Over the past few weeks we've been bouncing back and forth between Paul's letter to the Philippians and Jesus' parables in Matthew 21 and 22.
The heart of Paul's letter, you may recall, lifts up Jesus as the model of self-emptying, self-sacrificing servanthood. “Here is the one you are following and whom God has exalted,” Paul says … “keep being like him.”
If Paul's letters offer warm, loving affirmation to the Christians in Philippi, Jesus' parables, which are addressed primarily to the religious authorities of his time and his faith, are anything but. In three consecutive parables, Jesus puts a sharp stick in the eyes of the chief priests and Pharisees. “You have had your chance,” Jesus says, “to welcome the new thing God is doing … and now someone else is going to get a chance … a whole LOT of someones.
Today's parable is the final one in this series of three. Like the other two parables, it's an allegory that isn't too hard to figure out. A king, meaning God, is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. The wedding banquet is God's heavenly reign and the son is Jesus. Invitations had already been delivered and the slaves are sent to escort the honored guests to the celebration. Israel and its religious leaders are the honored guests who are expected to help celebrate the culmination of God's dream for creation in Jesus: God's love incarnate … God’s love in the flesh. But one after another, the guests make excuses and back out. In a final instance, the escorting slaves are mistreated and killed. In a fit of rage, the King orders the ungrateful guests killed and their city destroyed. Because it is Matthew, the gospel writer, who is adapting Jesus' parable—and perhaps expanding it from its original telling, this part of the allegory refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple—which was the center and heart of Israel and its faith.
And it is, in fact, the destruction of the Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem that drives a huge wedge between Judaism and Christianity … the ancient, venerable faith and the younger upstart faith which had co-existed with reasonable peace for 40 years, now are set adrift from each other and the antagonism between the two now fully separate faiths becomes deadly. Increasingly, there was no middle ground between the two, and if you had a foot in each camp, you had to make a choice ... there was no room for “Mr. In-between.” Families and communities were divided in this deepening conflict. And the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities in Matthew’s gospel is a reflection of that tension.
A large part of Matthew's overall message in his gospel is to convince his Jewish listeners that Jesus really is the fulfillment of the words of the prophets and stands squarely in the shoes of Israel's great deliverer, Moses. Another word that Matthew is seeking to communicate is that Israel's leaders and authorities have come to the end of the game. God is moving on … all that God needs to say and reveal has been said and revealed in Jesus … and it's a universal message of hope and welcome … and that's just not a message that the old guard of Israel are willing to embrace … or even CAN embrace.
My vision, God seems to be saying, is an infinitely expandable vision … I mean to embrace all people, all creatures, all creation … I have shared this vision many times through many messengers, and, most fully of all, in this one Jesus who is of my own being.
This is a vibrant new wine in a rigidly inflexible old wineskin. Every time we read parables that pit the new wine of Jesus against the old wineskins of his foes we should ask ourselves where we have become rigid and inflexible ... where we struggle to adapt to the new things that God continues to do around us and seek to do through us.
We know that the brittle wineskins of many Protestant denominations have struggled to stretch to the limits of God’s own circle of welcome when it comes to welcoming and finally affirming people of all sexual orientations. When my parents were children, the church had the same struggles around people of different races and women in church leadership. When an institution as resistant to change as the U.S. military beats much of the Christian church to the punch with its repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, you know the church risks the same judgment as the religion of Jesus’ upbringing. I don’t think God has given up on us ... but I’m sure that our reluctance to change through the years has made her a little grumpy.
What seems to be at stake in this parable and much of Matthew’s gospel is, to use an old cliché I don’t think I’ve ever used before, that God’s chosen people have become God’s frozen people. They are frozen in a time and a mode where strict observance of the ancient minutiae of the law takes precedence over simple mercy and compassion and kindness. I don’t know that the Chief Priests and Pharisees, as individual human beings, were cruel people, but they were a part of a faith that had lost its breath ... that is, the living spirit of God’s own heart. Much of the Law of Ancient Israel was intended to define Israel over against their neighbors ... neighboring nations and faiths. By setting them apart, God could enter a covenant relationship with God’s own people and could shape them into a people of God’s own heart, God’s own spirit of Justice and Love. But you can see, in the dreams of the prophets, inklings that God’s heart could never be forever bound to only one people, only one nation, only one faith.
Jesus’ parables are littered with characters who represent Israel’s refusal to share its table and its inheritance with the impure and the unworthy. The elder son in the parable of the prodigal son is a well-known example of this refusal. Sinners and foreigners and other unworthy newcomers are simply not welcome at the table of the faith of Jesus’ upbringing.
And so, the expanding heart of God, unfortunately depicted rather violently in today’s parable, tears up the old guest list and throws open the heavenly wedding banquet to ALL ... all people of every possible kind ... the parable even goes so far as to note that “the good and the bad” alike are to be found in God’s wedding banquet.
I would guess that a part of the reluctance of the “first invited” to come to the banquet was their suspicion that in God’s generosity, they would not be the only ones there. It’s a little like the old joke about the Catholics who’ve just gotten to heaven who are told to duck down while passing the wall where the Baptists are because the Baptists think they’re the only ones there. As I’ve heard Doug Holmes say many times, “we’re all going to be very surprised when we get to heaven and find out who’s there.”
When we were in England and Wales this past summer, one of the recurring themes among native Brits was the “problem of immigration”. Nearly every conversation we had ended up with a grumble over the challenges England is experiencing with its immigrant populations. When we first arrived in London, we stayed way out in Wembley because we couldn’t find anything we could afford closer in. When we would share where we’d stayed with British folk, they would always look shocked and ask “Why?” Wembley, like many parts of greater London, is like a mini—or not so mini—United Nations. It’s a melting pot of the many immigrants who’ve found their way to that land of opportunity. Sadly, the towns we drove through as we left London, after a few days in Wembley, were torn apart by racial rioting only a few weeks after we’d been there.
You can hear in the words and voices of established populations anywhere a yearning for “the good old days” ... simpler times when, in the immortal words of Archie Bunker, “girls were girls and men were men.” And minorities knew their place. And women could only dream about voting. And slave-owners were honest, god-fearing, upstanding citizens who made the best presidents.
We could note with irony that this is “Columbus Day weekend” ... it was Columbus’ “discovery” of this land that soon would the natives of this land yearning for the good old days.
But you can’t go back. People can’t be faulted, I suppose, for their selective memories of “the good old days”, but we not only know that they weren’t “good” for everybody, but we also know that once a circle of inclusion is expanded, it can rarely go back to its original shape ... nor should it.
Wherever we find immigrant populations that are causing the natives to grumble, we might ask ourselves what conditions have caused the immigrants to seek new opportunities in new places. The long, painful shadow of colonialism is one of the lingering realities that have stunted the people and the economies of the old colonies. Old injustices and cruelties always pay a long, slow, lingering dividend and it’s too easy and not fair to be blind or indifferent to those old, and not entirely healed wounds and the lives that are still affected by them.
In the past, our government has helped overthrow democratically elected leaders whose politics we didn’t like and in their place we propped up leaders who brutalized the poor and destroyed their ability to be free and self-sufficient. One way or another, this story has been repeated all over the planet since the time of Christopher Columbus and ever since ... ever since, the hens have been coming home to roost in the colonizing nations.
So when a teacher struggles with his students who neither speak English nor whose family seems to “get” our passion for competitive education, it would be fair, and perhaps wise, for the teacher to “step back” just a bit and try for a moment to grasp the larger picture of why any civilization in this day and age will, by necessity, be a melting pot of cultures and languages and faiths. Why the poor will seek a better way of life among wealthier neighbors.
Grasping the larger picture will not make the challenges of immigration go away, but perhaps it will make us all a bit more patient with the challenges and a bit more determined to heal the wounds of the past and help create a world of more nearly equal opportunity.
In Jesus’ parable, there is a way in which those who finally accept the invitation and show up at the wedding banquet are those that grasp the larger picture of God’s ever-widening inclusion and generosity. The description of the guests as including both “good and bad” may be intended a bit ironically ... that those are their old designations placed upon them by others who judged them that way. Whether once thought of as good or bad, the guests in attendance are those whose lives reflect God’s “open banquet” policy. And they are those whose lives reflect the generous and merciful and kindly spirit of the one who invited them.
And we’ve long puzzled over the poor soul who shows up only to discover that he didn’t get the memo about the proper wedding attire. He is simply one of the old invitees who thought he could crash the heavenly wedding banquet without changing out of his old tattered robe of prejudices and hostilities.
Paul, who wrote this morning’s letter to the Philippians, was once a Pharisee of the highest order as likely was the old invitee who gets bounced from the banquet. But that was the old self that Paul left behind to follow and live into the likeness of the suffering servant, Jesus.
Paul understood well that the old skin of the old ways needed to be shed and the new skin or the new clothing of Christ needed to be put on. It was this new wedding-worthy robe that the speechless guest who had crashed the banquet had refused to put on. And by his refusal, he self-selected a place far from the colorful joy and warmth of God’s great feast for all people. And yet ... and yet I’d like to think that the story might go on to tell how God goes out into that darkness full of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and blesses and heals the unrepentant one and finally welcomes him and all like him into the great heavenly feast for all.
Here, says Paul, the former Pharisee, here is the new garment, the new cloak, that attendees of God’s great banquet for all will wear. He writes these words to the Christians in the Colossian church:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Put on that outfit, that outfit of heavenly love, and wear it into the classroom ... and wear up to and over the Mexican border ... and wear it into the teeming suburbs of any European city ... and, finally, into the divine banquet whose music and dancing and feasting are a foretaste of heaven ... on earth ... according to the great, expanding heart of God whose name is LOVE.
Wear that garment of love, and the peace of Christ WILL rule in your hearts ... and you will be thankful. And all will be thankful.