Thanksgiving?

A Sermon on Matthew 22.1-14

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’m not sure if you arrived here tonight expecting a Thanksgiving service, with scripture readings emphasizing the bounty of the harvest, God’s goodness, and a general spirit of thankfulness; if you did, the two readings we’ve just heard read aloud might have given you pause. We listened to the story from Exodus, of how at the very time Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the covenant law from God, the Israelites fashioned a golden calf and gave it credit for freeing them from slavery in Egypt. Talk about a story that embodies the opposite of thankfulness… and this act of making a golden idol causes God’s wrath to “burn hot against them.” The text even suggests that the only reason they aren’t obliterated is that Moses pleads for God to, “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…” Happy thanksgiving.

And this parable from the gospel according to Matthew? At the very least, we might have read the version that is related by Luke (14:16-24), which is considerably understated compared to what we just heard. In Luke, “‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many,” in Matthew’s version it is a king, and the event is “a wedding banquet for his son.” In Luke, the servants head out with invitations to the feast, but are met with all sorts of pretty lame excuses as to why the invited guests can’t attend. In Matthew, those who receive invitations “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.” That is so over the top as to be almost cartoonish, but Jesus is just getting started. With the broadest brush possible, he adds the next scene: “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Happy Thanksgiving.

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At this point, the versions in Luke and Matthew become quite similar. There is an empty banquet hall needing to be filled, so the host instructs his slaves to go out and find new guests. “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” though in a verse unique to Matthew, Jesus comments that “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Well, there finally is something for which we might all be thankful. It would seem that admission to the kingdom of heaven is based on one thing, and one thing only; a willingness to accept the invitation. It isn’t about good behavior or about living the upright religious life, but rather about a willingness to come in, sit down, and share the feast. You see, in spite of those vivid and even violent images in the version from Matthew’s gospel, it is a parable of grace after all… or is it?

In Matthew there is this odd second part to the parable, in which the king comes into his feast and notices that one character is not wearing a wedding robe.

“Friend,” the king asks, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Well, I find myself answering on the poor guy’s behalf: “I didn’t even know I was coming to a wedding until one of your slaves handed me an invitation out there on the street.” But Jesus says that this particular guest “was speechless,” which leads the king to order the attendants to “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Oh? And then the concluding statement to the whole works—“For many are called, but few are chosen”—which seems to cut directly against the grain of that picture of the banquet being filled by anyone and everyone willing to accept the invitation.

Are we dealing here with a parable of grace or a picture of judgment? And how is it even remotely fair that this poor schmuck gets tossed into the outer darkness, simply because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes?

Biblical interpreters have often bent over backwards to try to reconcile parts one and two of this story. I once read the suggestion that it was a common practice in those times for wealthy hosts to issue wedding garments at the banquet door, and the problem here is that this guy didn’t put his on. Thing is, I can’t seem to find that interpretation taken in any of the standard commentaries.  Some biblical critics have suggested that the two parts of the parable didn’t originally belong together, and that it was Matthew who connected them. That, however, is a bit of a blind alley, because that just leaves us cherry-picking the bits we like and ignoring what we don’t. Besides, Jesus had a habit of playing hardball, particularly when he was engaging the religious elite of his day. He didn’t shy away from saying things that pressed every button and raised every eyebrow.

But maybe the issue isn’t so much about the guy’s clothes as it is about his silence. I’m with Robert Farrar Capon on this one:

“If he had said anything, anything at all—if he had, even for the worst and most stupid of reasons, put himself in relationship with the king—he would have been alright… But because the man said nothing—because he would not bring himself to relate to the king in any way—all the reassurances the king might have given him remain unheard.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)

He needs to speak in order to be in relationship with the king, but he won’t. He won’t trust the fact that he has been invited, and that this king might just dig out an extra robe for him to wear. He just sits in mute silence, out of relationship with the king. And so yes, with those great broad story-telling strokes, Jesus has him tossed out.

As Jesus draws his parable to its close with that saying “For many are called, but few are chosen,” I see him looking straight into the eyes the chief priests and Pharisees. This invitation is open… but they won’t trust it, and they certainly won’t place themselves in any real relationship with Jesus. They’d much rather trust the familiar path than think about a banquet in which they’ll sit down with the blind and the lame, the losers and the lost. Alright then, but you need to know that this is the only banquet in town.

Which brings us back to the story of the golden calf. The Israelites couldn’t muster the courage or the imagination to trust a God who could not be fashioned out of gold and carried around as a visible symbol for their religion (Exodus 4:20). They didn’t know what it might mean to trust a God upon whose name they weren’t to invoke for their own power (Exodus 20:7). So they convinced Aaron—who apparently had a bit of a weakness as a people-pleaser—to engineer the construction of their kind of god; solid, golden, tangible. Not a pretty sight in the eyes of the Lord.

Which brings us back to us. In our own religious constructions, we too can manufacture our own golden calves and try to set the terms of our own attendance at the great wedding feast. Which is why it is good to face head on the parables of Jesus, including those that are rather tough and broadly drawn. In fact, we should give thanks for these stories that rattle and unsettle us, because they are part of what keep us in relationship with the king who desires us to be at his feast.

2 Responses to Thanksgiving?

  1. Bryan says:

    Not that I am in disagreement with anything you said here, but I wonder if, and this is definitely the NT Wright in me coming out, timeless truths are being drawn out while sacrificing the immediate context and overall mission of Christ.

    From at least the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew 21 on to Christ’s lament of Jerusalem in Matthew 23 there is story again and again of Israel’s place in history. To me this solves the question of judgment in the parable. Israel as a nation was invited in, they rejected the invite, so God opens up the party of everyone, but ever though everyone is now invited in it doesn’t mean everyone will be at the party in the end. Some people are not willing to do what it takes to be there, even if it is only embracing Christ.

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks for this Bryan… and your being influenced by N.T. Wright is a good thing indeed.
      I do think, however, that we need to be somewhat nuanced in how we read Israel’s so-called rejection, and that we need to keep the gospels in steady dialogue with Paul. Paul tends to be pretty clear that he understands Israel to have a future in Christ, and that we Gentiles are the ones who have been grafted into that future. Of course he’s not sure how that will all play out…
      You do, however, point to one of the common readings of the second section of this parable, namely that it is important that those who come into the banquet actually respond in a real way. In this sense, I think the parable might be read as a warning against what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.”

      As always, thanks for your comments.
      Jamie

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