18 Oct Sermon for Trinity 19, Year A
The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.
Sunday 15th October, 2023
Well here is a tricky parable!
Very often it gets explained by allegory.
You know allegory? This thing/person/situation in the parable
represents this other thing/person situation in either real life or in the spiritual life, therefore the parable means this. In the case of today’s parable, allegory goes something like this.
Ah! It says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”, so, that means:
the king is God.
the king’s Son is Jesus (obviously!)]
and God is throwing a party for Jesus.
The party must be the eternal bliss in heaven, because Jesus told so many about feasts and wedding banquets that are really bout heaven.
The slaves? Maybe they are the prophets perhaps, or maybe the angels at the end of time, sent to call those who have been invited.
Those who have been invited are presumably the people of God – the Israelites.
So the parable is saying that the invited people don’t want to come to God’s heavenly feast because they and are too busy with (distracted by) worldly things and God will exact some nasty retribution on those who refuse his invitation, while others will be invited (presumably the gentiles) in their place.
Then there is the weird bit about the man in the wrong clothes. Well, in this scheme of things, he must be someone who, having accepted the invitation, isn’t faithful – someone who doesn’t “wear” the “clothing” of the Kingdom, perhaps someone who does not do the good works expected. He lets his king down, so he too gets some nasty retribution.
It is tidy. It explains everything but it doesn’t really help us here and now and it is full of holes.
Why not invite everyone to start with? How could the invited guests refuse their king? If the king represents God, how can God behave so harshly? And especially to the guest whose only crime appears to be not having a thing to wear! Doesn’t Jesus teach us so much elsewhere about the love and acceptance of God? This cannot be the same God as depicted in, say, the tale of the prodigal son.
So allegory gets us so far, but has not really helped us fully grasp the parable, nor to engage with it ourselves in this day and age. It keep everything at arms length; a kind of academic exercise.
A second approach would be to put the story into its historical context and see if that helps us to understand anything. Maybe St Matthew is writing his Gospel for a specific situation. He may be taking certain things Jesus did say and so emphasising them (today we would say “so spinning it”) that it speaks to that situation.
We know he was writing for a church that had been mainly Jewish and was by his day increasingly Gentile. Is Matthew perhaps wanting to show his Gentile audience that they are as welcome in the Church as the Jews who were invited first, and that the Gentiles should not think of themselves as inferior? He certainly seems to be continuing the theme of his preceding chapters. He has been having go and the chief priests and pharisees, who should have been leading the way into God’s Kingdom, but were so bogged down in convention and tradition and whatever else, that they could not see the wood for the trees and were doing the precise opposite of leading the Jewish people to God (Jesus). Instead their efforts for a right piety were putting obstacles in people way.
So in this story, the religious leaders (those invited first) were not leading the way to the wedding banquet but instead were preoccupied with power, status and possessions. Then, here it may be the one without a robe is a specific person, someone who was in the church of Matthew’s readers and who has a betrayed them somehow. A person who appeared to be one of them, but wasn’t really. Someone who was masquerading as a wedding guest, pretending to be a member of the church to betray them to the authorities. Or maybe simply someone they all know who made a commitment to follow Christ but was living a lifestyle that betrayed that commitment and brining disrepute onto the church.
The parable is about betrayers who will be dealt with by God.
But if that is supposed to make me, sitting in pew feel better, it doesn’t. It still does not fit with the picture of a gracious, forgiving God. It is still too full of the anti-semitic tendencies that crop up more than once in Matthew’s Gospel. And it is still about “them”, other people, leaving us to feel superior and to judge them.
So, we can try the “start from the other end” approach – putting the story in the context of the rest of scripture. We begin with the Gospel, and what we know about God from the rest of Jesus teaching and see if we can understand how the parable fits.
The most basic would seem be “love God, love your neighbour (as ourself)” and even to love our enemy. We also see of Jesus welcoming the outsider, searching out the lost etc. So then, might this be a story not about condemnation, but an encouragement not to judge even those who do us wrong? Is the parable teaching us that God is the sole judge? We are not to discriminate against those outside the church or in it because judgement is utterly, and entirely, and only God’s business.
What we need to focus on is being faithful servants and delivering God’s invitation to everyone to come to the banquet – good and bad – whether they respond to God’s call or not.
Well. That feels a bit better. It gives us a way to be part of the story. But once again it has not really changed most of those awkward questions. We are still left with retributive vengeance.
It has simply moved from us (people) to God. It is still there, dividing one from another, allowing 1 group to feel superior to another. And we see the effects of that being played out in our world, not least in the land of Jesus birth, life and death as we speak.
Didn’t Jesus come precisely to excise retributive vengeance and give us another way to live?
They are not supposed to be explained. Parables are meant to impact the hearer’s life, like a snowball strike. They can never be explained adequately by allegory, or Biblical study, or contextualisation.. Parables are created to speak at another level, beyond their words that leaves them open to a myriad of interpretations in different times and places. Which is not to say we can make them mean anything we want them to! Parables are made to work on us (not for us). What we need to be looking for is startling astonishment, arresting surprise, shock, the “Hang on a minute…”.
This is the lectio divina approach. For ancient texts to impact our lives now, we need the something else as well – the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Reason is not then suspended – we can bring to bear all the previous approaches as we “do” lectio divina – but reason is expanded allowing us to step into the “cloud of unknowing” that is God’s self-revelatory love. It is in this cloud Jesus is transfigured, revealed, and we are changed.
So, what stood out as I read the parable this time, was the man without the wedding robe. I could imagine this man in the middle of the party, everyone around him having a wonderful time, the music, laughter and smiles and banter. And he does not fit. That image transformed the story.
All my compassion goes out to this man in his predicament, but also: Who is the single most isolated person that comes to mind? It is Jesus on the cross – the crowd mocking, betrayed by his friends, deserted by his disciples, and alienated from his humanity by the agony of torture. He experiences the utter abandonment by God “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
The man not wearing a wedding robe became identified with Jesus. Here was Jesus, choosing to take off the glory he should be wearing and choosing to go to the party in the habit of our sinful humanity. His clothes do not fit. Here is the Son of God, wearing our humanity in his divinity; it is the immortal one, taking on the mantle of death and finitude; it is the eternal one, more than stepping into, but becoming part of time and space. It is all wrong. This is not how God in heaven is supposed to be.
Jesus is stepping up to take our place, even the place of those in the church who have fallen away and failed in their discipleship and adopted behaviours that fall short. That isolated man shows us Jesus taking our sin to the place it deserves. And, the part that is not in the parable, but all Matthew’s hearers know, is: Jesus did not stay dead.
There is that cryptic phrase at the end, “For many are called but few are chosen”. Surely Jesus was the supreme chosen one, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” says the voice – presumably God’s voice – at Jesus’ baptism, repeated at the transfiguration.
Is it stretching the parable too far to say all this? Maybe. And yet the precedent is there. Moses stands between his God and the people, pleading their case, taking their side, acknowledging that their idolatry should by rights incur God’s wrath; but…nevertheless…and yet…could you…One more chance…? And what are the fruit of seeing the tale this way?
The Kingdom is established for the people of God.
Rules define who is in and out (covenant, circumcision, commandments, Law)
Jesus comes and flings open the door.
Now the Gentiles invited into the party, to the feast of the Son.
But, have we now set up the same barriers as before?
Are we making rules to govern who is acceptable in Church and who is not?
Do we have expectations that define a people (“Christinas are supposed to do this, not that”), and put up obstacles that keep people out, (“Christians don’t look like that.” Subtext, “So you can’t possibly be a Christian!”)
Instead of inviting all, could we be preventing the very people of God from coming to find and encounter God?
Even those who fail in the Church, who aren’t “proper” and good, and pious, even they are reached by the Jesus who put on the wrong clothes.
It is not our goodness that fits us for heaven. It is precisely our broken-ness, and our sinfulness, and our failure, all the things that are supposed to exclude us from the presence of God, these are the things that propel us into heaven. We are all here, only and precisely because our imperfection – not our perfection – is our invitation.
The invitation to:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
to Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
to not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
It is an invitation to the place where
the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Welcome to the party.
Image: Cross in gold, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54323 [retrieved October 18, 2023]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/melissamaples/2877741603/