BY: Fr. Robert DeLeon Csc

Matthew 22:1-10
“The king sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’” (Matthew 22:3, 8)

“First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff. In the end, 450 dead animals lay on top of one another in a billowy white pile. Those who jumped later were saved as the pile got higher and the fall more cushioned.” (Associated Press, July 8, 2005)

Why would sheep act this way? Veterinarians, animal psychologists and experts in sheep husbandry are still researching the strange behavior of these Turkish sheep. But, I wonder, is the answer really so profound when we consider the self-destructive behavior of people rather than sheep. Who of us has not “leapt over a cliff” in a figurative sense through habits of living that detract from good physical, mental and spiritual health? Indeed, people have it within themselves to self-destruct.

In the gospel passage we hear this day, Jesus offers a parable to the chief priests and elders, a troubling story of invited guests unwilling to come to the sumptuous wedding banquet awaiting them. Offering an assortment of dubious excuses, all the guests become no-shows, their places at table vacant, an embarrassment and cause of anger for the king who wishes his hall to be filled with joyful revelers on this happy occasion. Perhaps, in the telling of this story, Jesus cast an accusing eye at his most vocal adversaries as he laid before them the theme of the parable: “The king sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.’” (Matthew 22:3, 8) Why did those guests, I wonder, forgo the chance to have a great time at a fabulous party? What was their perception of the king that they would not come to his wedding feast? I think it has something to do with trust. Let the true story of a very sick little girl serve to illustrate.

Soon after her premature birth in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia in 1976, Elise was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit of Washington, DC’s Children’s National Medical Center. Though her tiny body quickly filled out and she daily exhibited all the signs of normal infant development, there was a problem with her lungs that made it necessary for her to be attached to a respirator which did the breathing for her. When I first met four year-old Elise in the summer of 1980, she appeared the healthiest, happiest baby in the ICU, except for the breathing tether extending from the tracheotomy incision in her neck to the whooshing respirator at the head of her bed. The connecting tube from child to machine was long enough that Elise could walk around inside her crib or sit in the lap of one of her parents or a staff member in the rocking chair beside her bed. The only obstacle to her discharge was the need for a home respirator, and the hospital was working diligently with a home health care agency to procure Elise’s ticket to freedom.

Eureka! Finally all the kinks had been cleared, a respirator had been installed in their Alexandria residence, and Elise was ready to go to the home she’d never seen. Her parents had been preparing for this glorious day for four years, painting her bedroom, stenciling dancing figures all over the walls. They were beaming this bright day as their child was to come home for the first time. And though Elise had become something of an adopted daughter to all the ICU staff, there was great rejoicing amid their tears, with even a “Bon Voyage” party to mark this happy transition. Sipping punch with her parents and the hospital staff that bright summer day, it now seems strange that no one could have foreseen what was about to happen.

Bundled away amid many kisses and tears, an ambulance crew wheeled Elise away from the place and the people she’d know from birth, away from what had seemed home to her for four years, away from a place of comfort and even delight—away to a strange new environment where, in short order, she began to experience anxiety attacks so severe that her parents feared for her life. Just three days after we’d celebrated her release, an ambulance sped her back to Children’s National Medical Center, back to the place, the people and the security that Elise considered her home.

Happily, the hospital staff and Elise’s family worked hard at providing a less traumatic transition from hospital to home for the terrified four year-old. Over the course of several months, the diligent efforts of all parties enabled Elise to return to Alexandria and remain there, though she still needed the mechanical assistance of the respirator as her lungs slowly showed signs of improvement, the day of being free of the respirator a bright dawn on the horizon.

The story of Elise is also our story. She didn’t know where her true home was, so acclimated had she become to the artificial environment of the hospital ICU. And so it is with us. We’ve become so acclimated to life on earth that we’ve perhaps forgotten that we were made for something more, something better. We’ve forgotten the heavenly banquet that is promised us, forgotten that what earthly happiness we may experience but dimly mirrors what the king has prepared for us in the life to come.

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