The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23a)
12 October 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading is the third parable in a sequence of three in Matthew’s gospel. Father Blume commented last week on the disconcerting harshness of the second of these—that story about the man who planted a vineyard and let it out to some farmers and went on a journey—and how it could be misused as proof that God had finally rejected his once chosen people. That is not the way the story ends, even if Matthew’s telling of it (like John’s) can take a rather bitter tone with Jewish leadership. But in this stretch of Matthew’s gospel—let us make no mistake—Jesus is in fact delivering a scathing indictment of institutional Judaism. It begins with the dramatic and prophetic cleansing of the Temple, which leads immediately to the scene in which the chief priests and the elders of the people asked Jesus about his authority, and it ends in the harsh language of chapter 23 and the foretelling of the destruction of the holy city. And when the dust has settled, there are several conclusions to be drawn about the Judaism of Jesus’ day and the desperate state in which it found itself: they may be summed up, in fact, in a bizarre teaching miracle that serves as an interpretation of the cleansing of the Temple and as a preface to the three parables: Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree. The fig tree, viewed from a distance, was full of leaves, but when Jesus inspects it up close, it proves to be completely devoid of fruit; so, he cursed it. So, too, Judaism as expressed through the Temple industry, the casuistry of Pharisaic legalism, and the empty pomp of the priests who put their version of holiness on public display. The three harsh parables, each in its indirect, alluring way, retell the history of Israel’s ultimate failure to come to terms with the deeper meaning of Torah, and its unresponsiveness to God’s servants, the prophets. As Jesus saw it, as in the past, judgment would follow: the cleansing of the Temple (it was empty of God) foreshadowed the destruction of Jerusalem. This did not mean the end of grace for Israel—read Romans 9–11—but rather the beginning of salvation for the world.
The Hebrew Bible hinted at all of this; of a people specially chosen by God to be the keepers of his story; of the people’s rebellion; of God’s persistent love; of a rock that the builders rejected which came to be the chief cornerstone; of judgment; and finally of God’s triumphant salvation; but it was in Jesus, rejected and resurrected, that the pieces of the puzzle would come together.
Within this sweeping narrative arc, we can now explore our lesson for this day. Last week’s parable retold the story of the calling of Israel, its commissioning to serve God, and of its rebellion, even giving a glimpse of the shocking murder of God’s Son. Jesus’ recitation of the “Stone Testimonia,” a conflation of Ps 118 and Isaiah 28, sharpened the point of the parable, so that the chief priests and Pharisees could not help but see that Jesus was talking about them. Our parable today, however, looks at the same puzzling rebellion from a point distant in the future, by doing a fast forwarding to the end of the age, and the great Messianic banquet, called in the Apocalypse of John, “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” The reason this works is that this eschatological event of celebration in God’s triumphant kingdom was as fixed in the minds of Jews as was the Torah, the Temple and the Land—theirs was the right of inheritance, and one day they would sit at table with the Patriarchs and the Messiah once God had vanquished the enemy. But this is a parable of surprise, and the table is turned. The King wishes to hold a great marriage banquet for his son; there is a list of obvious guests, those whom the King intended to celebrate with him and his son (the chosen people, of course). But when his servants go out to invite them, they refuse to come; the King, persistent as ever, sends his servants a second time and they continue to refuse. God’s many visits to his people through the prophets are clearly in mind, as is the stubborn refusal of his people.
In our parable, past and future converge in a kaleidoscope of history and prophecy. So, when the King runs out of patience and in his wrath sends soldiers to sack their city, we have now an allusion to the troops of Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now the invitation goes out far and wide to those not on the original list, and a great collection both of sinners and of good people fills the banquet hall. When Luke used this story, in simpler and probably original form, this was the right place to stop, with the parable simply reflecting on persistent Jewish stubbornness, and its role in throwing the doors of the Kingdom open wide to all. But as Matthew tells it, there is one further twist in the tale. And it is in this twist that a bit of space—shadowy and a little uncomfortable perhaps—is created for us to step inside. As the scene in Matthew’s telling of this parable shifts to the End-of-the-Age celebration, the great kingdom banquet, the King himself enters and surveys the huge gathering of guests; immediately he spots one who does not fit, who sticks out, like the stain in an otherwise immaculately laundered, starched and pressed white dress shirt. What is the meaning of this surprise appearance of one who does not fit? The King, with no small amount of irony, asks, “Friend, how did you get into this banquet without the requisite wedding robe?” How, indeed? And I would add, given that all “the bad and the good” were invited inside, how is this oversight to be blamed on the man himself? But no time is given for such reflection. The silence of the man implies guilt, and his lack of the wedding robe indicates that he perhaps is one of those who would be resurrected unto judgment. What is the meaning of this surprise appearance of one who does not fit?
The sixteenth-century artist, Hans Holbein, the Younger, produced an amazing painting called, “The Ambassadors,” which hangs today in the National Gallery in London. This double full-length portrait shows two Frenchmen who visited London in 1533; one a flamboyantly dressed ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII; the other, a bishop dressed in clericals. The two men are leaning on a cupboard upon which objects representing the height of human achievement are displayed: science, mathematics, art, music, political and religious power. And while all of this makes for a visual narrative and commentary capable of multiple trajectories of interpretation, the most arresting feature of the painting is what, at first sight, when viewed straight on, appears as an inexplicable, amorphous stain running diagonally through the center bottom part of the painting—a meaningless, disruptive, brownish stain. It is only as one walks past the painting, casting a last oblique glance, that the stain assumes the shape and shadows of a human skull: the true meaning of the painting is only now revealed to be the nullification of the fantasy of high culture; the specter of the undeniable something, mortality, that resists all human efforts to erase it.
Back to our uncomfortable parable. The Matthean addition to the story is really a second reflection on the Kingdom banquet scene. Unlike the first ten verses of the parable that were addressed to Jewish leadership and ended with the doors of the kingdom being thrown wide open to all, this addition addresses Christians in Matthew’s church—and us as well. In the midst of the idyllic scene of celebration at the Messianic banquet, something is awry, out of place, out of uniform. Our ill-clad guest is in a way the “Holbein stain” in this painting. Viewed straight on, this man, who has no words to say in his defense, is an enigma. After all, the doors were thrown wide open to the bad and the good; surely this man belongs as much as any other. Why not throw him a wedding robe? And the King (who is either God or Christ) takes brutal action, particularly in contrast to the grace depicted in this parabolic view of salvation. And the concluding words are just as enigmatic: “many are called but few are chosen.” But as we walk past this parable-painting and cast that last oblique glance at this disruptive, denaturing figure, we see an image—and perhaps for each of us, it assumes a uniquely personal shape—or perhaps it is the face of Christ streaked with blood, beneath a crown of thorns, occupying that cruel and redemptive space for others—a stain in any case that interrupts easy notions of grace, blaring out a warning against complacency, reminding again and again that God’s grace and love—the great cost paid for our redemption—demands a response and continual responsiveness. (It is no accident that Saint Paul would depict conversion and faithful Christian living in terms of taking off an old garment and putting on Christ.) At first a retelling of the failure of God’s people to listen to his prophetic servants, including John the Baptist and Jesus, this uncomfortable parable holds in tension the astonishing grace of God and the necessity of human response, a warning too against domesticating God. The concluding bit of dissonance is no mere remnant of pre-modern or unsophisticated Christian superstition that we can jettison as we like; it is rather, through the surprise of disruption, the Holbein rejection of easy assumptions; it is the jolt to the system that reawakens and renews our response to God’s gift in Christ: to “present . . . ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God.”
© 2014 Philip H. Towner