Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Refusing Joy

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast, but they would not come. Again, he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who were called, ‘Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’” But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those called were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and call to the marriage feast as many as you find.” And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so, the wedding hall was filled with guests. Matthew 22

I understand this parable as illustrating our very puzzling human refusal of the extraordinary joy God offers us. Why would any of us actually refuse joy, an attitude that seems to do violence to our own best interests? And yet, isn’t this precisely the essence of every serious sin: to throw back in God’s face the authentically good and delightful things he wants to give us because instead, we prefer other things that we may call ‘good’ but which are in fact terribly limited and certainly do not satisfy the deepest desires of our soul? God wants to give us lasting joy, and our response is often a barely polite no-thank-you. We are really not interested in what he has to offer. If we do this often enough, we condemn ourselves to a lifetime of bitter frustration. This habit of refusal, further, may well lead us to a gradual loss of faith. Where there is no joy to nourish it, faith dries up. Then we will then blame God for our interior state of terminal unhappiness, whereas all along it is we who have refused to drop everything at his invitation and join in the Wedding Feast of his beloved Son, the only lasting source of joy in this world or the next. 

The invitation is a jubilant summons for us to activate to the fullest our capacity for Joy in Being, a call to consume exquisite food and wine and dance to ecstatic music—all as a dramatic representation of the truth that, ultimately, ours is a vocation to be vibrantly rather than to do dutifully.

The king’s invitation to his subjects to drop everything and come to the wedding feast suddenly generates a massive crisis in their sense of the meaning of their lives. For those who think that meaning and happiness in life can only be produced by one’s own planning and striving, the spontaneous offer of unearned leisure, exquisite food and drink, and festive delight. Will come as an absurdity and a provocation that touch raw nerves. Why? Because above rest, joy, and delight we value our mad autonomy as masters of our own life and destiny. To be offered rest freely by another is perceived by our ego as a mocking condescension, perhaps even (to our dark paranoia) a threat of extermination. For, if my life ultimately receives the fullness of meaning and joy from Another, what will I have left to accomplish? And, unless I am continually accomplishing my own designs and giving shape to my own life, will I even exist?

As for the outrageous killing in the parable: What kind of person murders messengers simply out of annoyance at their insistence that one come to the king’s feast, where he wants only to honor and delight his guests? Is such a symbolic reaction really so far-fetched? Do we not often react with subtle violence in self-defense when we feel cornered by love, by grace? Do we not perhaps fear above all to be surrounded by a love that will not leave us alone, or leave us the same? Do we not habitually prefer the comfortable and habitual misery of the spiritual couch-potato to the risky freedom and intense joy of actively loving and being loved? With unending sorrow. I remember one grotesque occasion in my youth when, roughly and angrily, I shrugged off my grandmother, who was Love itself personified, simply because she was gently rubbing my back and offering to cook me breakfast. What can possibly account for such a perverse reaction on my part, which enacted to perfection the truth of the parable?

Meditation by Father Simeon.