... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 17 Year A, Message October 09th, 2011

Dire Warnings – Keep Faith or Else

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6,19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Over the last eight weeks the lectionary readings have been directing our contemplations and researches to understand the relationship between God and humanity as well as extrapolating that relationship into the realm of interpersonal relationships. Each week has developed a different aspect of that relationship encouraging us to see that the right way of life is to embrace the two great commandments of love God and love neighbour. Along the way we have been exposed to the harsh reality concerning those human frailties of self-centeredness and inability to trust. Notwithstanding the occasional allusions to the human condition, however, little has been said about the consequences of our continual and perpetual tendency toward stubbornness and unfaithfulness – that is until today’s reading.

Today the velvet gloves are removed and we glimpse the iron fist of God’s judgement. Exasperation is the tenor of God’s attitude with the children of Israel and of Jesus’ patience with the Temple priests and elders. From the Exodus passage to Matthew’s account of the king’s wedding invitation we feel the tension ire and displeasure mounting towards those who have betrayed the covenant and turned their backs on God’s mercy and faithfulness.

Perhaps the most pivotal point in the life of Israel occurs at the base of Mount Horeb where having led the people out of Egyptian bondage, having provided for the basic requirements during the wilderness road and having set out the requirements of worship and right living, God witnesses these very people turn away to worship idols. The golden calf scene so well portrayed in the original “Ten Commandments” movie highlights the monumental blindness of the people, their lack of trust and their unfaithfulness. God’s response is an intense anger which, had not Moses interceded, would have resulted in the annihilation of the nation. Yet Moses prevailed and God’s mercy was kindled once again, giving the people another chance.

The psalm calls the people during the time of David and the kings to remember the Exodus story and in the particular the folly of their ancestors in forgetting God’s saving deeds. We see that Israel’s forgetfulness leads to their apostasy, to their turning from God to more temporal concerns and to their self-centered desire to be like other nations. This results in the braking of most of the Commandments and negating the covenant to the point that the nation deserves to be destroyed.

Paul, fully cognizant of the implications of unfaithfulness to the covenant writes to the church at Philippi encouraging them in the way of faithfulness and harmony. “To stand firm in the Lord, recalling Christ’s faithfulness to God’s plan for salvation” is the way of life and true life. Harmony peace and concern for others as a direct response of Christ’s salvific deeds for all people is the true outward sign of God’s inward covenant alive in the believer.

If the Philippians passage offers a positive example of faithfulness, Matthew’s version of the wedding banquet parable offers a negative example and refers us back to the wrathful displeasure of the Almighty which we met in the Exodus and Psalm 106 readings. The parable of the wedding guests is found in both Matthew and Luke but the contexts differ and the Matthean account is by far the more complicated and assaulting to our sense of righteousness. Yet it is this version which calls us to identify with both the original invited guests and the guest without the wedding garment.

First of all we must remember that this parable is one of the Kingdom of Heaven parables and is here addressed to the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Like the two parables that have come before it, the parable of the two sons and the parable of the absentee landowner, this parable points out the unfaithfulness of those who are among the “in crowd” or those who belong to the covenant and allude to the judgement which will befall them in consequence of that unfaithfulness. In the parable of the two sons the listeners are made to identify with the son who, despite saying yes, doesn’t go into the vineyard and in consequence thereof loses his place in line of inheritance. In the parable of the absentee landowner the tenants or “in crowd” who betray their liege will face death. However in this the third kingdom parable the consequences are much more severe being no less than eternal separation darkness and wailing.

Today’s parable likens the kingdom of heaven to a kings wedding banquet where the original wedding guests on being invited make light of the invitation pretend to have more important things to do and even kill the messenger who bore the invitations. The result was an enraged king who retaliates by destroying those who murdered the messengers. Yet the wedding goes on and others are invited – others who accept and flock to partake of the feast. If the parable had ended at this point Jesus’ listeners, his disciples and the future Christian followers might have breathed easier. But here comes the rub – one of those late invitees is found without a wedding robe and in consequence of that he is bound and thrown into eternal darkness. Here our sense of fairness must be reeling! Isn’t this rather harsh punishment for one who only lacks the proper attire?

The initial part of the parable was well understood to be aimed at the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They had been called to be leaders, to be the voice of God to the people, to lead the nation in the way of righteousness and to make Israel an example for the nations of the world as to right relationship with God. They had failed through their own unfaithfulness and were worthy only to be put to death. Their betrayal of God of the covenant and of the ordinary people would result in their own demise. The prophetic component of this was to be realized some 40 years later with the destruction of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Roman armies under Titus.

Again this parable relates back to the Exodus passage where despite Moses’ intervention on behalf of the people, the leaders of the betrayal and those adamant in idol worship were put to death. In fact in verse 28 of Exodus 32 we are told that three thousand of the people fell at the hands of Moses and the sons of Levi.

Lest the disciples and followers of Jesus become too smug seeing the judgement only to be on the Jewish leaders and those rejecting Christ and the Christian messengers, the concluding part of the parable strikes a blow at the very heart of human ego centricity. The friend without a wedding robe is the representative of all who are brought into the covenant but who respond inappropriately. The wedding robe is symbolic of the right response to God’s mercy grace and invitation to come. However it is also symbolic of the garment that God sees as opposed to what we see. In the movie “Legally Blonde” Reese Witherspoon plays a blonde woman, Elle Woods, who is ridiculed by her classmates and at one point is invited to a party – a “costume party”. When she arrives in a bunny outfit she sees everyone else in regular clothes. As the scene unfolds we see that those in the regular attire are those who are inwardly clothed in poor dress while Elle Woods is inwardly clothed in royalty.

The parable then is a warning not only to those who openly betray the relationship God has extended to humanity but to those who tend to judge others, who think they know what God wants and to those who see salvation as a tally sheet of merits and demerits. Ultimately the parable is a note of warning that in the final analysis judgement is of God and we know not if we are among the few or the many. We must therefore live in the right relationship as God has laid out for us in Scripture, ever mindful of the warnings about human nature and our treatment of one another.

May God grant unto each one of us a measure of the Holy Spirit to guide us always in right paths and right relationships.