Sunday, October 9, 2011
The Wedding Garment of Servant Ministry
With 56 references to “the kingdom”, Matthew leads all the Gospel writers in presenting Jesus’ teaching about “the reign of God”. Over the past 13 Sundays, you and I have heard Jesus spell this out in the Gospel passages. In Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast today (22:1-14) the implications of Jesus’ previous answer to a two-fold question from the Jewish chief priests and elders in Chapter 21:23 are spelled out: viz., “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” For three years Jesus tried to convey his vision of the reign, the kingdom of God, but it seems that, no matter what image he used -- a mustard seed, a pricey pearl, a treasure hidden in a field, vineyard workers’ payroll, two sons’ responses to their father’s request for field help, or the actions of tenant lessees of a rich man’s vineyard -- most people, the Apostles included, didn’t quite “get it”.
Biblical scholar Marty Aiken suggests that you and I look at today’s parable through new eyes. When Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like...or...is compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son”, it’s not in the sense that those entities are so much alike as to be almost identical, but rather to demonstrate a clear contrast between the two. The Greek words Matthew uses amount to something like, “The kingdom of heaven may be made like a man, a king who prepared a wedding party for his son.” Jesus is contrasting how a human kingdom operates differently from the way God’s reign does.
Matthew’ account begins with a king preparing a real wedding shindig for his son, who, by the way, isn’t mentioned again in the parable after v. 2. The king sends servants to invite the guests. Matthew says bluntly, “They didn’t want to come”, a tip-off that there’s already “trouble in River City” between the king and his subjects. Not to be put off, the king sends the servants out again to pointedly urge them to come, since he’s already gone to great lengths to cater an expensive and sumptuous meal, which is now ready and waiting. “Come”, the king fairly commands, “to the wedding banquet!”
The response of those invited isn’t only unenthusiastic, but downright rude and mean-spirited: “...they made light of it and went away.” The Greek word for “making light of” has the sense of intentionally and negligently disregarding the invitation, of “blowing it off”. It’s a colossal social snub: first, to their king; second, to the king-as-host who’s already issued two invitations; and third, because their actions show that they prefer the cozy refuge of their fields and businesses to the king’s company or to that of the rest of the community. Jesus portrays the guests as irresponsible, ignoring the obvious, deliberately and with fully awareness. He doesn’t seem to be saying that they were simply lazy or ungrateful. He’s saying that they bore a responsibility to to have acted differently and with proactive foresight, and failed. Even more, there’s an underlying sense that they’re putting themselves in danger by disregarding their sovereign. Naively hoping that life will just go on as usual, they’ve, in effect, isolated themselves, taking shelter in their farms or businesses, from which, they believe, they’ll be able to manage their contact with the rest of the world outside. In an ultimate act of negligence these guests turn their back on the wedding feast. They probably think that they can leave the king and any dangers he might present behind. And they overlooked another danger which was prevalent among themselves, and made their “isolationism” particularly perilous.
Jesus clearly recognizes other people in their community who can’t depend on a farm or business to manage their world. These are the ones who eventually “…grabbed [the king’s] slaves, abused them, and killed them,” thus bringing on everyone a catastrophe. These people, whom Jesus calls “the rest”, start the visible violence, even though they weren’t likely any more or less violent than the others. But since they have no farm or business to define them, their disgruntlement is more apt to be expressed in visible violence. And it was.
Predictably, the underlying tensions between both parties, the royal authority and his subjects, explode. “The king was enraged”, says Matthew. Everyone, king and people, has lost the opportunity to keep things in balance. Instead of living in mutual relationship, king and guests have drawn up sides, each a violent twin of the other. The king “sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire”, leaving behind destruction and utter tragedy. And Matthew covers all of that in one line!
The scene then changes abruptly. The determination of the king to continue with the festivities, having apparently controlled his violence for the moment, is demonstrated by his sending his servants out into the wider community to invite “everyone they found, both evil and good”, i.e., anyone and everyone. Though the king’s recent “doing in” of the A-list invitees may have been an incentive to respond, this time there’s definitely a full house!
The king enters the banquet hall and, almost as if he’s being led by radar to someone he’s already looking for, the king spots a man who’s not wearing a traditional wedding garment. We can reasonably assume that, given his earlier nasty display, now momentarily controlled, the king is still prepared to lash out at anyone who refuses to follow his rule book. Marty Aiken suggests that we view the inappropriately dressed man’s meeting with the king as something quite intentional, done deliberately, not accidentally or through negligence. When the king confronts him as to how he got in to the feast dressed this way, Jesus describes the man as “speechless”, or as an old Southern expression has it, “plain ol‘ dumb”. Aiken suggests that the man has chosen to personify the silent dumbness of the people, appearing before the king almost as “one who isn’t there”. It’s possible that Jesus was trying to recall to his hearers’ minds those rich passages in the prophet Isaiah about the “suffering servant of God”, a reference to be applied only too soon to Jesus himself . In other places also the Hebrew Scriptures witness to the belief that servants will arise in Israel whose “sufferings will have the effect of drawing on to themselves the sufferings of the nation as a whole, so that the nation may somehow escape.” The man without the wedding robe puts himself in the people’s place at the time when they themselves are suffering as victims, making himself the victim for all, both people and king. Perhaps in relating this scene, Jesus was thinking of Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant: “…He was despised and avoided by others...It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore, but we thought him afflicted, struck down by God and tormented. He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole;...we had all wandered away, each going his own way, but the Lord let fall on him all our crimes…” (53: 3-6) Here, among people who are suffering because they failed to respond earlier, the man without the wedding robe stands silently before them. Again, in Isaiah’s words: “...like a ewe silent before her shearers, he didn’t open his mouth.” As will happen with Jesus in his suffering and death, we see human power and authority’s wrath kindled and falling on this silent man.
Notice, also, the interchange between the king and the man without the wedding robe. Every occurrence of “he” or “his” in the parable, except for this one, refers only to the king: “he noticed”, “he said”. Here the words, “And he was speechless”, could be understood as a reaction of either the man and the king, or both. This man standing before him renders the king at a loss for words. He has caused the startled king to “lose it”, to no longer fully control the situation. As Isaiah notes, in the very heart of the Suffering Servant passages, “Just as many were appalled by [him]….he will astonish many nations. Kings will be silenced because of him… (52:14-15)
The king’s next move parallels his previous rage at the murder of his slaves. Reacting in the time-honored way in which authority always tends to react when threatened, the king orders a sacrifice. “Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness.” Matthew parallels Isaiah’s comment: “...He was eliminated from the land of the living, struck dead…” (53:8)
In telling this parable, Jesus returns to the earlier two-fold question of the chief priests and elders: by what authority does Jesus operate?; and who gave him his authority? Jesus’ disciples listened to this parable along with the representatives of the ruling powers, as well as with all the others who expected Jesus to initiate a rebellion. However, by way of the parable, Jesus intimates that he does and says what he does by the authority of and as the Suffering Servant of God. Neither the ruling authorities nor the people are prepared for that! He tells them that he’s about to take on to himself the violence that already rules all of their lives. As to who gave him this authority, Jesus’ response is, ironically, “You did.” The Suffering Servant receives his authority by giving himself in love, even in the face of the violence, the sins, and the suffering of all humankind. The Suffering Servant of God is called into being by a broken world.
As you and I gather here again today for this most incredible celebration, the wedding feast of the Eucharist, Jesus’ parable demonstrates for us how the reign, the kingdom of God operates. It teaches us who have gotten here, each in varying, sometimes astounding, and even peculiar, ways, that we’re favored guests, that we’ve been invited and welcomed into this fellowship, this community, as part of the reign, the kingdom of God in Christ. It’s not the final stop on our journey. That will come later.
God has already anticipated our worry, as guests, about what to wear to the feast, and we find ourselves clothed in faith, hope, and love through our baptismal covenant. When we look into our spiritual mirrors, we see reflected back the image of Jesus, the Suffering Servant of God, who “Though he was in the form of God,...did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But...emptied himself by taking the form of a slave…[and] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross…” As honored guests of Jesus the Suffering Servant, it’s not enough to be nourished and cared for so lavishly ourselves. Our weekly Eucharistic feast, needs to spill out into our daily lives and into world outside these doors through our own servant ministry.
You and I know already have an idea of what we’re up against in that world: where loved ones and others in our lives battle cancer, AIDS, mental illness; where people lose jobs, see their paychecks dwindle, and have their homes foreclosed on; where children, the elderly, veterans, and the disabled suffer without proper health care; where snipers shoot people randomly on our streets; where our government engages in multiple wars, knowing that some of our brightest and best young women and men are facing death in a far off desert; where there is increasing general fear and hopelessness as divisiveness, anger, retaliation, and terrorism blossom throughout the world.
Nevertheless...you and I are called to servant ministry in Jesus’ name that allows us to see beauty in every person; to recognize and celebrate one another’s gifts; to pray for one another; to share our resources, and give generously from what we have; to seek out the lonely and the disheartened, and to outdo each another in love.
Wherever your role, or mine, as a suffering servant of Christ leads us, may we cling in our hearts to St. Paul’s words, and “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent, and whatever is worthy of praise”, don’t only think about them, but model them, live them, share them.
“...the God of peace...be with you”