of the Cardinals said last week, can we do “moral backflips” and pretend that it is not, but generally, I think, we want to show charity, rather than express rejection. It is a dilemma many of us have had to face in our own families, and we hope that the Church will be able to develop a similar compassion.
So - let’s get back to today’s Gospel. It hints, I think, at a way forward.
The King, like many families, is having problems with his guest list. Some he has invited are really too concerned with other matters to accept. There are more than a few empty places. So he casts the net further, and invites those who we might least expect. It is a story about a marriage feast, but it is really a parable about the invitation not to an earthly feast, but rather the heavenly one.
And what does it tell us - firstly, God calls everyone into his Kingdom. The self-important, the self-righteous, the holier-than-thous had better beware. Those who think, or indeed know that they are better than others might be in danger of missing the boat. The rich, the wealthy, the influential, the clever, the successful - they are in danger of thinking themselves too good. The invitation is for them, but also the poor, the destitute, the weak, the uneducated, the failures of life, the sinners and the despised. It is not just an invitation for those who can keep to the churches teaching about marriage, divorce, and sexuality but also those who struggle with it, or fail to follow it, or find it does not fit with their own experience or circumstances. They are invited too. And their partners are invited. And their children, too.
And there is a second point, which at first may seem to jar. It's to do with this strange detail of the man without a wedding garment. You see, while the invitation is open to everyone, this does not mean it is without conditions. Christ invites sinners, (in fact, he only invites sinners) but they must be sinners who wish to live a new and renewed life. He invites all to his Wedding Feast, with open arms and without condemnation, and accepting the invitation means accepting a faith and a way of life which changes and transforms us. In entering the Feast we become a new person - the Wedding Garment is the robe of our baptism, which symbolizes a new life in faith and trust and honesty and compassion and love. We must love as we are loved. We must forgive as we are forgiven. We must give as we have received. As we have been invited, we must invite others. As we enter the Feast, so we put on a wedding garment, leaving behind pettiness, and ingratitude and self-interest.
And here perhaps is where this great synod, this wonderful initiative of Pope Francis will lead us. Not to tear up the rule book, but to send out the invitations; not to forget about the challenges of the Christian life, but to open the doors to the kingdom; not to wag our fingers, but to open our arms in welcome.
… So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Mt 22:10)