words of my mouth

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 22:1-14

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, a friend of mine signed up for a month abroad in India studying with a then popular guru. Her husband, who had also taken the course in India, but was more mainstream than she, would remain at home and at work. He was a teacher at a rather good private school in NJ. Only problem, who would take care of the children while their Dad was working and Mum was away?

At the time, I was in-between jobs, so I volunteered. The older child, a boy, was about eight and the little girl, who is also my goddaughter, almost three. They now have families of their own, but back then their chief problems were, for the little girl, getting fully potty trained, and for the boy, his parents refusal to allow him to play with toy guns. He was allowed a bow and arrow, but no guns. I can still remember how very much he longed to have what the other children had, to be like the other boys, to be a cowboy and not an Indian.

In last week’s lesson we heard the summary of the Law, what we call the Ten Commandments. All of us are familiar with these laws, and many of us probably regard them as a spiritual covenant between God and God’s people. But the language is not that of a spiritual covenant. Rather, it is the language of a military treaty, such as would exist between a King and his subjects or vassals. In such treaties the ruler promises to protect the people against their enemies, and the people, in return, promise to uphold the law as given to them by their King.

God’s treaty with the Children of Israel will set them apart from other nations, and God will protect them. Their lives will be rich and full as they live in the Promised Land and in accordance with the Law. They are to be an example of godly living, so that their neighbors, those of pagan beliefs, will be able to see the benefits that come from serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In this way, many pagans will be won over to the worship of the God of the Israelites, the One True God. This is God’s plan, but there is a problem.

God has overlooked an important lesson in child rearing – make sure you never say, “No.” All the commandments prohibit certain actions and forms of behavior. Any parent can tell you how saying “no” fails to make a good impression on a child. Then, too, God hasn’t factored in the desire of the Israelites to be like their neighbors, and to have what their neighbors possess. The Israelites have been moaning for decades over the loss of the flesh pots of Egypt, and now, with a long list of things they must not do, they’re left alone to think things through as Moses goes back up the mountain to converse with God.

At the top of that mountain, where, looking up, the Israelites can see and hear it all, is thunder, lightning, wind and fire, a terrifying display created by their God. The truth is that no one is particularly fond of the idea of a terrifying God who has tendered a list of “thou shalt nots”. The Children of Israel want a nice tame god, one they can worship easily, one whose worship is pleasant and satisfying. They want the sort of god their pagan neighbors have. In Moses absence, and as God thunders overhead, they go directly to Aaron to complain. And what does Aaron do?

Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" 

I never offered my friend’s son a choice between a toy bow and arrow, or a toy gun – not my place to do so - but I’m sure we can all guess which one he would have chosen. Not only that, he would have rejoiced.

Aaron built an altar before the golden calf; and he made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD." They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

Defying one’s parents or parent has its consequences.

The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.

Moses is able to talk God out of it, but what has happened makes one thing clear. It isn’t easy being the people called by God to be an example for the world. Most of us just want to be content, happy, and like everyone else.

Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

Marriage was very different in Jesus’ time from what it is today. A man would work out a deal with a woman’s father, and she would be ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, hopefully the man decides that everything is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, but her father) put on a feast.

Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today. And pretty much everyone would come.

In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: you had your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.

And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.

How strange, then, that the invited guests in today’s parable fail to show up. To understand why, we need to know that the parable has been recorded as it would have been shared with the Matthean community. As we learned last week, this community was composed chiefly of Jewish Christians who had been ejected from their synagogues. All the Jews were invited to follow Jesus, but for the most part, they failed to show up. The ones who did show up, who believed Jesus was the Messiah, had expected to continue in their Jewish faith, but found themselves ejected from their synagogues and the Jewish community. To the early Jewish Christians, the non-show guests at the wedding feast are the Jews who have rejected them and Christ.

Then, in the parable, there are those folks who were not expecting to get invited to the wedding banquet. They are delighted by the invitation and quickly show up for the feast. But there is one odd guest, the one person who hasn’t worn a wedding garment.

Today, this day, we are the second group invited to the feast. Most of us are not Jews by birth or blood, and yet we have been invited, called, to be followers of Jesus. We know the agreement we have made with God, set down first in the Law of Moses, and then restated for us by Jesus in more positive terms. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That couldn’t be plainer or simpler to understand, the problem is, it isn’t easy to live up to.

We are the people called to be kind, gentle, humble, generous, and supportive of each other. This begins at home with our families, is to extend to our friends and relatives, and then out into the world, to strangers, people we don’t know, people we’ve just met, even to people we don’t like, people we may feel have wronged us. We are the wedding guests called to show forth God’s love and forgiveness, to be an example for the world.

And the world has told us what it thinks of this. Sunday is now just another day. Stores are open, schools schedule athletic practice, and friends and family alike plan social gatherings for Sunday mornings. The world tells us we ought to strive to be rich, powerful, ruthless, and successful. In our godless, consumer society we are bombarded from all sides by messages that tell us we need to be - different from what our Lord has called us to be.

 "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. 

No one knows the time or date when our Lord will require of us an accounting of what we’ve been doing with our lives. The wedding guest who did not wear the correct garment was unprepared and thus flabbergasted when the king demanded an explanation.

Which garment are we wearing? It’s so much easier to just wear our everyday clothes, because that wedding garment requires sacrifice on our part. It’s more comforting to imagine we serve a nice safe God, that we can be fairly good and reasonably nice, and Jesus will be pleased. We prefer to go along with what the world offers, we like being self-righteous and self-centered. But that’s not our calling.

We are the people of that God on top of the mountain, the all-powerful, somewhat scary one. Because we are human, what we want to be is like everyone else. But Jesus isn’t calling us to be one of the cowboys. Jesus is calling us to be like Him. We are the people called to be an example for the world. We need to choose our garment carefully, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” 

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, help us to be the people you are calling us to be. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to You for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Flood us with Your grace and make us Your people, one body, one spirit, that we may be an example to the world, loving and serving each and every person we meet in Your name. Risen Lord, we ask this for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.

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