THE SPANISH expression palabra de honor literally means a “word of honor.” It means that you put your honor at stake in your word. We will focus on this value in our reflection on today’s Gospel parable.
The parable presupposes that the people who have been invited to the wedding of the King’s son had actually said YES already. Meaning, they had given their word, their yes. They were merely being reminded by the servants who had been dispatched.
In the invitation cards that we usually send for formal occasions, we usually write RSVP and indicate a telephone number and a contact person. RSVP is a French acronym for Répondez S’il Vous Plait, which means “Please respond.” Meaning—the one inviting would like to know if you can come or not. They need a precise, not an indefinite answer. Your answer can be a YES or a Sorry, NO, but they want a definite response because they need to know how many to prepare for.
In ancient times, somebody would even be sent to make a physical follow-up on the invitation. In today’s age of digital technology, the follow-up can easily be done electronically: by text, by email, by messaging, etc. When you say YES, it means you are making a commitment.
The Gospel tells us the guests who had said YES to the invitation did not show up. Some made all sorts of excuses. Others even got violent with the servants who came to remind them of their commitment.
This is of course a parable. It is about the kingdom of God metaphorically described as a wedding banquet, meaning, a covenant, in which Israel had been invited and which they had committed themselves to. The servants are obviously an allusion to the prophets who had been sent by God on many occasions to remind Israel of the covenant, that they had given God their word of honor.
In the parable, we hear of two ways in which the invited guests break their word of honor: first by not showing up at the banquet and maltreating the servants who had been sent to remind them, and secondly, by not dressing up for the occasion. In both instances, they dishonor, not just the one who invited them; they dishonor themselves as well for breaking their word.
At the beginning of each Mass, there is a penitential rite in which we are invited to confess our shortcoming “in our thoughts, and in our words, as well as in our actions—meaning, both what we should not have done and what we have failed to do.” It means we are invited to openly admit the many times we may have broken our word and in effect dishonored ourselves.
Remember, we are supposed to be created in the image and likeness of our Creator whose Word is powerful? When God pronounces his Word, it does not remain as a thought, or a statement. It takes effect in action; it comes about in reality. God’s Word is creative and effective; it is not just meant to be informative. More importantly, it is also performative and transformative.
The Gospel of John begins with a poetic Prologue that says, “In the beginning was the Word.” It reminds you of the opening lines in Genesis that also say, “In the beginning, when God created the world,” all he needed to do was to pronounce his Word, LET THERE BE…, and everything came to be. And at some point, God’s word takes on human flesh in Jesus Christ.
The Term in Hebrew for Word is DABHAR. The translation in English unfortunately waters down the meaning because the Hebrew term is very diverse. It can apply to THOUGHT, PLAN, WILL, SPEECH, ACTION, or an EVENT, AN OCCURRENCE, OR AN ACTIVITY, but the word remains the same: DABHAR. It presupposes unity and consistency between what is thought out and what is expressed in speech, between what is said and what is done or put into action. It is when our thought, speech and action begin to contradict each other that we break our word and dishonor ourselves.
In Tagalog we refer to the value of keeping one’s word as INTEGRIDAD. We actually borrowed it from Spanish, which borrowed it from the Latin INTEGRITAS, which means WHOLENESS, as against FRAGMENTED. When we think one thing and say another thing, we break our word and dishonor ourselves. This is what people do when they use words, not to communicate but to manipulate. When we say one thing and do something else, such as when we make promises and not keep them, we break our word and dishonor ourselves. It is what liars and traitors do; they use words to deceive and mislead others.
Nobody would want to work with someone whose word cannot be trusted or counted on. It is hard to deal with people whose word you take seriously, only to realize later you have just been taken for a ride. When you cannot figure out anymore what is for serious and what is a joke, or what is sacred and what is profane, what is true and what is false.
When you are tempted to break your word, I suggest that you remind yourself of that part in the poem of Robert Frost that says, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
I used to preach to big congregations of 800 to 1,000 people inside our physical churches. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would communicate God’s Word to 50,000 people every day, sometimes up to 100 to 200 thousand on Sundays, thanks to the social media. All of it happened only because of the pandemic. Because you have been following and sharing God’s Powerful Word online, the pressure has been greater on me as an instrument. Every day, I need to remind myself of the bishop’s reminder at my diaconal ordination:
Receive the Word of God whose herald you now are. BELIEVE what you READ; TEACH what you BELIEVE, and PRACTICE what you TEACH.
(Homily for 11 Oct. 2020, 28th SUNDAY in Ordinary Time, MT 22:1-14)