Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’
The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.’
In this parable, Jesus presents God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, as a man who throws a great feast. Those invited to the feast beg off, each with his own excuse ranging from the mundane, to the lame, to the racy, to the downright mysterious. The host, angrily realizing that none of the invited are disposed to come and enjoy his hospitality, sends out a messenger to all the untouchables in town. When the banquet hall is full of those most rejected by society, there is still room!
So he goes out to the highways and the hedgerows to bring in anyone and everyone to his dinner party. Imagine who might be out there…a wealthy landowner overseeing the pruning of his hedgerows? An alcoholic, sleeping underneath the same row? A woman with her wash coming back from the river? A noblewoman in a litter, being carried by six servants. A little girl, running home from the fields with her brother. A burglar, a con-artist, a highway robber. A tired traveler grateful for the unexpected meal.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of the invited ones who declined, let’s look at who ends up in the Kingdom of Heaven. The answer is, everybody. E v e r y b o d y, in the end, is invited. This is Church. Instead of in groups and out groups, we are one group, one body. As Christian women and men, we have cared about this image for a long time, ever since Christ described the Kingdom of Heaven this way. And as Jesuit men and women, particularly, we have asked ourselves how to extend this kind of open invitation to God’s table.
Another way of describing this Christian invitation is non-dualism. We focus not on me/you, them/us, either/or, but both/and. Over the course of a dedicated Christian life, the concept of “we” widens, and broadens, and deepens. As Jesus did in his ministry, we go out to what we perceive as the margins, pushing the very boundaries of “we,” and finding God’s love already there. This kind of magnanimity should feel great, right?
It is certainly great, but that doesn’t mean it always feels great. The non-dualism of a Jesuit life can be very painful and difficult, and at times confusing. The margin is not always easy to locate, not always predictable. It is also different for each of us. I often find myself suddenly at the margins when I hear the thought inside, “That is not me. That is not who I am.” But in trying to imitate Jesus, I find that a non dualistic approach does not mean erasing or rejecting the apparent contrasts and contradictions of life. It simply means developing a kind of ‘homing’ instinct for God’s mercy, love, and creative Spirit, alive at the heart of them.
The mark of non dualism is all over a Jesuit life. We could talk about politics and civic engagement – and likely we will, soon! But I want to start with the non dualism of a more grounding reality: funerals. At the small Jesuit university I call home, campus ministry stages many funerals for the members of our extended family. Earlier this year I helped with the enormous state funeral of a university benefactor, who gave land worth millions of dollars to fund a service program that weekly connects people who live and study here with people who have no homes, living on our streets. At this funeral, all the men from the Jesuit community attended and concelebrated, and the church was packed with the Who’s Who of the city. The funeral was grandiose, and also beautiful and meaningful, even from the back of the cathedral choir loft. After the closing song, we all filed out and drove over to the local country club for an elegant reception and story-telling session.
Later in the year, I assisted with the funeral of a young woman, a recent graduate of our college who, having lost her parents early in life, had no immediate family to sponsor a funeral. This woman, throughout her life, had confronted her own feelings of smallness, inadequacy and marginalization, and with her presence, her love, her words and her networking, spurred the re-invigoration of our struggling campus diversity and inclusion initiative. Her funeral was small and intimate, deeply felt and deeply prayed. It was very simple. No men from the Jesuit community came or concelebrated, yet almost the whole University Ministry office was there. After the service, there was a spontaneous vigil of nearly an hour as her friends, teachers, and collaborators stayed around a blue and white urn and a smiling picture of her, sometimes coming up to pray silently by the little altar. The pianist, seeing what was happening, just played and played until everyone was finished and went to eat together on campus.
As I reflected on the contrast between these two Jesuit funerals, both beautiful, I was tempted to say of the millionaire and his state funeral, “That is not me. That is not who I am.” I was also tempted to say of the student’s funeral and her dear friends and colleagues, “Is this who I am? Do I belong here?” God keeps answering, “Yes, that is who you are. And that, and that. And yes, you belong here.” In funeral after funeral, I have seen us honor lives lived in sometimes vastly different circumstances, with the resources available and in accord with what is requested.
I have come to see this feast of the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, this feast that extends out to the highways and hedgerows, as a real experiment. In the Jesuit experiment, the Christian experiment, we do not expect to achieve our values and ideals. They are, in fact, impossible to achieve. Instead we seek to embody the invitation more fully, and in doing so dig ourselves deeper and deeper into the humbling hole of being loved unconditionally, and able to accomplish anything good through grace alone, through the power of that homing instinct for receiving and offering mercy.
I bring to the table my agenda, my ambition, my self-clinging, my armor. It is, in fact, exactly what brings me – and then it is shaped, worn, smoothed, tempered and polished away. Jesuit women are called to the table by our hopes and desires – the hope of being highly trained, invested in, supported, mentored, and missioned – the desire, one day, to be able to speak with true authority – not coercive, but legitimate – into the sacred spaces and decision-making counsels of our Church. We come to the table and watch our agendas dissolve into the reality of mission, the reality of obedience to the real needs of the Church in all her apparent contradictions, her evolving perfection.
It’s a painful process, a dying process, but cheerful too. As an American, and a music lover, I always hear this scripture with a song:
In the highways and the hedges,
in the highways and the hedges,
in the highways and the hedges,
I’ll be somewhere a workin’ for my Lord.