Gifts on God’s Terms
Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
Wedding registries. Christmas lists. Return policies. Gift cards. No one can deny that these modern conveniences make our lives easier. What do they all have in common? Personal preference. In each of these things, we have a say over the gift we receive. It’s something to which we’ve become accustomed. But does God work that way?
This Sunday’s readings can seem incongruous, even jarringly so. The first and second readings are optimistic, hopeful, and filled with confidence in God’s bounty. Isaiah in the first reading speaks of “rich food and choice wines,” death destroyed, and sorrow wiped away forever. Then comes the famous Psalm 23, where having the Lord as our shepherd means we “shall not want.” Finally, the second reading gives an assurance that, as God provided for St. Paul’s needs, so too will God provide for the Philippians, and for us.
And then we come to the Gospel. The parable of the wedding feast is filled with things that ought to make us uncomfortable. A fabulous banquet invitation refused for no evident reason. The brutal murder of the king’s servants and the king’s retributive punishment. And while things seem to improve at a “come one, come all”–style banquet, the parable still ends with a party-goer cast out for improper attire. How do we reconcile this intensity with the preceding readings?
In an era of online grocery delivery and the growing “internet of things,” it’s becoming increasingly easy to expect to experience life on our terms. God, however, doesn’t seem to operate that way. In the Gospel, the king holds out an invitation, only to have it repeatedly rejected. Is the gift so unimportant? We should hesitate to judge those in the parable too harshly–modern church attendance numbers tell a similar story.
When the invitation is accepted, Jesus highlights not the grateful guests, but the under-dressed. Why? He took the gift of the king, but he didn’t truly receive it. His casual, offhand manner at the wedding conveys that he didn’t really understand the importance of the invitation in the first place.
This parable raises important questions. Is it that difficult to humble ourselves? Is it that difficult to receive a gift on God’s terms rather than our own?
The abundant gifts God offers can make people uncomfortable. Sanctifying grace? That comes through weekly reception of the sacraments. Abundant life in heaven? That requires an adherence of our hearts to the challenging ethos of the Gospel.
In Paul’s acceptance of God’s providence, he clearly states that he has lived in both “humble circumstances” and “abundance,” that he has been well-fed and gone hungry. For him, the gift of God wasn’t the ongoing fulfillment of wants, but perfect fulfillment of needs. This attitude requires humility – the ability to recognize the potential of providence in every situation, even if the gift doesn’t perfectly match our preferences.
As we prepare our hearts and minds for next Sunday’s liturgy, let’s allow the Scripture to challenge our perception. God’s abundance is waiting for us, but it might not look like we think it will. Let’s pray for the inner transformation we need so that, when the invitation comes, we’ll find ourselves ready to embrace it.
O Lord, I place myself in your hands and dedicate myself to you:
To love the Lord God will with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength.
To honor all persons. To relieve the poor.
To help in trouble. To console the sorrowing.
To put my trust in God.
Never to despair of your mercy, O God of Mercy.
—Excerpts from Prayer of St. Benedict of Nursia