28th Sunday in Ordinary time

This year I’ve already broken two of my personal records: I’ve conducted three weddings in Fochabers – more than in any year previously – and I’ve taken part in two of the wedding receptions that followed. To my regret I’ve missed most of the other functions I’ve been invited to over my years in this parish, and some of you might bear a grudge against me for my having declined those invitations. In my defence I can only ask: ‘Why do you always have to get married on a Saturday, one of my only two working days in the week?’

Personally I’ve never been involved in the preparations for a wedding party but scaling up my experience regarding the organisation of much smaller events, I think it’s a very exciting time on the one hand, and a nightmare on the other. Regardless of whichever aspect prevails, at the end of the day what really matters is the final ‘product’ and the satisfaction of the newly-weds, shared with their wedding guests. The latter are expected firstly to come along, and secondly to make some effort to fit well into the event. Last but not least, holding a wedding reception costs serious money, and a sudden absence of guests makes that futile and wasteful.

With all this in mind we can ponder the final parable told by Jesus in a series of these addressed against the Jewish leaders of his time. We’ve heard them over the last three Sundays, while Jesus painted a pretty grim picture of those in the top jobs. They were merciless, acting in opposition to their official stances while paying lip service to them, and rejecting any co-operation with those they considered as belonging to ‘unworthy lower classes’. At the end of each parable Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God that the leaders expected to inherit would be taken from them and given to those very same ‘unworthy’ people.

How do we fit into these stories? Do we find ourselves among those proud but arrogant guardians of hallowed traditions, or rather among the crowd of prostitutes, tax collectors and other public sinners hailed by Jesus as beneficiaries of the Kingdom of heaven? It’s a tough choice, isn’t it? I think most of us, in our perception, fall somewhere between the two. To be honest, such a choice is a false one, because Jesus neither rebukes the Jewish leaders for their beliefs nor hails the sinners for their sinfulness. The main difference between these two groups lies in the ability of the latter, the sinners, to recognise the poor state they’re in and the active involvement necessary on their part to change that. The chief priests’ lack of such an attitude excluded them from the impact of Jesus’ teaching. As he said in a different place: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician’. They consider his offer to be worthless because, in their opinion, he has nothing they need.

Over the last twenty-odd years, as nations and as religious communities we’ve abandoned the concept of sinfulness. This process has been hailed as the liberation from a perceived omnipresent sense of guilt that had pressed heavily on past generations. I’m far from glossing over ‘the golden era’ of the past – maybe I’m too young? – but that apparent liberation hasn’t solved many problems experienced by past generations, it has sometimes made them worse or produced new ones, and it has certainly deprived us of the tool to get to the root of these problems. By rejecting any notion of sin in our moral choices, many people have unintentionally excluded themselves from religious life, because then there’s nothing that Jesus can offer them. Certainly scandals within the Church and the arrogance of some of her clergy have played significant roles in emptying our churches. But dare I say that the main reason for that is that without talking openly about sin as the main problem of each and every one, Jesus remains only a more or less interesting religious figure. As the servants in the parable, we have to go out ‘to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone we can find to the wedding’. Jesus is waiting.