Are the rich more virtuous than the poor? Is poverty something to be ashamed of? Our initial reaction is to say No to both those questions. We like to believe that all people are equal, and that poverty is no bar to greatness of soul. And yet, out there, in the real world, we tend to behave differently. Magazines report the fashions worn by the rich and powerful, and track their lifestyles, all to be read about enviously. It is as if a kind of virtue attaches to the rich and famous, who are to be emulated. As for the poor, well, place a neat and tidy but obviously poor person in a restaurant favoured by the rich and see what happens. Everybody will feel embarrassed, and the poor person will probably feel ashamed of his poverty and out of place.
Jesus thought very differently. He knew that holiness could be found among the poor and vulnerable. He also knew their loneliness and their sense of shame, and he wanted them to know: God's kingdom is for you! When he told the parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22.1-14) his listeners would have realised at once that a king would have invited prominent and illustrious people to his son's wedding. Indeed, we hear that one of them goes off to his farm, another to his business these are people of means. They cannot be bothered to go to the wedding and, Jesus implies, the same people cannot be bothered with God and with the kingdom of God. These powerful people, says Jesus, 'proved to be unworthy' (v 8). Instead, the servants are sent into the streets to sweep in a whole host of guests. Who would you find if you did that? A motley crew, to be sure, and to drive the point home we are told that 'bad and good alike' (v 10) found themselves at the feast. This is a parable to encourage us, the ordinary, stumbling people of the world, who cannot make any great claims for themselves. To know God, to seek to follow him in Christ, to have faith: this is enough.
But wait. What about the man thrown out of the wedding party because he does not have a wedding garment (vv 11-14). Doesn't this make it seem like a party for the properly dressed and the better off and turn everything upside-down? Isn't it even rather harsh? No. Here we have to remember the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the latter without the lamp oil they need to enter the wedding hall (Matt. 25.1-13). God invites, but there is work that only we can do. If you are wealthy enough you can get your house cleaned for you, you can get your accounts done for you, you can get your meals cooked for you. But you cannot get your spiritual life lived for you. All of us, rich and poor, and good and bad, have to attend to our soul, our spiritual life. No one else can do it. There are prayers that must come from your heart. There are searchings and questionings and seekings of God that only you can undertake for yourself. There are movements of repentance that only you can make. We are all invited: God asks us to do what we can and will do the rest himself.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Brook Green, London W6.