The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 11, 2020
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.
Last week we heard the parable of the vineyard, which I discussed as emblematic of Matthew’s pointed criticism of the chief priests and the elders, the leaders of the people. Matthew made it clear that as had happened over and over again in the history of Israel, these leaders failed to heed the words of the prophets. Worse than that, they were complicit in the rejection and death of Jesus, God’s son who had been sent on the assumption that these men would honour and listen to him.
For some reason, our lectionary leaves out two sentences (to which I referred in my sermon in an off hand way) that connect last week’s parable with this week’s, and offer Matthew’s further commentary on not just the recalcitrance, but the sheer bone-headedness of the chief priests and elders. Matthew says, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard [Jesus’] parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.” Did it take them all this time to come to this conclusion? Did they think Jesus was just spinning these tales to no purpose? Well, they got there in the end and were, by this time, so incensed that they considered arresting Jesus right there, on the spot. Matthew tells us, however, that they did not, for “they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.”
We see again that it is fear that holds back the leaders of the people. This was the reason they would not answer Jesus’ question about whether they held John the Baptist to be a prophet. Fear keeps them from listening to the prophets and doing the will of God. Fear keeps them from trusting their instincts and making a choice that will run afoul of either the Roman authorities or the multitudes. Matthew clearly has contempt for these men, who have been called by God to the work of the temple, but who refuse to listen to the prophets like John the Baptist and who can’t see Jesus for who he is.
This is the context for today’s very hard story about the wedding feast and the seemingly capricious critique of the man who showed up improperly dressed for the party. It is fascinating that our lectionary, the version printed as the text of our Gospel book and disseminated in the electronic resources, wants us to assume Jesus is talking to “the people” generally. That’s what it says in your leaflet: “Jesus...spoke to [the people].” It is, however, clear from the Greek that when Matthew writes (and the Revised Standard Version translates), “And again Jesus spoke to them in parables...,” that the “them” is referring to the last group of people Jesus was addressing, the chief priests and Pharisees. It makes a big difference in our interpretation if we understand that the ones Jesus addresses (and those bearing the brunt of Jesus’ and Matthew’s critique) are not simply the people, the Jews, the Judeans, but rather the corrupt, hypocritical, and weak leaders who have been relentlessly criticised.
Bearing this in mind, we can now look critically at the parable and come to grips with its meaning. Jesus says,
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.
The situation immediately puts us in mind of the parable of the vineyard. Servants were sent out in the king’s name, but they were ignored, ridiculed, and then, finally, beaten and killed. In this instance, it was not to receive the fruits of the harvest, but to issue an invitation to participate in the work of the kingdom, which is presented allegorically in the form of the marriage feast.
It was commonplace to imagine the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of God (or the gods) as a feast, a banquet, a sumptuous dinner and expression of table fellowship and hospitality. We heard it in this morning’s reading from Isaiah. In the ancient world, celebratory and ritual meals were a universal locus of divine activity, a place where the sacred met the profane. An invitation would be an honour. As history has shown us, however, there are those who turn God down, those who can’t or won’t either see or accept the gift they are being offered. With Matthew’s improbable, yet effective story of universal refusal, aggression, and general mayhem, we are shown how people can even be hostile to the invitation, lashing out with both physical violence and ridicule.
This refusal is met with swift reprisal. “The king,” we are told, “was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Many commentators agree that this reference to a burnt city, which does not appear in Luke’s version, would have resonated with Matthew’s community and those who first received the gospel. They would have recognised in it the Roman army’s sack of Jerusalem in AD 70, and they would have found it quite a reasonable idea that God would use the army of a foreign power as an instrument of divine wrath. They would have seen in Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple how God’s purpose was served as it had been in ages past by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and the Persians.(1)
The king, however, did not simply lay waste to the city and leave it there. He still sought guests for his son’s wedding. He did not give up on the idea that there would be those who would accept the invitation.
Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
We see illustrated here the “many are called” nature of the Kingdom that will be taught as one of the lessons of this story. Matthew makes it clear that the servants went to a great deal of effort to find a broad range of guests, telling us that they travelled to the “thoroughfares,” which we can understand to be the crossroads beyond the city.(2) They were told to invite “as many as you find,” including both the “bad and good.” The situation is immediately reminiscent of the parables of the fishing net and the sower, the net cast widely and the seeds flung scatter-shot. Anyone might be caught up, no piece of the earth missed.
This might have been a fitting ent to the parable and, perhaps, an earlier version of the story did end there.(3) It is certainly a message consistent with Jesus’ preaching and Matthew’s own agenda critiquing the leaders of the community. God invites his people, the leaders, the great and the good, to the banquet, and the invitation is refused. God then issues an even broader invitation and includes people at the crossroads, the tax collectors, sinners, and Gentiles.
Yet, Matthew’s story does not end here. There is a surprise twist that leaves us, and, perhaps Matthew’s audience, not a little uncomfortable:
But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who 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.”
Commentators are at a loss to explain exactly how the person who had been invited right off the street was supposed to have been properly attired for the event. There is no logical, or historical reason. There is no cleaver idea, no Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for the interpreter as there is for the “eye of the needle” being, perhaps, a well-known and large city gate in the saying about the rich man’s chances of getting into heaven. There is no easy explanation to suggest how this person could possibly have been wearing (or had on his person) the right clothes when grabbed off the street. Indeed, the text itself suggests, with the king’s sly use of the word “friend” in his address to the guest, that the whole thing is a set up.(4) It has to stand on its own, and we have to sit uneasily with it.
Matthew seems not only to be telling us that the invitation into the life of the Kingdom of God is something that people will refuse, but that even with a generous invitation, an invitation that includes those on the margins, that just showing up to the banquet when asked is sometimes not good enough. As the Jesuit commentator Daniel Harrington puts it, Matthew is telling us that “many are invited to the banquet of the kingdom, but only a few pass the scrutiny of the judgement,” a familiar notion to Matthew’s audience from texts like the books of Ezra and Baruch.(5)
In its historical context, the parable shows that Matthew felt the leaders of Israel should have accept Jesus’ invitation, but they did not, so he invited others, the tax collectors, sinners, harlots, people at the crossroads, those on the margins, even Gentiles. Matthew’s message is that the leaders of Israel mistreated the prophets and then Jesus, and were punished by God through the agency of the Roman army. It is ultimately these chief priests and Pharisees who were responsible for the fall of Jerusalem.(6) This is Matthew’s way of explaining why Jesus was received by some in Israel and not everyone. While the parable “explains the fall of Jerusalem and the inclusion of marginal people in God’s kingdom,” Matthew does not indict the Jewish people as a whole, but rather just the chief priests and Pharisees.(7)
For us today, we can still take away several valuable lessons from the story. God wants us to be included in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is like a banquet, a great feast, in which we all participate actively. This invitation is issued widely, at the crossroads, in the streets, and is not simply for the great and the good. There will be those who reject, even make fun of this expression of God’s desire for connection with us. Nevertheless, God will keep sending out the invitation, the way the sower casts the seeds with abandon or the way the fisher folk’s net is cast into the sea and all the fish, the edible and the inedible, are drawn up. Those of us who accept, who turn up, must be prepared. Unlike the unfortunate person who wasn’t wearing the correct wedding garment, we, who know the whole story, can be ready, so that when we arrive at the banquet, we may engage fully. Being invited and showing up, it turns out, are not enough. Once we arrive we have to do our part, to show ourselves committed to the endeavour and not simply sit back and enjoy the feast.
The Kingdom of Heaven, that banquet is here and now. It is unfolding in our midst. We don’t know how or when it will come to its fulfilment, but we do know we have been included and loved, invited and that we can attend. We know to put upon ourselves the proper garments of love and justice, the “armour of light” of the Advent prayer we shall hear in a few weeks. We know that we must actively participate in the feast, do our part, listening to the prophets and showing our love for God by loving our neighbour. We have all our fellow guests to support us as we dig in, full in the knowledge of what Jesus has done for us already. For, as we read in Isaiah, from out of the destruction and all the mess we see around us:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 10 October 2020
(1) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 308.
(2) Harrington 2007, 306.
(3) Harrington 2007. 307.
(4) Harrington 2007, 306.
(5) Harrington 2007, 306.
(6) Harrington, 2007, 308.
(7) Harrington, 2007, 308.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume