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Proper 23, Year A

It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!

Philippians 4:4-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:1-14 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.

Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.

I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:

*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.

Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king  -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.

But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.

Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2005 in Eschatology, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philippians, Year A | Permalink

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Indeed it is not easy for Christians to decide if God in Christ would met out punishment for those who are evil. The king's (God) banquet is given for all those who are obedient and "wear the proper attire". Expulsion from the banquet is what we can glean from the parable. Being expelled from the banquet means you don't belong there and you are deprived of the hospitality of the king (God). Yet even with this penalty given by God for the evil doers, for many whose lives had been ruined by wars of aggression and/or of terrorism expelling perpetrators of violence is the least that can be imposed. Thank you for your seed thoughts.

Posted by: Francisco J. Hernando | Oct 6, 2005 2:17:48 AM

Great thoughts as always. I've been wrestling with this text for a few months (I'm a layperson who gives homilies a couple of time a year). The more I thought about this passage, the more I disagreed with the standard storytelling of this parable I heard growing up...I just can't imagine this king (who kills the guests who don't come, and destroys their city) as a loving God. The most thought-provoking thing I found is at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper23a.htm. It argues that Jesus is the only one who protested the King's tyrany by refusing to wear that robe. My paraphrase based on this:

'Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with scared, terrorized guests. But when the violent tyrant came in to see the guests, he noticed a single man there who stood up to the tyrant and refused to wear a wedding robe, and he said to him, “How did you get in here without a wedding robe?” But he opened not his mouth. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called to the way of the Cross, but few are chosen.’

I don't know what's "right"...but this sure made me think.

Thanks, Dylan, as always for helping me think about the texts.

Posted by: Paul Mallery | Oct 6, 2005 4:27:43 PM

All good thoughts here. One of the things that I find a fair amount of people struggling with how the King could toss out a person he invited.

What I'm picking up on this is that the person was invited by the king, but didn't change; much like the person invited to Christianity, but doesn't change, thinking that God's grace will cover it.

It's very similar to Bonhoeffer's discussion on cheap and costly grace. We are invited to the banquet, but we must change.

Posted by: Reverend Ref | Oct 7, 2005 12:19:39 AM

Rev Ref,

In my reading, I've come across a quote attributed to Barclay, to the effect that the door is opened to sinners but not for them to remain sinners. It's not an approach I'll take, but your comments about Bonhoeffer reminded me of it.

I'm more inclined to go with something along the lines of Robert Capon (in "Parables of Judgment"?), emphasizing the freedom we have either to come to the banquet or to condemn ourselves by our own refusal to accept the invitation to the banquet. My recollection is that Capon argues that the guest who shows up without the wedding garment must have refused to do so - a bit like coming to a party but refusing to party. And since the parable seems to build up to this one person, I'm inclined to make it a bit more personal. I'm thinking I'll highlight this final guest, present but not really participating in the life of grace given. Am I just a bit like that person? Are you?

Posted by: Jed | Oct 7, 2005 2:57:18 AM

This is indeed an interesting passage, but one in which the real message is always lost.
Father Prosper, my Greek teacher, used this text to demonstrate the difference between Eastern and Western thought.
In Western thought many is the much more than the majority, while few is many less than the majority.
In Eastern thought, which included Matthew, one less than 100% would be considered few.
According to Father Prosper, wedding garments were provided to all comers, so a lack of one was a direct insult to the host.

Posted by: rem | Oct 9, 2005 1:13:52 AM

Sorry to be ignorant and annoying, but could someone please give me some cultural background about the wedding garment thing? I have a suspicion that most of us miss the point of this because we lack the cultural context. I certainly do. Dylan and rem touched on it, but if you all could give a pointer to where I can get more background on this, I'd be grateful.

A bunch of years ago, a guy named Charlie and I did a pretty cool song about this story at church a few times. I have no idea what happened to the music. Pitty.

Posted by: larry p | Oct 12, 2005 1:35:04 PM

Dale Bruner in his wonderful two-volume commentary on Matthew (The Christbook, chapters 1 - 12, and The Churchbook, chapters 13 - 28) is always thorough and helpful. After summarizing Luther and Calvin, Bruner offers this: "True faith in God's imputed righteousness moves believers to want to be righteous--not as a basis for standing before God (only Christ can provide that, but as an evidence of wanting to please the Father who was gracious enough to invite. The gift of the Holy Spirit, given with faith, moves believers to want to be holy." (The Churchbook, page 778) I am drawn to the essential joy bound in the invitation and acceptance of the invitation. "Can you believe that we're here at the King's party!" There is an corresponding grimness found in the various forms of a proud rejection which lends to the harshness of the parable. I want the joy of accepting God's amazing offer today.

Posted by: Stuart S. | Oct 12, 2005 2:15:22 PM

LarryP,

I'm on the road and so don't have access to my library, but I'll try to toss off a few references now, and follow up with more later. The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels offers brief notes on the "evil eye" in first-century Mediterranean cultures, and it's a VERY helpful book in general with things related to the social and cultural background. And I don't have specific titles at hand, but I know that Bruce Malina has written extensively on this -- if there's a good bookstore or theology library near you that carries titles written by him, check out the index of the various titles to see which ones cover the "evil eye" most extensively. I believe that John Pilch has written about this as well, and his commentaries on the lectionary (Revised COmmon Lectionary, I think, rather than the Episcopal Church's lectionary, but there's a lot of overlap) are excellent (they're so good, in fact, that I wish I owned them! I've thumbed through them in bookstores enough, though, to know I'd like to buy them).

Knowing about things like the "evil eye," honor and shame, and first-century ideas about gender roles are a great enrichment for understanding the New Testament, IMO -- I think I'll have to pull together a "so you'd like to know more about the cultural background of the NT" bibliography soon!

Blessings,

Dylan

Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Oct 13, 2005 3:06:43 PM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Proper 23, Year A

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Proper 23, Year A

It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!

Philippians 4:4-13 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 22:1-14 - link to NRSV text

This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.

Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.

I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:

*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.

Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king  -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.

But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.

Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

October 5, 2005 in Eschatology, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Parables, Philippians, Year A | Permalink

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