Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pentecost 17A: Everything is ready

Note: There is no audio this week - the operator (me) failed to operate correctly. Thankfully there is text to share!

Lectionary: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

"Many are called, but few are chosen." 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.

This was meant to sound ominous. Jesus was deliberately pointing to evil that was present, and reminding his listeners of the impending disaster that would follow for those who were complacent and self-reliant rather than faithful.

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

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 the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is announcing that this promise, and the purpose of the covenant with Israel, 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 many today, have grabbed hold of God’s grace as if it were theirs to own and to give to those whom they choose. They could not imagine the overwhelming graciousness of God’s generosity.

In addition, they had become so accustomed to being ‘the chosen,’ that they had become complacent, even hypocritical, about it. Figuring their salvation was assured, they sat back and ignored 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.

In today’s reading, Isaiah describes God as: “…a refuge to the poor, …to the needy in distress, a shelter from the rainstorm..”. (Isa 25:4) But the religious establishment Jesus is confronting were far from imitators of that description of God, 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. So Jesus uses words and images that have deep meaning to his listeners, and leave very little doubt about the message.

For example, a banquet is symbolic language for the kingdom of God. The first set of slaves sent out with invitations to the banquet represent the ancient prophets of Israel. Those receiving the invitation represent the chosen people of Israel. The invitation is the call of Israel into a covenant relationship with God. But, the parable says, …they would not come.

So more slaves (that is, prophets) are sent, this time with the message: the king is still waiting for you, “everything is ready…come to the banquet.” Still, the chosen do not come.

When they finally did respond, their response was insolent and violent. They mistreated - even killed - the slaves (the prophets). The king (God) is enraged by their actions, so he sends his armies to destroy them and burn their city. Remember, fire is the traditional symbol for judgment.

Some commentators have noted that this reaction by God seems a bit overdone. It is - it’s supposed to be. Rabbis commonly used exaggeration to make a point; and Jesus, the rabbi, was making a point here: by their actions, their lives, the chosen ones had shown themselves to be unworthy.

So finally, the king (God) sends out a third group of slaves. These are meant to be understood as those 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, and gather all you can find …the good and the bad… and invite them to the banquet. For Jesus’ listeners, ‘the good’ meant the Jews, and ‘the bad’ meant the Gentiles …and both were to be invited.

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… and this brings a disastrous response from the king. The king commands that the guest be tied up and thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Sound familiar? These are words commonly used to describe hell).

Why was this poor soul cast out into hell? Well he made two mistakes. First, he failed to honor the king by doing what was expected of him as an invited guest. Guests at weddings in those days were expected to wear wedding robes. It was a symbol of inclusion. It also allowed the host to identify anyone who might have snuck in and crashed the party.

In addition, “vesting” or putting on new clothing, represents putting on a new identity. Think about Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination. In the parable, the wedding robe is the symbol of a new identity, a converted life, a life that reflects the mercy, compassion, and love of God in the world. 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, the New Covenant guests - us. We are the Gentiles Jesus foretold would be invited to the banquet. As such, we are now included among the chosen… those called to be a light to the nations and bearers of the good news in our 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 can and must, however, respond to God’s invitation and put on the robe of our new identity, and our lives must reflect that identity. The living out of our Baptismal vows must happen in the world, not just in our words or our intentions.

That’s what Confirmation is for us – an anointing for mission. This afternoon at 4:00 the Bishop will anoint 12 new missioners who have chosen to answer their call from God to serve as part of the Redeemer family. These 12 have spent time discerning their call from God. As we welcome them, I ask the rest of us to ask ourselves: What am I doing, in my ministry at Redeemer to relieve the distress of the needy in our world? How do I, as part of the Redeemer family, do my part to “still the song of the ruthless”?

Is Redeemer a shelter in the storm? Do we provide a refuge for those in our world who are excluded or oppressed? Do we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, or speak for them when they have no voice… even when we risk being excluded ourselves because of it?

The message in Jesus’ parable is clear: the chosen will be known by their actions and their lives, not just by their words, or their intentions.

We have received the king’s invitation. The feast has been set for us…and everything is ready. Now we must make our choice. Will we put on our wedding robes, convert our lives, and live as God’s chosen?

This isn’t a choice we make just once. It’s a choice we make continually…throughout our lives… in order to convert whatever still needs converting or needs converting again.

The choice is ours. "For many are called, but few are chosen."

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