Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 12, 2014
+May the gentle Christ speak through us, the creative God expand our lives unexpectedly, and the Holy Spirit write the Gospel in our hearts every day. Amen.
A preacher tells the story of a recurring dream in which he is standing in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. He is well into the thick of the sermon, gesticulating with his arms and making an important point when, suddenly, he turns to look at the choir and they all have this horrified look on their faces. He looks down and realizes that he is wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. Somehow he forgot not only to put on his vestments but to put on any clothes. The Gospel story we just heard can cause that reaction in a preacher: a sense of being unclothed and inadequate.
This parable is the third in a series that Matthew attributes to Jesus during the final days of his ministry. There is no way to sugar coat it. It is offensive and ugly. It is a violent story and paints a very mean picture of a king who takes great revenge on those who refuse his invitation to a wedding and, having rounded up the rift raft from the streets, then punishes the person who is not wearing a wedding garment.
It would be easy to gloss over the serious nature of this story and find a benign interpretation of Matthew’s allegory. We can fudge around the story as I’ve probably done myself by talking about God’s hospitality and inclusiveness but that is not what is on Matthew’s mind and I think it’s a big mistake to go down that road. This is a passage that, without understanding the cultural context and historical background, can be and, in fact has been, dangerous.
In the first century, a wedding feast lasted several days so it is somewhat understandable why some of the guests could not take that much time from their livelihood to attend. Killing the messengers who came to remind them, however, is way over the top. The story is a metaphor expressing disappointment with the religious authorities—especially the Pharisees and other religious leaders for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
Last week’s parable indicted the Jewish religious leaders for failing to heed the prophets and for killing the heir and son of the vineyard owner. This week, the retaliatory violence of the story is more explicit with Matthew’s rendition a variation of Luke’s version. Matthew shapes this parable for his own agenda. Biblical scholars believe that Luke’s story, which does not include all the violence and berating the guest who comes without a garment, is closer to what Jesus actually preached. Matthew changed the scenario from the “great dinner” in Luke’s version to the wedding feast given by a king in order to make the refusal of guests to attend more disgraceful.
Matthew has written some lovely texts in his accounts of the ministry of Jesus—among the Christmas narrative, the sermon on the mount, and many healing stories. This is not one of them. It is dark, violent, and full of condemnation and it has been another source of anti-Jewish sentiment in the history of Christianity. Indeed, it could be construed as judgment against all non-Christians. In Matthew’s worldview, they have all rejected the wedding invitation.
This is a classic example of the need to exercise caution when reading the Scripture and of employing our wonderful Anglican model of the interpretation of the Bible which includes the use of our brain, our reasoning, our broad knowledge of the time and culture in which Matthew wrote. I think most of us want to think about our faith as well as believe it in our hearts. This is a passage about which we need to think and, as Judge Judy says, “If a thing doesn’t’ make sense, it isn’t true.”
Matthew seems to be obsessed with judgment and punishment and he is unique among the writers of the four Gospels in this proclivity to sort people out into heaps of the good versus the wicked and for his appetite for describing the torture the bad folk will endure. He loves this phrase “the weeping and gnashing of teeth.” You’ve no doubt heard the story of the fire and brimstone minister who was preaching about that when a little old lady in the back of church raised her hand and said, “But sir, I have no teeth.” Whereupon the preacher declared, “Fear not. Teeth will be provided.”
Let’s remember that Matthew is not just a disciple of Jesus but a human being. He has a passion for the faith he found and which made him abandon his shady work as a tax collector. He is so headstrong about his belief that he is willing to say that God not only rejects his kin who won’t accept Jesus as their Messiah and also sent the Romans to destroy the Temple. The destruction of the city is a reference to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD when the temple was demolished.
It was a dark, dark time in history with the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, people lived under that oppression and were looking for a liberator, preferably one with a huge army. Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. We need to read this parable in context because its interpretation has continued to darken the history of the Christian Church.
But I don’t think we can stop at that. This Gospel does challenge us to think about something quite relevant. We may be turned off by Matthew’s response to the way others failed to believe as he and the members of his community did, but what about our reaction? How do we respond to, think about, judge—or not—people who don’t believe what we believe? People we care about and who don’t go to church? People who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, unbelieving or at least very doubtful?
What do we do when it comes to our own family and friends who do not respond to God’s invitation? Do we imagine and hope they God will invite them again and again and love them just as much if they refuse? In short, what do we do when people we love don’t believe the same or as much as we do? Or don’t believe at all?
I’m sure Matthew figured this all out at some point. This must have been a bad hair day for him. He could not have encountered Jesus, sat at table with him, seen his compassion for people, and still gotten it this wrong. He had to come to grips with the truth that God is a God of expansive love and radical inclusiveness. He had to accept that God’s words of love and forgiveness are far more powerful than any words of judgment or condemnation.
And, indeed, if we believe that about God we will respect the beliefs, doubts, struggles, questions, hesitations, and mistrusts that others have about Jesus and Christianity. We will offer our prayer, care, and support for their journey in the name of the One who died a death of humiliation rather than condemn those who would not accept him—his last words on the cross a plea for forgiveness for those who put him there. That may be the most powerful witness we have to offer. That is the face of God.