By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning we’ve heard a couple of very familiar stories – the Israelites’ extremely bad decision-making in violating the terms of their brand new covenant with God by building a golden calf to worship, and Jesus’ familiar parable of the wedding banquet, in which many of the invitees opt to decline their invitations, other unlikely guests get included, and one poor fellow gets sent to the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit.
I think these two stories have a lot of elements that should disturb us. The primary obstacle in these stories, for me, is their emphasis on a vengeful God.
Yes, in the Golden Calf story, God does back down from the impulse toward vengeance after a timely intervention by Moses (who, I might add, has certainly come a long way from being the guy who didn’t even want to get involved with the mission when God first spoke to him from the burning bush.)
And yes, the vengeful king of the parable is just that, a character in a story.
Let’s take a look at what Matthew, at least, may have been up to in shaping the wedding banquet story the way he has, emphasizing the king’s anger and his violent retaliation against the people who refused his invitation and then killed his slaves.
I think we’d always like to imagine that the gospel writers are always reporting just what Jesus said. Over and over again, though, we can see that separate gospel writers tell the same story in very different ways.
Perhaps the story, as they heard it, had already been modified in repeated retelling over the course of decades from when Jesus actually spoke.
And certainly, when we look at each gospel as a whole, we can see that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each have distinctive themes that are important to them, and that where common stories are reshaped in their gospel accounts, the stories are reshaped to reflect their particular perspectives.
Luke tells the wedding banquet story, too. In his version, plenty of the guests invited to the banquet decline their invitations because they have more pressing business, and the host – not a king in Luke’s version – also gets angry. He doesn’t send anyone to kill the ones who declined, however, let alone burn their cities.
Luke’s host simply turns around and sends the servants to invite those who have been rejected by society, “so that my house may be filled”.
Matthew has turned what was probably a simpler story reflecting God’s radical hospitality into an allegory that conveys what Matthew sees as the history of God’s salvation.
Matthew, many scholars conclude, is telling a story of God’s outreach to Israel through prophets whose messages Israel rejected.
Matthew suggests that because the top-tier guests opted not to accept their invitation, God sent his son Jesus to reach out to the disenfranchised, and that it is this motley crew of sinners and tax collectors, during Jesus’ ministry, and gentiles, in the time of the apostolic church, who get to enjoy God’s salvation.
Matthew is concerned about the Final Judgement that he anticipates is coming, and is, frankly, using fear tactics to try to sway his fellow Jews into coming over to what he believes is “the right side” before it is too late.
So what about the poor guy who was not wearing a wedding robe?
Here’s what we know. It would have been common for folks in Palestinian society to have two outfits – their everyday wear and what we called, in my prep school days, their “special occasion dress”. Everybody knew how to dress for a banquet. Some commentators speculate that because the tradition was so strong and universally accepted, hospitable banquet hosts would have wedding robes available for loan, for guests to slip on over their everyday clothing.
Why didn’t this fellow comply? We don’t know. Maybe he forgot. Maybe it was his disposition to reject social norms. Regardless of his reasons, while he chose to attend the banquet, he also chose not to fully participate. As is unfortunately so often the case for those who don’t comply with expectations, he suffered the consequences.
So what do we do with this story, those of us living in the complexities of the 21st century, contending with the terrors, and I do mean terrors, of global pandemic, environmental destruction, and deep social division?
We focus on our own invitation to God’s banquet.
We focus on
These riches are the wedding banquet to which each of us has been issued an invitation.
God’s invitation to us is to look for her and meet her and know her presence in every moment of every day, and to partner with God in building up his Realm, on earth as it is in heaven.
We’re all invited to the table. We have the option of how fully we choose to accept the invitation.
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