For many years I was the Catholic campus minister at a large State University. The beginning of each new academic year brought a new group of freshmen, and a new group of parents who wanted their freshman students to continue the regular practice of the Faith.
Those families fell into two distinct groups. One group was defined by freshmen who were happy to continue attending Sunday Mass; the other group was defined by students who were reluctant to do anything that their parents valued. It was easy to identify the reluctant church-goers in the Sunday congregation: they were the ones who were flanked by mom seated on one side and dad on the other. I suppose the parents hoped that there would be some sort of operant conditioning that would occur during that family Liturgy.
As soon as Mass was concluded those reluctant college-aged Catholics usually made a quick exit from mom and dad’s company. By Senior year most college students get over their fear of being seen in public with their parents, but freshmen are still at a stage of life when the very existence of their parents is a devastating embarrassment. The allegorized parable in today’s Gospel reading refers to a similar kind of embarrassment that some people felt about Jesus and his mission.
Despite several levels of editing that the parable has undergone, the basic story line is still discernible. A king invited a group of guests to his son’s wedding. The invited guests refused to come, each giving an excuse for his absence. In order to have an appropriate celebration of such a joyous event the king invited strangers to the banquet. Through their own fault, those invited first never knew how much they missed.
Some of the invited guests in the story pretended not to have received the invitation; others gave flimsy excuses about having to tend to personal matters. In Jesus’ culture the sort of avoidance behavior exhibited by the invited guests was an expression of not wanting to be seen in the company of other guests whom they judged to be of a lower socio-economic class. People of equal status socialized with one another; people of disparate social status did not, and it was very embarrassing to be seen in the company of someone not of one’s own class. The excuses were reflections of embarrassment about the other people on the guest list.
This parable was another of Jesus’ personal reflections on his mission.* Some of the religious leaders of the time were scandalized by Jesus’ outreach to the poor, the marginalized and sinners. We are familiar with the things that people said about Jesus. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash their hands when they eat a meal.” (Matthew 15:2)
Those religious leaders thought that God paid attention only to the morally upright. Jesus understood his mission as one to the “lost sheep” of God’s flock. (Matthew 15:24) Jesus said that the self-righteous had abandoned God’s company, and that sinners would take their places at the banquet in God’s Kingdom. Among the many lessons here about salvation and righteousness, it might be to our advantage to look at the parable’s lesson about excuses.
The invited guests made excuses as a way of avoiding an embarrassing social situation; their excuses were also thinly veiled criticism of the king’s choice of guests. Excuses are a cover-up for something that one doesn’t want to acknowledge, speak about or deal with. This is a very obvious aspect of excuses. Less obvious is the consequence of excuses. Excuses prevent the possibility of repentance.
The people who judged Jesus because of the company he kept made many excuses for their judgmental behavior. ‘He eats with sinners,’ ‘his disciples do not follow the traditions of our ancestors,’ etc. Their excuses were cover-ups for their judgmental thoughts, their insecurities, their distrust and their self-righteousness. Most of all, however, their excuses were a refusal to repent.
All of us have heard excuses from elected officials about the dirty tricks and corruption that go on in politics. All of us have heard excuses from Church officials about the irresponsible behavior of a few. All of us have made excuses for our own selfish actions. All of those excuses are intended to coverup some sin or failing. Most serious, however, is that all of those excuses prevent the possibility of repentance; they are immovable obstacles to a change of heart and the kind of conversion that brings us closer to God. That’s a very high price to pay for whitewashing sin.
God calls every one of us to a life of love of God and neighbor. That goal is unattainable in the absence of on-going and lifelong conversion. God invites all to the banquet of the Savior, Jesus. We should, however, heed the Savior’s warning, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) Not all the invited will be able to enter, but only those who are willing to leave their excuses at the door.
A theological note:
(*) The parable in today’s Gospel reading was a polemic against the elitism of the religious establishment of the time. Jesus was often criticized for his outreach to the marginalized classes of society. He was accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34)
Jesus’ concern for sinners and outcasts was probably more than just scandalous to the religious elite of the time; it was probably also a source of some significant shame to them. Self-righteous people never admit their self-righteousness, but neither do they ever escape it. I’m sure that Jesus’ detractors were motivated to a large degree by the real discomfort they felt in the presence of Jesus’ example of divine unconditional love.
Although we do not live in the same religious or social conditions that Jesus lived in, the sinful and destructive nature of elitism remains an issue for the Church today. Elitism and self-righteousness are destructive of the Church because they amount to an overt rejection of the nature and meaning of the Church. The apostolic community, and the Church that developed from it, are the social expression of God’s fidelity to, and concern for, fallen human nature.
All human persons are invited into the community of the saved because all human persons are in need of being included in the community of the saved. In its essence, then, the Church is an expression of God’s inclusive nature and the universal offer of salvation. As such, elitism and exclusivity are antithetical to Grace and the nature of the Church. Nonetheless, the logical contradiction between elitism and an ecclesial dispensation of Grace has never been a sufficient discouragement to individuals and groups who find comfort in exclusivity.
The tendency toward exclusivity and self-righteousness cuts across all strata of the Church and all the various ecclesial communities within Christianity. Christianity’s proclivity to elitism is a result of the influence of Nominalism, a philosophical perspective that developed in the late middle ages.
Nominalism depicted God as distant from the universe, a harsh judge and in need of appeasement. The theologians of the Reformation are most commonly associated with Nominalism, but the Catholic Counter-reformation was just as Nominalist as the reformers it sought to oppose. In the thought of the reformers, Nominalism took the form of forensic justification, that is, Luther’s idea that a private act of faith on the part of a repentant sinner was sufficient to grasp firmly the righteousness that pertained to Christ alone. Today, we see that idea embodied in the evangelical “altar call” in which one ‘accepts Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.’
The neo-scholasticism of the Counter-reformation was also founded on Nominalism, but expressed differently the ideas of God’s detachment from creation, judgment on creation and need to be appeased by creation. In the neo-scholasticism of the Counter-reformation the appeasement that one needed to make to God was paid out over the length of a lifetime, and done in the form of keeping Church rules, performing pious devotions and doing personal penances. There are still many Catholics today who give much greater attention to popular devotions and personal piety than to active participation in the communal life of their parish.
The only significant difference between Reformation spirituality and Counter-reformation spirituality was that the Reformers advocated a one-time payment of atonement to God while the Counter-reformation portrayed salvation as attained by means of a time-payment plan. Both the Reformation and the Counter-reformation made righteousness a commodity that could be acquired by human effort, and both did so at the expense of abandoning an adequate ecclesiology.
There are two principal consequences of portraying righteousness as a commodity acquired from God. Firstly, it makes salvation into a consumer product. This notion fits very comfortably with our contemporary society’s consumer values, but it is a denial of the possibility of the kind of faith that Jesus taught. Secondly, by making salvation a consumer product, churches are turned into competing brands which offer consumers a choice of religious products to consume. Exclusivity and elitism are the logical outcomes of commoditizing Grace and branding religion.
Instead of an actual theology of the Church that was professed and believed, both reformed theology and neo-scholasticism substituted an elitism that was very similar to the elitist and exclusivist beliefs of the Jerusalem Pharisees during Jesus’ lifetime. Jesus’ teaching about salvation portrayed righteousness as a life of fidelity to God and neighbor; this righteousness was not the moral perfection claimed by the elite, but a life possible to all (even sinners and the morally imperfect).
At present, there is a conversation going on in the Church about whether or not to re-examine policies regarding marriage, divorce and family life. This conversation is not new; it began in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The bishops who attended the Second Vatican Council tried to address these same issues, but were prevented from doing so by Church officials who feared the challenge of dealing with social change. Some of the current participants in the conversation seem to understand that defining righteousness as moral perfection is a way of justifying judgmental attitudes. Those on the other side of the conversation fear change to the policies because such change would require altering the brand identity of Catholicism.
Neither fear of, nor the desire for, social progress are reliable guidelines for re-examining these issues. The appropriate perspective for thinking about any aspect of the Catholic Faith is the commitment to conversion as a life-long practice. If moral perfection is our standard of performance as Catholics, then no one makes the grade. If on-going conversion is our standard of faithful behavior, then we are not only permitted, but obliged to imitate Jesus’ example of welcoming sinners.