Reflection on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
In the last few weeks, we’ve been reading, in Matthew’s Gospel, a group of stories that seem to involve what experts call “parables of reversal,” — stories that involve a change in the “audience” — when one group fails to respond, the story tries another group. But today’s stories are notable for their lack of coherence: If you notice, people are invited to a wedding, nobody comes, they all just go about their various business — no explanation given! So the king sends out servants to invite another group, and this group either ignores the invitation or kills the servants. Again, no explanations for what would seem to be unusually drastic responses. But the king just sends out his troops and kills the folks who didn’t come — and burns their city! Just kills them all! It’s done! It might seem that this response is a bit extreme (or maybe this story is missing some details!)
And, finally, the master instructs his servants just to pick up any body they can find and bring them in!
What’s going on here? Again, there is no explanation, no reason that would give us any clues as to its meaning, no clues to who is this king? Is he supposed to represent God — killing people and burning down cities? And are the invitees Jesus’ listeners, Jews, or us?
I have to say that I find it hard to imagine Jesus actually preaching this. It seems more like leftover-notes that someone collected and pieced-together, and put aside for further attention. And then forgot.
But then we come to an even worse conundrum. (The missal indicates that it can be eliminated). After all this, the story goes on to say that there’s a fellow who comes in to this final invitation, BUT he’s not dressed right, he doesn’t have his wedding garment, and he has no excuse for his impropriety, not being appropriately dressed. So the master orders that he be bound up and thrown into darkness where there is wailing and grinding of teeth … because he doesn’t have the right clothes! And the story ends right there, with the warning that many are called but few are chosen. The end.
As I’m reading that, automatically, I’m thinking, “Where is the heart of Jesus? Why is this poor fellow condemned?” What could that possibly mean?
But here’s what startled me. As I tried to imagine this passage in my own mind, there was an immediate image: that abandoned man immediately became the figure of James Baldwin.
At that time, I was reading a book about James Baldwin (Jimmy to his friends), a Black man, a wonderful writer, novelist in the ’60s. The book was written by Baldwin’s dear friend Eddie Glaude, who is also Black, a university teacher and an excellent writer. Glaude was there when Martin Luther King was shot in the head and killed. He immediately called his friend Jimmy and the two men cried on the phone. I remember reading that, and thinking how devastating that must have been for them — King had been carrying their hope.
In the book, Glaude tells, with all the compassion of a dear friend, of Baldwin’s painful effort to find himself in a country (our country, the USA) that “was living a lie.” Think of that: our country “living a lie.” And the reader cannot escape feeling the power that lie would have in Baldwin’s life: the estrangement, the pain, the inability to feel “home” or recognized or belonging in the U.S. How could he write stories that would be true to life as he knew it in the U.S.?
Baldwin needed to escape. He went to Turkey, to Istanbul, where he found a friend whom he knew did recognize him as human, as a man, a friend, a fun, lovable person, a gifted, brilliant writer. But there was a lifelong painful sadness of feeling exiled from his family, the country of his birth — the country that refused to acknowledge the lie it was living. To find, to be his self, he had to leave the U.S. and find a place of neutrality, what he called elsewhere, where he was safe, where he could recognize himself as the fully human being he knew himself to be — the self he longed to be. He found that place, that peace in Istanbul.
Black-skinned James Baldwin. That’s what I saw, that’s what I felt in that figure of the man, sitting alone, accused, knowing he didn’t have the right “clothes,” waiting to be thrown away, feeling himself like refuse in the world around him. That man became, for me, James Baldwin.
But what, I thought, what if THAT is what Jesus is trying to tell us in this story? What if we are failing to SEE that rejected figure, close to us? How are we, how am I living a lie?
Editor’s note: The book Elaine Prevallet SL references is “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.