There was a brief trend a few years ago among young adults. It was a back-handed compliment given by feigning adulation to another person while reciting, “I am not worthy. I am not worthy. I am not worthy.”
The person paying the back-handed compliment would bow slightly, giving reverence to someone who had demonstrated great skill or, at least, considered themselves possessed of great skill. I thought of that brief trend when I read the Gospel for this Sunday’s Liturgy.
It is very common for Jesus’ parables to have been edited and modified to fit the needs of the Gospel authors. The parable in this Sunday’s Gospel reading (the first of the two that were pasted together by the author of the Gospel), is a perfect example of such.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Parable of the Wedding Feast serves as criticism of the religious leaders who had Jesus crucified. They were the ones who “laid hold of (the King’s) servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” (Matthew 22:6)
When Jesus first told this parable, it would have had a slightly different meaning than is presented in today’s Liturgy of the Word. It is most likely that Jesus used the parable to contrast two opposed versions of religion. This is the level of meaning that I’d like to focus on today.
The first version of religion is represented by the invited guests who refused the invitation to attend the banquet. “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” (Matthew 22:5) The King in the parable said that these ungrateful guests were not worthy to attend. (Matthew 22:8)
This is religion as an individual, privatized practice. The invited guests rejected the invitation to the banquet because they didn’t think they needed to attend. Many people today treat religion in this way. For those people, the communal nature of authentic religion seems to have no value at all; they are interested only in themselves and their personal reward. They ignore the invitation to attend the Lord’s banquet.
The second version of religion is the one that Jesus advocated. He described authentic religion as being like a banquet to which God invites all people. Anyone, and everyone, is welcome as long as they are willing to accept the invitation and accept one another’s company. As a consequence, God’s banquet of reconciliation is attended by some rather unlikely characters, the “bad and good alike.” (Matthew 22:10)
Many of the religious leaders of the time considered the majority of people to be unworthy of God’s favor. They disapproved strongly of Jesus’ inclusive message and the attention he gave to sinners and outcasts.
The point of the parable, in its original setting, is that God’s definition of worthiness is vastly different from the definition of worthiness used by most people. For the religious leaders during Jesus’ lifetime, worthiness consisted of elitism, self-righteousness and harsh judgment of others. Those religious leaders were so spiritually blind that they could even begin to understand Jesus’ definition of worthiness.
For Jesus, the one who accepts God’s invitation with humility, and accepts all those who also accept the invitation, is the one worthy of dining at the banquet of salvation.
The parable poses an obvious question to each of us. How do we define worthiness? In a culture like ours, that judges a person’s worth based on material and external values, we might have real cause for worry.
How do you, personally, define worthiness? Is worthiness defined by the amount of religious or pious actions that a person performs? Is worthiness measured in terms of the material blessings a person possesses? Is worthiness a matter of social status, good reputation, or notoriety?
Jesus said that worthiness, in the eyes of God, is the result of graciously accepting God’s promises and graciously accepting all those who do the same. God invites all people to receive the promise of salvation. Only the worthy find themselves among the chosen. (Matthew 22:14)