Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 11 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

It would be hard to pick one parable as the most difficult of Matthew’s many difficult parables, but this one is certainly a strong contender; and it’s for that very reason that I used the regular readings, rather than the Thanksgiving readings, even though there is much to reflect on this strange weekend, when we remember that the earth, despite it all, is the source of all our lives, and that we depend on this earth, and on those, so often neglected and badly used, as they have been during all this pandemic, who work to produce the food we eat. To give thanks for this, in the midst of trouble and isolation.

But still, I stuck with Matthew, because we need to grapple with the difficult stories. To review the events—having decided to throw a wedding banquet, a king invites a variety of guests. These guests are unwilling to attend, and some of them express this unwillingness in strangely extreme terms by beating and killing the messengers. In response, the king destroys them all and burns their city, and then, in a surprising development, decides it’s still party times. Having sent his servants to drag people into his party from the streets, he is then, while circulating at this event which increasingly resembles a Trump rally, enraged for some reason to find that at least one of the guests doesn’t have appropriate clothing, descends upon this hapless victim, ties him up, and throws him into the outer darkness, where there is, of course, because this is a Matthew parable, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is a sequence of hideous events within a hideous world, in which the ordinary behaviour of nearly everyone is to attack and kill other people for no good reason; and if we were to accept the all too commonly employed allegorical reading, in which the king stands for God, we are left with a God who is not only violent, but irrationally and nonsensically violent.

It is important, first of all, to note that Luke’s gospel contains a parable with a premise very like this one, but entirely lacking in random slaughter or casting into outer darkness. It is a short and simple parable about invited guests who decline, for various trivial reasons, to attend a banquet, and societal castaways who come instead .The outcast and the marginalized will be the ones who understand and receive the great good news, which the privileged ignore or refuse. The story occurs in almost exactly the same form in the Gospel of Thomas, which, though it didn’t make it into the canon of scripture, has a lot of material overlapping with the canonical gospels. It is quite reasonable to assume that this is the story Jesus actually told, onto which Matthew, or a later editor, has grafted an extreme violence, and a condemnatory conclusion, which did not exist in the original.

However, we have Matthew’s story, in this form, passed down to us, and we are obliged to make of it what we can. First of all, we can look at the way it is introduced. This is one of the ones which is introduced with a phrase something like “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to”, or “some people compare the kingdom of heaven to”—a phrase which may invite us to see a hidden or forgotten contrast, an unspoken “whereas I say to you, the kingdom of heaven is.” Maybe this nasty story is not at all how we are meant to imagine the kingdom of heaven, but rather an illustration of how some people have portrayed it – and indeed continue to portray it. You do not have to look very far to find the lurking angry God, the violent punishing God, in far too many theologies; the kingdom of heaven certainly has been compared to the world of this vicious king. We see it in the reading from Exodus, too – the children of Israel, after their own great party around the golden calf, projecting their guilt onto a God whom they imagine to be deterred from their destruction only by the intervention of Moses.

This parable follows on after last week’s parable of the wicked tenants, and you may remember that it is not Jesus who predicts violent revenge on the part of the landowner in that story; he simply asks his hearers what they think the landowner will do. They’re the ones who answer that he will, obviously, kill those tenants and find someone else to exploit. They’re the ones who stay locked in the world of violence and vengeance, and who project the values of that world onto God. Maybe this parable, too, is an invitation to consider where we see God, how we imagine the kingdom.

And maybe the universe of this story is not the kingdom of heaven at all; maybe it is precisely the kingdom of earth. It would reflect, certainly, how the hearers of this gospel had experienced earthly kingdoms. The mention of the burning of the city reminds us that Matthew, and some of those in his community, might have lived through the great trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, would certainly have thought of that event when they heard this story; in fact, one commentator has referred to the eruptions of murder and destruction in this parable as the literary equivalent of post-traumatic flashbacks. The author and his audience are scarred, marked by the violence of kings, and the king in this story would evoke memories of the generals Vespasian and Titus, destroyers of the holy city, who were both to become emperors of Rome; and even more, memories of the client king Herod Agrippa II, who aided them in the seige of Jerusalem; and of the Herodian dynasty in general, that saga of bloody knives and betrayal.

Matthew tells a story full of violence because his world, like ours, is full of violence, because these things happen in the courts of kings and presidents, because the Herodians sold their people lock, stock and barrel into the hands of the golden calf, and destruction really was the final outcome, both for those who worshipped that idol and those who would not; destruction brought on not by a God of childish vengefulness, but by the operations of power, by empire doing what empire always does.

But maybe there is another story hidden beneath. If we are standing in the courts of the Herodian dynasty, we need to notice that one silent figure who does not participate, who will not wear the robes of empire, who does not speak when he is called up by power and ordered to explain himself, the one who accepts in his body the world’s violence. Perhaps it is here, though the author of the gospel probably did not intend it, that we meet the true kingdom, here that we meet the suffering Son of Man.

“Many are called, but few are chosen,” the story concludes. And here, too, we are pointed towards that one silent figure. Many have indeed been called into that brutal imperial party, and many, apparently, are happy to wear the required clothes. Only one has the courage, or the desperation, or whatever it may be, which enables him to stand apart, to refuse to put on the robe, to be a silent witness against power. Singularly choosing, chosen.

Chosen for suffering, yes. But this parable, like last week’s, ends partway through the story – it ends without the resurrection, and the resurrection must change everything. The stone which the builders rejected, the one who was cast out from the celebrations of the powerful, this one will become the source of new life, the sign of new possibility for all the world. Because God’s solidarity with the lost and the rejected overcomes the power of death, because those who cannot or will not wear the wedding robes of this world’s kings are finally chosen by love, so we may rejoice.

If we try, as we are able, to live into that gentleness, that purity, that justice, which will not wear empire’s robes, we will not know much peace in this world. But we are promised that we will be held in the peace which surpasses the world’s understandings. It may surpass our own understanding, much of the time; it may not feel much like peace. And it may be harder to give thanks this year, when our duty and challenge is to refrain from celebration,when we must love at a distance, when those who are already struggling economically are penalized the most heavily, when the brutal calculus of the golden calf tramples on individual lives. But God is near. Disguised, perhaps, as an ill-dressed, awkward stranger, or disguised as a six foot separation; but near. And still we may rejoice—having to construct something upon which to rejoice, as T.S. Eliot says – in the name of the God of peace.