Sunday October 12 2008
Scots Church, Adelaide First published at a church (re)Wired
In a literary study of Matthew Chapter 22, across at the university, we would start with the context. We'd note the author called "Matthew" was writing around 80 to 85AD-- about 50 years after Jesus' death.
We'd remember Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans just 10 years before.
We would also learn Matthew wrote his gospel not as a recent eyewitness, but as a member of a Christian church which was thoroughly estranged from the Jewish religion, and the synagogues. Christians had once been a peculiar group within Judaism; but now they had been expelled altogether. Most of them were now actually Gentiles.
Matthew's community may still have had a fair proportion of Jewish people, as there is a lot of Jewish content in the gospel. But it is content which constantly attacks the Jewish religious authorities.
Our lecturer might suggest the gospel explains that painful expulsion from Judaism. It's an explanation and justification about why God seemed to have abandoned the Jews in favour of the new Christians. Matthew's people would have taken comfort from his words, and they may well have used them against their Jewish antagonists and persecutors.
I am absolutely not saying that the Jewish people were abandoned by God, but it's how things seemed at the time from a Christian viewpoint.
That's the background of the gospel, our lecturer would tell us. Now let's pick up the context of today's reading in chapter 22. To do that, we need to go back to Chapter 21.
At Chapter 21, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for what we have begun to understand will be the final showdown. He went to the Temple, and caused pandemonium with his attack on the merchants and the money lenders.
From a literary perspective, that attack in the temple immediately kicks the whole story into high gear. You would expect Jesus to have been imprisoned on the spot! The fact that he was not arrested, says our lecturer, is a literary device to tell the discerning readers of the gospel that Jesus was already the one in control. Matthew then makes this clear. He says the authorities "wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet."
So the authorities tried to outmanoeuvre him and belittle him in arguments in the Temple. They demanded to know what authority he had to disrupt the temple. And in each argument, Jesus won. He not only won, but he humiliated them. And he is shown by Matthew, not as someone defending himself, but as the one on the attack. By the end of chapter 22, it says no one dared ask him anymore questions.
Today, says our lecturer, we are looking at the story of the Wedding Feast. What kind of literature is this story? Is it a parable, or an allegory? In an allegory, each bit of the story has a direct link to something in real life. So the King in this story, if it is an allegory, is God. The king's son is Jesus. The people invited to the wedding feast are the Jewish leaders. The people brought in off the streets are the ordinary people, including many Gentiles, who become the Christians. They are the ones who everyone thought would miss out on God's favour.
Jesus begins his story by saying... "the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast..." And no doubt our lecturer would remind us about how the end of time, and the fulfilment of all good things was imagined as a great feast with God.
So... to the wedding: In the Palestine of Jesus' day, a wedding invitation would specify the day of the wedding, but not the time. When the feast was ready, messengers would be sent to alert the already invited people that the feast was about to begin.
Enormous value was placed on right behaviour towards others in Jesus, society. We barely understand this in our society, where impolite behaviour is often celebrated. But where families today disown a member because of their behaviour, we have a sense of the power that shaming can have. We get a sense of it too, in the fuss that's created if someone refuses an invitation from the Queen to Buckingham Palace. "Shameful!" we say.
How much more shameful then, in the time of Jesus' Israel, where right behaviour was everything... how shameful to accept the wedding invitation, and then say you were too busy to come! It was about the worst you could do. It shamed the King, causing a huge loss of face, when the city did this! So he retaliated and destroyed the city.
Matthew's readers would see this foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem which was still recent history! It was also, our lecturer will say, the third of Jesus' utter condemnations of the Jewish religious leadership in chapters 21 and 22.
Whilst we are troubled by God being compared to a despotic King, Matthew's readers would take great comfort in the image of the king rejecting the religious leaders, and inviting them, the people in the streets, into the feast instead. And as uncomfortable as we might be, this image of God is still quite startling for its time. The people of the streets were the ones regarded unsuitable by polite society- outcasts, and unclean. Yet God chooses them! The Christians are able to say to the synagogues, "See, we are the ones invited to the feast. You refused to come."
There's just one problem in looking at today's reading in the way we have. We... are not just uni students doing a literary study; we're Christians, too. We claim to be among the people to whom this story is written. We claim this is not merely an ancient document; it is a word which speaks to us of God. When this is read in worship we say "In this is the Word of the Lord," or as we say here at Scots ; "In sacred words of old, we have heard the Spirit speak anew."
We expect it to speak to us.
That speaking to us might be in one remarkable part of the story...
Fifty years after Jesus death,
in the middle of a fight for survival,
striving to encourage and build up his community,
perhaps we would not expect Matthew to inject a severe cautionary word into this story.
But he did.
You see, at feast like this one, the king would give everyone a wedding garment to wear, just as we say we are given our salvation. All were made equal, and worthy to be in the presence of the King, by the gift of the wedding robe. But one man, in a shameful display of contempt towards the King, refused to put on the garment! As a result, he was thrown out.
He was not merely thrown out; he was cast into outer darkness. There is no coming back into the presence of the King from that place.
In the allegory, the wedding garment symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus. By not wearing it, the man was saying Jesus' death and resurrection was irrelevant to being part of the kingdom of heaven.
Now... in the popular mythology of our society, heaven is something that happens when we die. But throughout Matthew, Jesus speaks about the kingdom of heaven as a present reality. He does not just talk about what it will be like in the great feast at the end of time. He drags the kingdom back into our present reality. In other words the Kingdom of Heaven is now! We are graced as a congregation... to be experiencing glimpses of the kingdom now. We are also meant to be... a taste of heaven on earth. (Except that if we are not wearing a wedding garment, we will be thrust out into outer darkness.)
So for we Christians, chapter 22 is not merely a self congratulatory story of Jesus' triumph over the authorities. Neither is it just a comforting reminder that we are the inheritors of God's blessing. It is a chilling warning about missing out on the feast, now... and in the future.
Matthew asks us a question:
If you feel you have an arid, intellectual belief, he says...
if you find no reality in your Christian life,
if it would make no difference if you came to church or not,
or no difference if God disappeared...
If it's like that for you... are you wearing the wedding garment?
Are you living for justice, compassion, and love... as Jesus did?
Paul said in today's reading from Philippians 4, "beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."
If Philippians is not something we do and live out, if we don't seek to live a Jesus life, we will not taste heaven on earth.
In our age we are uncomfortable with earlier theologies of eternal damnation. They don't fit with the notion of a God of love. So let's just stick with today, for the Kingdom of Heaven is today....
Is our faith arid?
Does it do nothing for us?
Is there no feast in our life?
One question to ponder, is whether we are wearing the wedding garment? How much are we actually living out the faith?
The man who had not put on his garment was thrown out. But by telling us the story, Matthew is telling us something else. He is saying, put the gown on! Live the Jesus life! There is still time. Amen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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