Proper 23, Year A,
Isaiah 25: 1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
What stunning, joyous images we share this week!
In our first lesson, Isaiah evokes a vision of God as gentle and nurturing, “Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,” not to mention nourishing, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”
The psalmist serenades us in our green pastures with soothing images of abundant tables in an oasis of peace and love.
From the depths of prison, Paul transports us to an emotional mountaintop with his jubilant exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Even in his captivity, Paul knows that “God is near.”
From there we move to the good news of the Gospel lesson. “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Whoops. Ouch. This is not quite as good newsish as one might hope for.
The gospel reading starts out happy enough. The king is having a wedding banquet for his son. He sends out invitations, the first century equivalent of save the date cards. In spite of these careful preparations, the invitees shun the party when the day comes.
A patient, gracious fellow, the king sends a new contingent of slaves out to reassure them – this is the party to end all parties. Oxen and fat calves – this is no BYOB picnic. The invitees are not impressed – They conspicuously demonstrate that their own everyday activities take priority over the king’s celebration for his son. They eventually mistreat and finally kill the king’s messengers.
At this point our gracious host loses all patience completely in an interlude of enraged violence, pausing the evening’s festivities to lay waste to the unworthy invitees’ cities and kill them. Having scratched that retribution itch, the king still needs guests. He sends still more slaves into the streets to gather everyone, the good the bad and the ugly, together for the banquet.
This story is, of course, a parable. More than that, the story in Matthew is an allegory. All the elements of the story represent something specific. (The parallel story told in the gospel of Luke is not an allegory, and has a very different feel) In today’s parable, the king represents God the Father, celebrating his Son. The royal invited guests are the nation of Israel, now represented by the religious elite of the day. The first invitation represents the prophets of old; heard but not taken seriously. The second invitation represents the prophetic Christian missionaries. Spiritual destruction and devastating distance from God is the fate awaiting Israel’s elite as they ignore and mistreat God’s messengers and spurn God’s gifts.
The parable moves on to more comfortable ground. (Comfortable for us, anyway, not so very comfortable for the chief priests and elders, feeling ever more threatened by Jesus). It moves on to allegorize Jesus’s all inclusive approach. Gather them all. Celebrate with us. Come to the party. Worthiness optional.
But here we hit a sticky wicket and comfort goes by the wayside. Perfectly oblivious passers by have been herded into this sumptuous banquet from off the street. They could hardly have been expected to plan ahead for the occasion. Yet, when caught without appropriate garb (inexplicably the only one so unprepared), our wedding guest “friend” is at a loss for words and is summarily bound and tossed into the outer darkness amidst weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know about you, but on first reading my sympathy is with our hapless friend.
At this point, I find I must consciously remember, again, that this is not a description of reality, but rather a parable; a way to make a point. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, “In early Christianity, the new identity of conversion was often pictured as donning a new set of clothes; the language of changing clothes was utilized to express the giving up of the old way of life and putting on the new Christian identity.” Allegorically, the man was expected to don the deeds of transformation in Christ. He did not, and paid the price of isolation from the king and the celebration. The Reverend Frank Logue expressed the contemporary implications this way, “But as the last line [of the gospel lesson], ‘Many are called, but few are chosen” hangs in the air, we also see that those who have been robed in Christ are to live into that new life of grace. Having been perfected in Christ does not give us license to continue unchanged.
“That’s all very well and good, King”, you might say. “Clothed in Christ. Spectacular. But look around you, King. The church is clothed in green. This is Ordinary time. The time between the feasts. The exultant red of Pentecost and rejuvenating whites of Easter and Christmas are far away. The contemplative hues of Lent are a distant memory and the even the expectant blues and purples of Advent still seem far away. We are in Ordinary time.”
“This is the time when real life happens,”, you remind the King. “The economy is shaky at best and who knows what’ll happen to the retirement fund. My joints ache. I fall over if I stand up too fast, and I pee if I laugh too hard. My kids need my help. My parents need my help. Snow is coming, and I don’t know if I can shovel another year. I give to the food shelf and the clothes closet, and still the hungry come. I got some medical tests done, and I don’t know what they’ll find. I don’t have time to transform myself, King, I’m surviving”, you say.
And yet…The invitation to the feast is issued in the ordinary streets of our flawed and chaotic lives. From the depths of a first century Roman prison Paul gives us the key. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
You don’t have to transform yourself. That is God’s job. Let God do it. Take on the mantle of Christ, the garment of our baptismal covenant. Come to the feast seeking both solace and strength, both pardon and renewal. Thus we are transformed and join in God’s work providing refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. We will wipe the tears from others’ faces, and find our own tears wiped away. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Amen.