Monday, December 18, 2017

Inexcusable Excuse-Making

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Parable of the Great Supper (LK. 14:16-24), heard yesterday as the prescribed Gospel pericope for the Second Sunday Before Nativity, we were offered a revealing glimpse into humankind's inexhaustible propensity for making excuses. This unending flow of excuses is often cloaked as tightly-argued rationalizations, served up with an unassailable logic, and promoted with sincere conviction. Psychologically, excuse-making is not to be confused with lying - at least on the conscious level (though this distinction can get a bit murky, in that we can actually believe our own lies as we believe in our excuses). These excuses serve to free us from responsibility, disentangle us from awkward situations, or even undermine our own well-being due to blindness or some hidden perversity of character.

It seems as if we "inherited" this propensity for making excuses from Adam and Eve as the story of the Fall unfolds in the Book of Genesis. After disobeying the divine commandment by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve offer excuses as to why they both succumbed to the serpent's insinuations (GEN. 3). These excuses were blatant evasions of moral responsibility. They covered up a refusal to repent. They assigned blame elsewhere, but accepted none for themselves. And these excuses were made directly to God! How strong, therefore, is the human need to fabricate excuses to rationalize away our sins! We see the same pattern depressingly repeated by children, corporate executives, clergy of the Church, and by husbands and wives in our homes. The domestic "paradise" established potentially within the Mystery of Marriage is undermined by the same processes that destroyed the original Eden of the first man and woman: temptation, assent, sin, refusal to repent, feeble excuses to justify and avoid responsibility, and negative consequences to follow. The "image and likeness of God" is obscured by this "dark side" of the human condition.

Returning to the parable found in St. Luke's Gospel, we hear that Christ relates a story about "A certain man who gave a great supper and invited many" (14:16). This is clearly an image of our heavenly Father's gracious invitation to experience the joy of fellowship with God in the eschatological Kingdom. A supper/banquet implies fellowship, sharing, and the joy of communal celebration. It has thus been a constant image of sharing our life with God in the Age to come, culminating in the glorious "marriage supper of the Lamb" in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Even on an "earthly level" it is an invitation that is often readily accepted. Who wants to pass us a sumptuous meal? Nevertheless, with a realism that we can all relate to, the servant of the man who has prepared the supper is forced to hear a series of excuses that are meant to free the recipients of the invitation from the obligation to attend. But so as not to cause offense, they offer excuses that sound reasonable enough. As Christ says explicitly in the parable: "But they all with one accord began to make excuses" (14:18). What, then, does the servant of the parable hear? More or less, the usual:

The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' (14:18-20)

Taken from the daily routine of obligations and responsibilities, again we acknowledge the reasonableness of these excuses. (Interpreted allegorically by the Fathers, the excuses, according to a note in the Orthodox Study Bible, refer to "people devoted to earthly matters, to things pertaining to the five senses, and to all the pleasures of the flesh"). However, the "master of the house" was not impressed, for we hear that he became "angry" upon the return of his servant with the news that the supper would only be thinly attended. The master of the house further responds by ordering his servant to bring in other guests, including "the poor, and the maimed and the lame and the blind" (14:21). Discovering that "still there is room" (14:22), the servant is told to "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (14:23). The master's hospitality is so abundant, that he will invite and even compel "guests" that according to social etiquette would usually remain uninvited. In other words, those for whom the banquet should have been a natural culmination of an ongoing relationship - the elect of Israel in their chosenness by God - will find themselves on the outside; while wholly unexpected guests - the lawless Gentiles - will be given free and gracious access to the Kingdom prepared before the foundation of the world.

The excuses offered in the parable are easily translated into the one cliche that is ever-present in our daily vocabulary and repeated like a mantra when searching for a formula readily understood by one and all: "I am so busy!" In fact, everyone is not only "so busy," but actually "too busy." Just like the figures in the parable. Therefore, we believe that our level of responsibility is lightened, and expectations for our time and energy must be minimal to be fair. Our relationships may suffer, but that is unavoidable. That is how the world and our lives are structured. So we have the "perfect" excuse as to why we cannot prayer with any regularity; fast with any concentration; and practice charity with any concern. Committed Orthodox Christians are too busy to come to confession, read the Holy Scriptures, or come to non-Sunday liturgical services. Being too busy, we struggle to "fit" God into our busy schedules. If that fails, it cannot be helped - God will understand. Yet, other troubling questions seem to intrude themselves upon the safe haven of pleading the excuse of being busy. Although no claim is being made that the following are a "top ten" of such questions, I do believe that they are an "honest ten:"

1. Were the excuses of the parable enough to justify a broken relationship with God? 
2. What convinces me that the excuse of being busy should satisfy God's "demands" upon me? 
3. Can it be spiritually dangerous to be so busy? 
4. Am I free of any moral responsibility to change the ordering of my life so as to respond to God and neighbor without any excuses to relieve me from doing so?   
5. What are the implications of being "too busy" within the context of my relationship with God? 
6. Is it possible that I have become overly-dependent upon the excuse of always being busy? 
7. What does it mean when we come to the "supper" - the Liturgy - but fail in partaking of the "food" freely-offered - the Eucharist? 
8. What excuses do I offer for refusing the Master's hospitality? 
9. If the excuse is being unprepared, what am I doing to change that pattern? 
10. How do I understand the last words of the parable spoken by Christ: "For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper" (14:24)?

The Parable of the Great Supper becomes quite challenging when given some attention and thought. Although meant to reveal the foolishness of inexcusable excuse-making, it nevertheless reveals what God intends for those who respond to His gracious invitation: the unending joy of the Kingdom of God best characterized as a great and joyous supper where "all is now ready" (14:17). This hospitality is so great that no one is excluded, except through self-exclusion posed in the form of unconvincing excuses not to attend. There is always room. Having been invited, and having accepted this invitation, our task is to overcome the universal propensity of making excuses in order to preserve our self-autonomy and self-regard. We may then join the elect "where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen." (First Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion)

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