Theme(s): Righteousness. An inclusive kingdom? God's surpassing peace. The great feast of God.
Sentence: Rejoice in the Lord always! (Philippians 4:4)
Collect: (used with permission of Rev. Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )
as we experience your healing,
may we proclaim your deeds,
and turn to you to offer thanks and praise;
through Jesus our Messiah,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
How does this passage 'relate' to the gospel reading today, a reading featuring a wedding banquet (in an unknown location) and a city - Jerusalem - destroyed by fire, set alight by enemies?
In one sense the passage does not relate at all! It looks forward to the destruction of an enemy city (i.e. not Jerusalem) and it envisages a great banquet on Mt. Zion (see 'this mountain', 6, compare with 24:23).
In another sense the passage relates to the gospel reading because the gospel passage's wedding banquet is the great eschatological banquet of the kingdom of heaven, the feast to end all feasts and the feast for those judged to be right with God and fit to enjoy eternal fellowship with God. From this passage we see this great feast or banquet as the celebration of the end of death (8), the end of tears (8, cf. Revelation 7:1; 21:4) and the final salvation (9).
By-passing the many things which we can and should say about and from this amazing psalm (because it says so much in so few words), we see in the psalm the expression of one of the great themes of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, that the consummation of all things in the fullness of God's time is symbolized by a great feast. That feast makes an appearance in the gospel parable as a 'wedding banquet.'
There is at least one sermon to be preached from each verse in this passage! Briefly, these are the possibilities:
1: with all that Paul has written to this point in mind, the Philippians and ourselves are urged to 'stand firm in the Lord in this way.'
2: picking up a great theme in this letter, of Christian unity via a common mind, Paul focuses on two individuals at odds with each other, Euodia and Syntyche. It might not be a good idea for the preacher to single out two out of sorts parishioners and name them from the pulpit :) But it would be a good idea for the preacher to reinforce the great theme of Christian unity through the concord of agreement in the truth.
3: Avoiding the sidetrack of whether Paul means by 'my loyal companion' exactly those words or is actually invoking a name, 'loyal Syzygus', to say nothing of the sidetrack of who the loyal companion might be, there is a sermon here on the importance of women in the ministry of Paul, because Euodia and Syntyche are 'co-workers' with Paul and other male gospel workers in the 'work of the gospel'. They have worked 'beside me' rather than beneath Paul in some kind of hierarchy. A further point could be made that back in verse 2 Paul urges rather than commands Euodia and Syntyche to be of the 'same mind in the Lord.'
4: In a sea of negativity, harping and carping, demoralization over this and that shortcoming of the church, what better sermon to preach than 'Rejoice!'
5: In a world of violence, hatred, bigotry, and general thrusting forward of self ahead of others, 'Let your gentleness be known to everyone.' It is not just that this would make the world a better place. It is urgent for Christians to live out what it means to be Christian because 'the Lord is near.'
6: Do not worry! How not to worry? Pray! This way: 'in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.' That is, the antidote to worry is to turn what we are worried about into prayer requests to God with the key step that as we make our requests for help in our hour of need we are also thankful ('with thanksgiving'). That is, start counting your blessings when you worry, then turn those blessings into the thanksgivings which accompany your prayers and before you know it, you will experience verse 7.
7: This prayer is one of the more popular blessings prayed at the end of services. It speaks of the opposite of worry (see verse 6): the experience of God's peace, that is a real experience of genuine peace from God should be (a) overwhelming ('surpasses human understanding') and (b) protective ('will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus').
8: What should Christians think about? Try the list here!
9. What should Christians do? 'Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in [Paul].' For just about any other Christian this claim would be at least ludicrous if not the height of arrogance. (Writing this on St Francis' feast day, perhaps he would be a similar exception?) But Paul is no ordinary Christian - the first chapters of Philippians (to say nothing of his other writings) make this clear. He has pushed devotion to Christ to the limits. His zeal is second to none. His bravery is unparalleled. His desire to know Christ and to make him know has no competitor. His example, his teaching, his words of advice: they should be noticed, imitated and followed.
There has been many a sermon on this parable, and no doubt a few more this coming Sunday which go something like this,
"God calls people to enter his kingdom. You might expect the religious people to be first in line, but they can be the most resistant to the call. So God goes out looking for the least likely people to enter his kingdom. But, note carefully, even so God expects people to be 'properly dressed', that is, to have saving faith. Without that, you will be no better off than the religious people who reject God out of hand."
How does this stack up when we read the parable in the light of Jesus' intention (telling it) and Matthew's intention (reporting it)?
Over the past few weeks our readings from Matthew have been parts of an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel in which, summarising, Jesus says to the leaders that they have led wrongly and God's will for Israel is being revealed through him and not their interpretation of the law and the prophets. Last week's parable was a very strong statement inasmuch as Jesus declared himself to be the Son of God compared with the prophets sent from God as God's servants.
In this week's parable Jesus once again speaks of God's son (God is the king and throws a wedding party for his son). The first set of invitations go to an unspecified group of people 'but they would not come' (3). The invitation is repeated (4) but some went their own way to avoid coming and others 'seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them' (6). At this point the mistreatment and killing of the slaves takes us back to the parable of the tenants (21:33-41) and we recognise that the invitees are Israel.
In this parable Israel is destroyed (7, see further below) and a new set of invitations is issued (8-9) and the respondents gather for the wedding feast 'both good and bad' (10).
To this point we can understand Jesus as telling a parable which highlights the foolishness of Israel's leadership in not recognising the kingdom of heaven made manifest in himself. The rejection by the leadership paves the way for a broader kingdom, to be understood as including the Gentiles.
The next verses are challenging. If the 'good and bad' are welcomed into the banquet hall what is the exchange between the king and the badly dressed guest about (11-12)? On the one hand a point is being made that while it does not matter whether we are 'good' or 'bad' when called, it does matter whether we are found to be properly attired which must be about being deemed by the king to be 'righteous': good or bad, we need to be in a right relationship with the king. 'For many are called, but few are chosen' (14). On the other hand the point is not wonderfully clear! We, the readers, have to supply what the wedding garment stands for. Further, if the start of the passage is told with the intention of critiquing the rejection of Jesus by those within Israel who should know better, by the end the intention seems to be a critique of those outside of Israel who accept Jesus but do not ensure that they are found righteous by God.
What was Matthew's intention in reporting this parable? We can ask the question because Matthew has already reported to us sufficient speech from Jesus making the point that he was rejected by Israel's leadership. For Matthew, developing his narrative of Jesus' life and death, the parable offers two new points.
(1) Verse 7, especially 'burned their city' is highly suggestive of Rome's sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus, telling the parable, likely has in his mind the history of Israel, including the history of Judah and Jerusalem, in which the latter was sacked by Babylon, 597/587 BC. He sees history repeating itself. Matthew, likely composing the gospel after 70 AD, reports a parable which has the virtue of accurate prediction being fulfilled. God's judgment has come to rejectionist Israel. By implication the mission to the Gentiles (in Matthew terms, note particularly the Great Commission, 28:16-20) is vindicated.
(2) Verses 11-14 then can be understood not as a strange ending given the way the parable begins, rather as an unfolding of the theological history/prediction of future: Israel rejects God's invitation to come into the kingdom, but as the invitation is extended beyond Israel, the new invitees must not think that God's standards for citizenship of the kingdom have changed: all are to be righteous.
So the generalized account above of how many sermons on the passage have gone is in tune with thinking about the passage from the perspective of Jesus' and Matthew's intentions in communicating it.
But a twist lies with thinking about the wedding garment requirement for the guests. Let's agree that this is about being righteous. The sharp question then is the degree to which Matthew himself understands being righteous in terms of saving faith. That is a distinctive Pauline perspective. In Matthew's Gospel (i.e. read on its own, apart from the remainder of the New Testament) there is a huge emphasis on righteousness being proved by good deeds. Yet it would be too simple to conclude that Matthew does not mean righteousness with God found through saving faith in Jesus. If the garment = good works, how come the banquet hall is full of people both 'good and bad'?