“Compel Them In”
Who doesn’t love Psalm 23 ? Its first part, especially, must be one of the best known and most quoted passages in the Bible. The beautiful image of the Lord as shepherd, guiding the flock to green pastures, having them lie down by restful waters, his rod and staff ready to protect them, gives us hope as it consoles us. So, too, does the statement by the psalmist that even if he were to walk through the valley of darkness, he would fear no evil, for the Lord is at his side. There’s so much quiet confidence in it, even in the face of danger or death. The shepherd’s crook and staff give the speaker courage ; but just the words themselves seem to have the power to instill courage in dark moments. Perhaps they are being prayed right now in places as far away from green pastures and restful waters as Kobani, Syria or Monrovia, Liberia by people in desperate need of the Good Shepherd. May the psalm give them some comfort and strength in these very dark hours !
The second part of the psalm, on the other hand, is perhaps a little less well known, despite that fact that it’s so much noisier ! From images of solitary shepherd and sheep in the quiet of a mountain meadow, the psalmist now moves us into a world full of clattering dishes and clinking glasses, conversation and laughter – not to mention after-dinner speeches – when he declares, “You have prepared a banquet for me.” Not only that, but this banquet is prepared “in the sight of my foes” ; yes, they’re looking on with envy while the Host anoints my head with oil, making the moment just that much sweeter !
This is the world that Jesus invokes in today’s gospel, a world where a King wants to celebrate the wedding of his son in the best way he knows how – by throwing an enormous barbecue, with the fatted calves already turning on the roasting spits and the “choice wines” referenced by the Prophet Isaiah already decanted and lined up on the bar. In the passage from Isaiah, we see that the banquet-goers not only get a wonderful meal, but are also privileged to witness the mighty deeds of the LORD, who destroys death, wiping away the tears from every face forever. Because they remember their own history, they know what they’re seeing, and so these guests exclaim : “This is our LORD for whom we looked ; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us !” It seems reasonable for the King in Jesus’ story to think that his guests will react in the same way ; after all, he’d sent them the biblical equivalent of a “Save-the-Date” card in the persons of the prophets and sages, and even if he hadn’t – a splendid meal with all the trimmings is something that anyone would want to attend, no ? In fact, however, no.
It’s interesting to look at the language surrounding the invitation to the banquet : three times we see the words “prepared” or “ready.” These words suggest the urgency of the King’s invitation. The time is now ; don’t let the meat get cold or the wine get sour ! The goodness and generosity of his heart impel this King to celebrate with guests who will fill his banqueting house. His guests, however, not only refuse to acknowledge his desire, but when the King has the nerve to call them to the banquet for a second time, they also abuse and kill the messengers. Clearly, they’re in no hurry to relate to this King. Eventually, of course, they pay the price for this attitude.
After that, he sends out more messengers to the highways and the hedgerows and has them gather in anyone they meet, but even here, a problem arises : one man is not suitably dressed and so is expelled from the feast. Such a draconian response from the King, following so quickly on the heels of his decision to burn the city of the guests who killed his servants, can make us feel uncomfortable. We ask : Does the King represent God ? Is this how God acts ?
Matthew – or the people for whom he wrote – might have said “Yes” to both questions, especially since the memory of the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was undoubtedly a vivid and bitter memory for his Jewish Christian community. It wouldn’t be hard for them to see this story as a kind of allegory of that experience and all that led up to it.
On the other hand, we can also take this story and look at it from another perspective, focusing less on the fate of the wicked guests, and more on the desire of the king to fill his house to the rafters. He wants everyone to come in and to be his guest. Everyone : rich, poor, good, bad, Jew, gentile, man, woman, gay, straight, etc. If we take it from this angle, then the question becomes : do we really want to be part of such a crowd ? When we’re invited – as we are – do we RSVP gladly and show up in our wedding garments ? Or do we act more like the first set of guests in the story ?
They said they had to inspect their farms and their businesses – pretty lame excuses in the face of an invitation from a King ! We, on the other hand, blessed with a higher sense of our relationship with the Invitation-Sender, might say instead that we’d prefer an intimate tête à tête with the Good Shepherd in those green pastures rather than crowding into the big bash down at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. A party like that often leads to some whooping and hollering as the evening wears on (especially if everyone and his brother is invited), and that turns us off. Better to relate to Jesus privately and in peace.
And yet. When Pope Francis spoke about “the smell of the sheep” recently, he meant to remind us that we’re called with others, whether that’s in the pasture or the hall. Of course we’re also called as individual persons, each beloved of God, but it’s important not to lose sight of all those other people – that holy, sinful, beautiful and unsavory crowd with whom, in Christ, we make Church. The “wedding garment” we’re meant to wear isn’t a tuxedo or a nice little black cocktail dress, but an attitude of humility and awareness of our need for each other as well as for God. That’s always hard to face, since we spend so much time thinking just the opposite !
Let’s give the American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan the last word on all this today. In “The Face of Christ,” he tells us :
The tragic beauty of the face of Christ shines in our faces ;
the abandoned old live on
in shabby rooms, far from comfort.
din and purpose,
the world, a fiery animal
reined in by youth.
a pallid tiring heart
shuffles about its dwelling.
Nothing, so little, comes of life’s promise.
Of broken, despised minds
what does one make—
a roadside show, a graveyard of the heart ?
Christ, fowler of street and hedgerow
the distempered old
— eyes blind as woodknots,
tongues tight as immigrants’—
taken in His gospel net,
the hue and cry of existence.
Heaven, of such imperfection
wary, ravaged, wild ?
Yes. Compel them in.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra,
Worcester, United States