Sunday, October 11, 2020

19 Pentecost, 2020: A moment of holy discomfort

Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14 

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” That’s such an ominous ending to a pretty harsh sounding story, and I always get nervous when Jesus sounds ominous. So did the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was directing his remarks. 

The parable of the wedding banquet is only found in the gospel of Matthew, and it is in keeping with the author’s purpose to show that Jesus is the Messiah… that in Jesus, “God has begun to fulfill the promises to Israel.” It is also the last teaching Jesus does in the temple before his conflict with the Jewish leadership escalates. 

This parable was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to a present evil and calling attention to the disastrous consequences that would follow for those, specifically religious leaders, who remained complacent and self-focused rather than faithful.

From the beginning, God called the people of Israel into covenant relationship so that through them the good news of salvation might be brought to the whole world. Remember God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) And in Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)

In today’s parable, Jesus is announcing that this promise is being fulfilled. In Jesus, God’s plan of salvation is about to break out of the House of Israel and reach the ends of the earth - and the Jewish leadership doesn’t want to hear it.

They, like so many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and give to those whom they choose. This is at the core of classism. A few hoard the resources meant for many, then justify and legitimate doing so. When we look at the disparity of resource distribution in our country and in the world today, it seems clear that the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity continues to elude us. 

Jesus’ listeners have become so accustomed to being ‘chosen,’ that they have become complacent, even hypocritical, about it ignoring the rest of what being in covenant relationship required of them. They were called to be “a light to the nations,” to be imitators of God in the world, to reveal God’s grace to the world by the example of their lives. (NISB commentary notes)

But the lives of the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from that description, and Jesus slams them for their lack of compassion, their lack of justice, and the arrogance of their self-satisfaction. It is a harsh confrontation, but as harsh as it is, Jesus is actually doing what God always does… making room for repentance… giving the Pharisees and Scribes the chance to make a new choice.

He does this using words that have deep meaning to his listeners. For example, they recognize that the ‘banquet’ symbolizes the kingdom of God, that the slaves represent the prophets of Israel, and that those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. They know that the invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God, but as the parable says, …they would not come.

So more prophets are sent, Jesus says, this time with the message: the king is still waiting, “everything is ready…come to the banquet” but they still refuse. When they finally did respond, they were insolent and violent, mistreating even killing the prophets.

Enraged by their insolence, the king (God) sends armies to destroy them and burn their city. Some commentators have suggested that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. That was on purpose. Rabbis often used exaggeration to make a point; and Rabbi Jesus’ point was: they are living in a way that is unacceptable to God.

So finally, God sends out a third group of prophets. These are meant to be understood as the followers of Jesus who will soon go out telling everyone they meet about the new age being inaugurated in Jesus, the Messiah of God.

This third group is told to go out into the streets. The original Greek of this word translates as ‘thoroughfare’…which is a road that is open at both ends. Go out beyond the boundaries, Jesus says in the parable, and gather all you can find …the good (the Jews) and the bad (the Gentiles)… and invite them into the kingdom of God.

But then the parable takes a darker turn. The king comes upon one of the new guests, who, though he did respond to the invitation, is not wearing a wedding robe… The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Why was this poor soul cast out and punished? Well, he made two mistakes which Jesus’ listeners would have noticed.

First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. In those days, guests at weddings were expected to wear wedding robes. Vesting, that is, putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about our Baptism and Ordination rites.

The wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life. Refusing to wear the robe means being unwilling to be converted. That was the guest’s second mistake.

This part of the parable is a warning to the new guests at the banquet, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in the world.

As chosen people, we are called to honor God… remembering that our salvation is God’s gift, freely given. We can’t earn it, and we don’t own it.

We have been invited by God to vest in the robes of our new identity and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must actually happen in our works, not just in our thoughts and prayers.

To be clear, putting on our ‘wedding robes’ and intentionally converting our lives doesn’t mean we weren’t good people serving God well before. It means, as St. Paul said last week, that we haven’t finished the race so we press on…

Vesting in a new identity given to us by God can be unsettling. See if this sounds familiar: “But we’ve always done it this way.” Well, right now, “this way” isn’t working. The video evidence of the suffering of members of our family in God cannot be denied anymore. Their cries cannot be ignored. This is a moment of holy discomfort meant to call us to conversion of our lives. 

By issuing a continual invitation to live a converted life, Jesus gives us the chance to convert in ourselves whatever still needs converting or needs converting again until the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity no longer eludes us or anyone else, but is an apparent reality for all to see. Only then will we live as one in justice and in peace.

I close today with an adaptation of the Collect for the Oppressed, which we shared in our diocesan clergy meeting this past week. Let us pray:

Notice the suffering, generous God, of the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us and help us to notice too. Then lead us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 826)