As the focus of national news programs shifted last week (and the week before) to concerns about the president’s health and then the devastating impact of Hurricane Delta, the record-breaking tenth major tropical storm this year, it could be inferred that the horrific wildfires that burnt hundreds of square miles of California and Oregon, as well as other western states and Canada, had somehow miraculously ceased. That, tragically, is not the case, but it illustrates the fickleness and short attention span of what is considered “news.” Take note.
Ominously, and contrary to the claim made in the television debate by Vice President Pence, the number as well as the intensity of hurricanes and other tropic storms has increased significantly over the last year matching or exceeding previous records. There have been 26 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 25 named storms, 9 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes. Total damage is estimated to cost in excess of 25 billion dollars. Hurricane “season” still has seven weeks left to threaten us this year. “Wildfire season” will last about as long. These fires are much more deadly and more costly and show little signs of abatement, even as some are brought under control. https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2020-california-wildfires/ The burning of the vineyards should be a potent reminder that global climate change is real and an existential threat to the whole planet.
As we have heard, vineyards figured prominently in the gospel readings over the last three weeks, even as the nation turned its gaze away from the western inferno. Today’s gospel continues the theme, but by indirectly including the product of those precious vineyards in feasts and celebrations. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells us, is like a great wedding banquet. And what is a banquet without wine? [See Isaiah 25:6-10, Phil 4:12-14, 19-20, Matt. 22:1-10.]
Isaiah, too, can think of nothing more fitting as an image of God’s restoration of Israel than a huge feast on the Holy Mountain with lots of choice wine: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” [Is 25:6]. As he testifies in his letter to the Christian of Philippi, Paul knew how to party. So did Jesus. He was roundly criticized for it by the scribes and Pharisees, who called him names: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ [Matt. 11:18-19. The King James Version is more exact as well as colorful in translating ‘oinopotes’ here as “winebibber.”]
The finale of the parable is not entirely cheering, however. The invited guests, who do not know how to party when summoned, scatter to their own interests. Some get savage in their treatment of the messengers, bringing doom on themselves and their cities. But Jesus anticipates the inclusive salvation offered to all with the closing words of the parable – “Then [the king] said to his servants ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. So go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests” [Matt 25:6-10].
The true joy of God’s realm consists in unbroken human solidarity, begun now and reaching its fulfillment in eternity — a unity of all peoples beyond any division of race or class or economic condition. For Jesus, God’s Kingdom is a real party, a wedding banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. And we all have received an engraved invitation. But it is also important to remember that not all of life is a feast. Not yet. Plenty of people still out there in the highways and byways haven’t received their invitations yet. Many are unable to respond. Quite a lot aren’t even much interested in coming.
So it’s important to recognize what our role is in Jesus’ parable. Not just whom we identify with, but whom we are supposed to identify with. If we think of ourselves as God’s servants, envoys and representatives of Christ, then these words are addressed to us: “Go out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.” The word for that is evangelization, spreading the good news. And the best way of doing that is not so much with words, but with our lives.
The fact is, we are the invitation sent by God. If we do our part, people will read us correctly. Good and bad alike. So we might as well begin by acting as if we’re going to the party ourselves. Urgently, however, our inclusion in the feast of heaven hangs on our attitude now, especially towards those the world so easily despises — the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, and now, especially, the homeless made destitute by fire and flood. There is still work to do. There is a world to save.