Receiving It & Weaving It (Isaiah 25:6-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14)
In the last two weeks, we have listened to Jesus take on some very religious people who thought they had God’s ways all figured out. They came from families that had been “good” for a long time, and had a good deal of community prestige. Their local communities of faith trusted them to be leaders. It’s possible that if many of them were alive today, they’d be among the 1% who would benefit from the repeal of the estate tax. They were everything most congregations want lots of. Matthew tells three of Jesus’ parables in a particular way, not really because he wants to take aim at those religious leaders from Jesus’ day and those like them because the religious and political landscape had changed in the four or five decades since Jesus was around. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed some 20 years before Matthew’s time, the Sadducees, who depended on the Temple for their livelihood and well-being, went out of business. Matthew put these three parables together to teach his own congregation what it was that gave people the credibility to be those through whom the love of Jesus flowed into the world.
The first parable is the story of two sons who were asked to go work in their father’s vineyard. The first said he would, but didn’t, and the other said he wouldn’t but did. Jesus much preferred the doer to the one who only talked about it. Jesus compared the one who did the father’s work to the tax-collectors and prostitutes, who didn’t affirm much religious, but followed, first John, then Jesus on the path of what was right. I called the sermon on this “Saying It or Doing It.” Doing is better.
The second parable is the story of the slaves (again in a vineyard) who thought they could use words and even violence to take the ownership of the vineyard away from the owner of the vineyard. It worked out disastrously for them, and cost them their lives, and the vineyard was leased to new tenants who would actually do things and produce good fruit. One has to use the gifts one is given (in this case the work in the vineyard) or forfeit the right of producing at all. I called this sermon “Using It or Losing It.”
Today, we have the third parable in a set of three that makes a very similar point again, namely that God chooses to do the divine work through those who have been transformed inwardly and actually do what is right, not those who simply enjoy political and religious privilege, and who think of the life of faith as an exercise in correct doctrine and purity (especially the purity of others). This time the story isn’t in a vineyard, but in a city. Those who ought to have been thrilled to receive an invitation to wedding banquet for the king’s son because they’ve all the supposed qualifications, first of all, didn’t show up and so insulted the king tremendously. Further they actually killed the messengers who brought the invitation. So the King comes and destroys these ingrates and sends out new invitations to everyone, anyone, who will come, “both good and bad.” So, those who are really and truly hungry are the ones who will be invited to the meal, not those who hold the correct rank and station in life. Many, both good and bad the text says, are invited to the banquet. I have called this sermon “Receiving It and Weaving It.”
What is going on behind this story of a royal wedding feast is clarified by the Old Testament Lesson, which pictures God’s final presence with people as a sumptuous banquet where everyone will have enough and more than enough to eat. Such an image may have limited appeal in our world where most of us have never been very hungry, but in Jesus’ world where very few of his hearers had ever been anything else, it was very attractive. This is one of the later texts to come into the Book of Isaiah (probably as late as the 300’s BCE), but it was even later that such divine banquets became associated with the coming of God’s anointed Messiah, who would usher in the divine “kingship” on earth. When God is with people there is an abundance pictured as this great banquet eaten in company with the King and the Messiah who would join with God in conquering death and the pall death spreads over us all.
The first two parables that Jesus told were about working in the vineyard in the present, when there isn’t enough of anything. The third is told about what happens in the abundance of the coming of God and Messiah to be Immanu-el, God with us.
Frankly, the most important part of today’s Gospel Lesson is the part many of us would like to leave out, about the chap who didn’t wear a “wedding garment” and was thrown out into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’ve sometimes just left this paragraph out when I’ve preached on this passage. I mean, who wants to read this, especially if the parable is about being in the presence of God? Are some people really to be turfed out of the Lord’s presence because they forgot their spiritual white shirt and tie, or their “festive formal wear of faith”? Isn’t that a contradiction of what all three parables have said? Does the end of this story not undermine the point of all three? A garment that can be seen is presumably an external qualification – which is as far as possible from the open, active, and inclusive kind of invitations that we have held up for the past two weeks! What’s more, the proverb or saying with which this parable ends is also disturbing – at least to me – “Many are called, but few are chosen.” How did it happen that just this one poor fellow got caught underdressed? What’s the bit about the “wedding garment?”
First, let me say that Matthew intended this paragraph to be a conclusion and a summary for all three of the parables, not just the third. I think Matthew also thought there was something in this paragraph, as disturbing as it was, that his community of faith needed to consider. When texts are difficult, we need to read them again, with the best tools, and think about them. So that’s first. Let’s think.
Beginning that process, our text isn’t intended to be read as a literal account of something that either has happened or will. It is a parable, a story to hook us in and make us think. We can clearly see that both Jesus and Matthew intended it to be an imaginative story by the fact that the king has a meal all prepared, and lets it stand ready while he musters the army, goes off and besieges the city of these wretches who refused his invitation and killed his messengers, burns it to the ground, and dispatches them, all while the roast is on “warm” in the oven. Who really does that? No, it’s a story, so it won’t hurt us to say that the wedding garment is as symbolic as the dinner. But, even so, “What does the wedding garment stand for in the story?”
In each of these parables, the “right stuff” for being pipelines of God’s love and grace in the world is visible behaviour. It’s doing not talking about doing, it’s actually producing good fruit, it’s actually showing up at the banquet. All of these are public acts. So something visible is a consistent teaching in all the parables.
In the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, it would rarely happen that anyone of a high social status would invite someone lower to a banquet, because the purpose of banquets was not to have fun, but to entrench one’s power and influence with one’s peers (or above). People wouldn’t even respond to the invitation if the right people weren’t going to come (thus the two invitations of this parable was a normal course of action). In the rare cases when a higher class did invite someone lower, the higher class person would provide an appropriate garment to be worn. Here, because everyone decided not to come and actually insulted the king by killing the messengers (this also occasionally happened, if the insult was felt to be strong enough), the king’s slaves went through the country being as inclusive as possible. The text says “both good and bad,” which is an old figure of speech that meant means the two poles and everything in between. In short the invitation was to everyone. So everyone received a wedding garment as a gift, and everybody but one actually wore it. I would guess that there was a struggle in Matthew’s community about majoring on externals, traditions, and doctrines, rather than on actions. I don’t think he was saying that none of that was important at all, but he was saying that the characteristics of love, inclusion, mercy, justice, and grace need to be visible action in our lives as a greater priority. If we want, not only to begin in the vineyard, but end up at the Messianic Banquet, it’s important to carry through on living consistently by Jesus’ standards more than social or churchy status stuff.
And, that last little proverb, “Many are called, few are chosen,” wasn’t designed to scare us into thinking that very few will make it. In Hebrew thought the words “few” and “many” would not lead to the thought of how many is many, how few is few. They are intended to mean something like, “fewer will finish the race than start it because it’s easier to start running than it is to keep on for a long time.” Not everyone who starts this will finish it, says Matthew. We know this, I think.
The title of the sermon, again, is “receiving it and weaving it.” We all receive that wedding garment, and that’s true, but at the same time, something else is also true, we have to weave it.” We have to weave together threads like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Our Epistle Lesson from Philippians names some of the threads that we and God cooperate in weaving together in our lives. In the early part of that we didn’t read, some of these threads are standing firmly together and helping one another through disagreements. Caring for one another is crucial. At the very end of the passage, which we did read, Paul encouraged these folk to make things that are true (meaning, straight and real) honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy their focus. These are not exclusively Christian threads, they are good human ones. And it’s really OK for Christians to weave these in, too! Let these good positive things be the focus of your thinking, planning, and valuing, rather than framing what you think about, plan and value with negativity, carping, whining and faultfinding. Weave in being a positive force in our various communities that proposes constructive ways forward, not a negative force that proposes ways that tear people apart and divide them. And, O yes, one more thing: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul. This doesn’t mean walking around with a sickening grin, it means having the quiet joy that comes from knowing the God of wholeness and living gently alongside of God. Cooperate with God in weaving all those multi-coloured threads into your garment. And, since the Lord is near, don’t worry, but rather pray diligently and thankfully. Since God is near all is well and all will be well. Your garment will be beautiful and useful.
What happens, when we allow all this to be woven into the garment of life (and I am sure we don’t weave it alone), is that God’s own peace, God’s own wonderful sense of wholeness washes over us and keeps us at the table with our sisters and brothers, even when they and we are difficult to sit with, at the great marriage feast of the Messiah, dressed in a most wonderful garment, just as we ought to be.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.