Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2017 (Proper 23)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Matthew’s Parable of the Wedding Feast is difficult on two counts. First that it suggests that God is in the Destruction-of-Cites-by-Fire business as an act of holy retribution. You don’t have to be a Biblical scholar to run across many stories in scripture where the storyteller states plainly that God’s will is behind all kinds of terrible violence. Those stories are there and we have to deal with them, and how we deal with them says a lot about how we read the Bible. Second, the parable seems to penalize a poor person who was invited to the banquet because they were not wearing the right clothes… didn’t have a St James T-shirt! This doesn’t seem to square with ideas like the Sermon on the Mount, which is in the same Gospel by the way. But this is a parable after all and the whole purpose of parables is to raise questions; to make us struggle with the message. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that the Bible is "what God wants us to hear". What messages we take away from that hearing is another matter. What does this parable say about the Kingdom of God and what on Earth does this mean to us?
Let’s deal with the destruction of cities first. A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son and the invitations have been sent. It does not take a lot of imagination to see the King as God and the son as Jesus. The bride of course is not mentioned… I wonder who that could be? The King follows up with those who were invited: "I have prepared my dinner, my fish are fried and the cole slaw is made… the French fries are piping hot and there’s a Deacon standing by to take your order for fried, baked or combo plates." But, they blow him off and keep tending to their business. "The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city." What city are we taking about here? I think it is Jerusalem.
In years 66-73 CE, 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the people of Judea rose up in revolt against the Romans in The First Jewish War. The tensions in that region during Jesus’ lifetime were palpable, and it is crystal clear that he was warning his fellow people that if they continued on the path that they were on… if they did business as usual just like the parable… destruction by Rome was inevitable. Jesus himself was crucified on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilot. The revolt began in the year 66 with anti-tax protests (which sounds remarkably modern to my ear) and the Roman Governor responded by plundering the Jewish Temple, claiming the money for the Emperor. They were off to the races after that. A Roman legion, sent in from Syria to quell the rebellion, was ambushed by the Jews and completely destroyed. Rome responded as Rome always did, with 5 legions, and soon laid siege to Jerusalem in the year 70. It was brutal. Josephus, the Jewish Historian, recounted how the Romans ringed the city of Jerusalem with crucifixions, as many as 500 a day, of anyone who attempted to escape the city; men, women, and children. Adding to the misery, the various Jewish factions within the city quarreled and fought violently with one another. After 7 months, Rome took the city and sacked it, destroying the temple and sending the survivors into slavery, into outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, in order to get to the gold and silver that had melted into the stone cracks during the fires, they tore apart the great stone blocks of the temple, just as Jesus predicted.
We don’t know exactly when the Gospel of Matthew was written, but it’s parables like this one that argue for a date somewhat after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, such that the Gospel writer knew this outcome. So… was God behind the destruction of Jerusalem? Did God destroy this city with fire in retribution for those Jewish leaders who did not heed Jesus’ invitation to come to the wedding banquet? Did he put his Spirit into the Romans such that they were the instruments of God’s wrath and fury? That’s a great question, and I know people who would say "yes!". But I think there is the hint of a different answer in the parable: they made light of the invitation "and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them." In other words, they went about their self-absorbed business, ignoring Jesus’s message, his deeds of healing, and even his resurrection. My sense is that Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is saying: "You keep it up… keep up your practices of the world… your daily business of profit and loss… your tax revolts… your oppression of the poor…your violence against your neighbor… keep it up and don’t give me the opportunity to change your hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. You will reap future destruction that you yourselves are sewing."
I see all kinds of resonances in our modern time. What is the future of a society that will not listen to Jesus? A society in which there is mass murder in schools and public places almost every day… a horror so normalized that we only hear of the worst ones, not the 273 that have happened so far in this year alone. A world of people, so self-absorbed by their daily business that they are changing the Earth’s climate and displacing 64 million neighbors from their homes because of crop failures, racism, and state violence? A world that depends on nuclear weapons capable of killing millions in an instant for its defense? A nation, so wrapped-around-the-axle about what qualifies as patriotism or not, that it is deaf to the daily lived experience of oppression that African-Americans are trying to tell us about. I can only see outer darkness ahead; weeping and gnashing of teeth. We will do it to ourselves, we sure won’t need God’s help to get there.
But thanks be to God that we are invited to the wedding feast… everyone is, good and bad alike, and believe me, good and bad run right the heart of every one of us, me included. The invitation is there and no one is left out. All are invited just as they are, but Matthew is suggesting that they are expected not to stay the way they are. If we accept this invitation of grace, there is work to do; God’s rescue mission for creation. We have to put on Jesus like a wedding robe. The Apostle Paul puts it exactly this way in Galatians; "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." And in Romans he says "put on the Lord Jesus Christ". God gives us these clothes to wear because it turns out that WE are the bride… we are given the wedding robe to put on. The Holy Spirit that dwells within us, fills us with gifts that we will need to DO God’s mission. All we have to do is say "yes" to those gifts and get to work. You see, this is the whole strategy of God for the rescue of all creation. It is in the Biblical narrative from beginning to end; to work THROUGH people who are themselves a part of the problem. God invites us to this work for his own sake and not for our own goodness, we just have to say yes. He transforms us with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide us and equip us with the tools that we will need, all we have to do is say yes. And then, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to take the meal orders, provide a spirit of hospitality to all who come, serve up the fish and do the dishes, create a place of welcome, and fellowship, and healing. If we do these things, and do them with the gifts of generosity, empathy, and love, God might be able to contain, deflect, or turn-aside the terribly destructive path that this world has put itself on. You see, God isn’t delivering that destruction; we are. God is offering a way to save us from destruction, from the outer darkness… from weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Be like the ones who listened to Jesus and not like the one’s who didn’t. Come to the wedding banquet… put on Jesus as a wedding robe… wear him like a cloak… work on God’s mission of healing, reconciliation, and restoration with the tools that the Holy Spirit gives us. Help God to save creation from ourselves. Amen.