Our Gospel reading today is a composition by the author of Matthew’s Gospel. The first element in the composition, the parable of the enormous feast, can be read in its unedited form in Luke 14:15-24. The author of Matthew’s Gospel appended the story of the man without a wedding garment to the parable of the enormous feast. The composite story was intended to be read as a complement to the parable of the tenants in Chapter 21. The parable of the tenants described the judgment passed on the religious leaders who rejected Jesus; this parable described the judgment passed on the crowds who rejected Jesus.
The appended story about the man lacking a wedding garment is troubling to some readers. The king’s adverse reaction seems to be arbitrary and excessive. The king instructed his servants to “bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Mt. 21:13) This seemingly disproportionate penalty conflicts with our contemporary images of Jesus as full of mercy and God as endlessly forgiving. In part, the discomfort with this rather violent image derives from a lack of understanding of the meaning of the “wedding garment.” (Mt. 22:12)
Over the centuries, there has been a great deal of speculation about the reference intended by the “wedding garment.” Within the context of Matthew’s concern about ecclesial life, the meaning is easily understood. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, it had become clear that not all the baptized were well suited to the new life of baptism. Unlike Paul’s optimistic expectation that all who heard the call to repentance would find salvation (Rom. 8:29-30), Matthew’s congregation had learned, to their disappointment, that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mt. 22:14) (The Chosen, in this context, are those who persevere in faith until the end of time.) The “wedding garment” represented the life of faith and virtue expected of the baptized. The unfortunate man in the second part of the story was no hapless victim of the king’s capriciousness. Rather, the man “without a wedding garment” represented those baptized members of Matthew’s congregation who had failed to live the new life begun in baptism. The sad state of affairs observed by Matthew’s congregation continues to afflict the Church today.
After a brief hiatus during the “Safer-at-home” order necessitated by the pandemic, the public celebration of Sunday Liturgy has resumed. The dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Liturgy, however, remains in effect. No Catholic in the Diocese is obliged to attend Sunday Liturgy. Despite the fact that attendance at Sunday Liturgy is strictly optional, there remains a segment of the Catholic population who find it impossible to attend an entire Liturgy.
One would think that those who choose to attend Sunday Liturgy in the absence of an obligation would participate wholeheartedly, but this is not the case. The lifting of the “Safer-at-home” order, and the return to regularly scheduled Liturgy, has meant nothing more (for some Catholics) than a return to their previous habit of leaving Mass early in order to make up for having been late. I find this practice absurd.
When Mass attendance is purely optional, why would one bother to attend only part of Mass? Why not remain at home if attending an entire Mass is too burdensome? The only answer that makes any sense to me is that those who arrive late voluntarily and/or leave early by free choice have no real interest in participating in Liturgy; their real interest lies in what they can take home from a brief visit to church. Unfortunately, consumer culture influences even religious sentiment; church has become a place to have one’s consumer desires satisfied, and Eucharist has become nothing more than a commodity to be obtained.
There is a fundamental difference between a worshiper and a consumer. Those whose motivation for church attendance is to fulfill the obligations imposed by the first four commandments of the Decalogue are worshipers; those who attend Liturgy in order to get something for themselves are consumers. Matthew’s warning to the members of his congregation who accepted baptism but rejected its obligations applies equally today. Those who come to the banquet of the Kingdom unprepared to offer appropriate worship to God will be cast out “where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Mt. 22:13 NABRE)
I know that some people will want to accuse me of moral rigorism or modern-day Jansenism. Therefore, I will happily withdraw the above insinuation for anyone who can explain to me the circumstances under which God deserves less than a whole prayer. If I had to guess, I would guess that those who arrive late to Mass or leave early expect a satisfactory answer to their prayers. Shouldn’t God be given equal consideration? Doesn’t God have a right to expect satisfactory prayers to be offered?
For the benefit of those who were never taught how to give God the worship that God deserves, let me offer this primer in liturgical prayer. Every person who will walk into church this weekend has so much for which to be grateful. Regardless of the burdens imposed by the pandemic, all of us have been blessed with the gift of life, the love of family and friends, and knowledge of God; appropriate worship is the result of being grateful for these gifts, and addressing one’s gratitude to God. Likewise, every person who will walk into church this Sunday has failed, at times, to be faithful to God and neighbor; appropriate worship is the result of seeking and encountering forgiveness. Faithful and adequate worship of God is accomplished when a community of believers makes a complete offering to God of themselves, their gratitude, and their repentance. The words “complete offering” in the above sentence are as important as the words “to God.” An incomplete prayer is equivalent to an incomplete payment: no one would accept an incomplete paycheck from an employer; nor would anyone expect continued service from a provider in exchange for incomplete payment of an invoice.
Anyone who goes to church for any reason other than to give God the worship that God deserves makes themselves a consumer of religious goods and services. Such a person can expect no more than the temporary satisfaction that results from consumer activities. Fulfilling the obligations of baptism is the price of admission to the banquet of God’s kingdom. Unwillingness to pay full price guarantees nothing more than being found “outside where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Mt. 22:13)