Jesus never explicitly says what the kingdom of heaven is. Instead he says it is like such and such. In this parable, the kingdom is likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. A generous invitation to the nuptial festivities is extend to some, then to all. But the ending of the parable is rather disconcerting. What a temperamental king, expelling a guest who disregarded the dress code! For not wearing a wedding garment, the unwitting fellow is tossed out into the night. How do we make sense of this bewildering snit? It leaves us with a harsh and cruel image of the king.
A wedding is an occasion when opposites are united – when a man and a woman become one. We live in a world of dualities, often describing ourselves and others with comparative opposites: success/failure, attractive/ugly, strong/weak, useful/useless, important/insignificant. Within ourselves we erect boundaries between what we like (creating a persona) and what we do not approve (material which becomes our shadow). The persona is fashioned as we attempt to deny the existence of certain tendencies within ourselves such as anger, erotic impulses, hostility, certain desires, aggression, and so forth. Simply because we deny these tendencies does not mean they go away. Instead, the banished features retreat into the shadow and from there they frequently emerge to torment and tease us. The result is a life of alienation, fragmentation and conflict. A world of opposites is a world fraught with conflicts. As we try to eradicate more and more unwanted dimensions of ourselves, a battle of opposites rages within.
We are inclined to imagine that life will be heavenly wherever all the positives hold sway; for hell is where we believe all the negatives have been deposited. By likening the kingdom of God to a nuptial gathering, Jesus underscores the unitive feature of Spirit’s reign. Heaven is not a state of all positives and no negatives. God’s Kingdom is not a state where rejected features are unwelcome, but where they are transcended and united. It is a marriage achieved by overcoming the illusion of separateness.
Christian mystics often make use of the marriage metaphor to describe the spiritual life. The invitation goes out to the separate ego-self: "Come to the wedding of the son." But egos tend to become ensnared in the pompous self-importance of their persona, too busy to respond. Those who are convinced of their self-sufficiency do not enter the kingdom because they remain caught in the agenda of their own little world.
When the invitation is put forward to the "bad and good alike," we are assured this is not a merit badge system where the perfect are preferred. However, we notice that the snobbish egocentric personas never come near the nuptials, while the wounded and discarded parts of ourselves that have been banished to live "on the streets" accept the invitation. They are eager to participate in the wedding; they prefer unity in place of the battle of opposites.
A decisive moment occurs when one guest appears without a wedding robe, only to be tossed out into the frosty darkness. To make sense of this ceremonial eviction we need to realize that the groom within the parable, obviously, is Christ. But where is the bride? Surprise – the guests were invited to the wedding because the intention was for each them to marry the bridegroom. That is why a wedding gown was expected. The judgment goes harsh on the person who participates in the festivities without any intention of being, like unto a bride, united to Christ.
Eventually, we find ourselves abiding in darkness if we remain with the illusion that opposites can and should be isolated. A hopeful future lies not in separating the opposites and making "positive" progress. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is experienced whenever we unify the opposites within. Then we will become peaceful people who can harmonize the opposites of the world.
This is exquisitely affirmed in the Eucharistic Prayer for Mass of Reconciliation II: "In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace. Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together."
Fr. Joe Mitchell, CP is the director of the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center in Louisville, KY.