The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 9, 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always precede and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This last few weeks we have been confronted with a series of difficult Gospels. We have heard a number of parables of the Kingdom that have proclaimed harsh judgement—the parable of the householder who have equal wages to all who worked, the parable of the two sons, one who said he would work but did not and the other who said he would not but later came, and the parable of the householder who tried to collect his rents. Each of these stories is a critique of the proud and haughty who assume they are due certain rewards, and shows how new people are to be included in God's work of salvation. At the same time, it is also easy to turn each parable into a simplistic allegory with which Christians can easily beat-up the Jews.
Today's parable fits this pattern. We are told that “the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son.” The King's servants were sent with invitations to the party, but those on the original guest list did not think enough of the event to bother coming. Worse than that, we learn that those originally invited, rather than attending the feast, “went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized [the king's] servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” Needless to say the king did not like this one bit and he sent his soldiers to “destroy those murderers and burn their city.” Not to be deterred from feasting with his son and his bride, the king told his servants to go out into the streets and invite “as many as you find.” They collected a party that included both “the bad and the good.” And so, we are told, “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
So far, this story fits the pattern of the others. The king calls to him those of his acquaintance, those who would have expected to have been invited, but they all seem to have turned inward and focussed upon themselves and their narrow needs and self interests. They have gone bad, if you will, so bad, in fact, that they kill the king's messengers. The king breaks off with these people with whom he had been in relationship, and summons new people from a wider group and welcomes them into his fold. This is where we could be easily tempted to allegorise the parable and match the king with God, the son with Jesus, the messengers and servants with the prophets, the original guests with the Jews, and the newly invited with the gentiles. This, however, is not how Jesus' parables really work. They are more subtle than that and Matthew's perspective on Judaism and the law does not allow for this simplistic approach.
The story, with its sense of verisimilitude, its ripped-from-the-headlines character, is to be taken as a whole. Like each of our stories over the past month we are confronted with a leader who finds some of his people arrogant, not merely expecting their due, but feeling entitled to their rewards regardless of their conduct. In the story of the wedding guests, those originally invited did not think that coming to the king's feast mattered, they were too important to take the time to come, and believed they had better things to do. In short, they lacked humility.
Humility, I believe, is perhaps one of the greatest human virtues and lack of humility is at the root of our foundational sin. Indeed, in another imaginative story with a remarkable sense of verisimilitude, Adam and Eve in the Garden, believing they would be like Gods if only they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lost their place in paradise because they sought be more than human. Instead of cultivating their own humanity in its fulness—which is our life's work of accepting our imperfections and yet still seeking to live in loving relationship with God and neighbour—they sought to be like God, they wanted to put themselves in God's place.
This fundamental lack of humility, a failure to accept our limitations, a failure to ultimately accept our humanity seems to me to be what Jesus points out over and over again in these parables. This is not a condition limited to first-century religious Jews living in the Roman province of Judea. This is a condition that was widespread throughout the Roman Empire, throughout the known world then and now. Many in power—or who think they have real power—believe they are free to act as they please and collect their due, and all without consideration for God or neighbour. Jesus tells us over and over again that such people will, in the fullness of time, find themselves out of sync with God's plan for salvation. They will find that God calls to him those who are humble and meek, of low degree, outcasts, tax collectors, harlots, and sinners, anyone who seeks to live in right relationship with God, in right relationship with love itself.
This is why the king invites everyone else to the wedding feast, flinging open the doors to the hall to the good and the bad, the people called from the street. And what happens then? I bet you thought I had forgotten about the last part of this parable. But no, you can always trust me to remember the part about being appropriately apparelled. So yes, the king has opened the doors to all, and discovers that one guest
had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Now, this passage vexes contemporary hearers. It seems to go against everything good liberal Episcopalians want to believe about God. Our God, having called to the whole world, even and especially those from the margins, must be a come-as-you-are kind of God. God can not possible care how we are dressed or what we look like. How, therefore, can the king be making a fuss about the wedding garment? Rest assured, God does love us just as we are. Nevertheless, this story—which is a colourful tale which, taken as a whole and not word-for-word, is meant to draw us in and make us think about important thing—is telling us something about how, given our call to humility, we are to approach God and our relationship with him.
When God calls us, he wants us to be ready. If we are not ready, not equipped for the task, then we can not do the work he calls us to do. Perhaps, a better parable for today is to think about being invited to a pool party, but you came not with a bathing suit, but in a winter parka and snow pants. You would not be able to swim and take part in what you were invited to experience and, in fact, enjoy. Perhaps this is the meaning of the last, and perhaps most chilling words of the story, “many are called, but few are chosen.” In many respects we are left to do the choosing and this is the double-edged sword of the freedom that God gives us. Our free will can be exercised in ways oriented towards or away from the kingdom. God is calling us all, all the time. Sometimes we are ready to answer, sometimes we are not. God's call remains resolute as does his love for us. When God calls to us, perhaps as unexpectedly as when the king's servants invited those others to the wedding, we should be prepared to go properly apparelled and fully prepared—and I do not necessarily mean literally wearing the right clothes (although I have always thought it nice to dress up for an occasion, make an effort, and show that what you are off to do is important).
Indeed, all this talk of judgement and preparation begins to point us to the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent. The time is quickening and we are reminded to outfit ourselves as God's servants and God's partners, as Jesus' brothers and sisters and as his friends. Rather than focussing upon the judgement of the haughty, let us remember that we are called to the practices of humility and watchfulness. In these days we seek ways to serve God and our neighbour in our daily lives so that when we are called to the wedding feast—even unexpectedly and at the last minute—we will be ready to go, wearing our best wedding garment and outfitted with humility and love.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
8 October 2011
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume