I sort of blew the arch by blogging about today’s Gospel reading during the week. I did it with much trepidation because I was pretty sure by the time Sunday rolled around, I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else to say, but it turns out all the readings, including the Gospel, are as rich as ever, and that just because I said something several days ago, doesn’t mean there isn’t anything more. In fact, I hadn’t even read them all, and so, at the time, was not astonished, as I am now, by the sagacity of the lectionary arrangers in paring the Old Testament, once again, with the New.
The Old Testament is taken from Isaiah, the twenty-fifth chapter, beginning in the first verse, but the part that is likely to move you from despair to hope begins in verse six:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
If you have spent even one moment online this week, you will not have seen anything else like this. Lots of tears have been in evidence, but no one with the power to wipe them away. A pall, a covering of ignorance and death, but no one to draw it back, to swallow the shame and ruin. In fact, though cries for peace abound, yet a deep and seemingly unquenchable thirst for more violence and degradation is openly expressed by those who are usually so quick to preach equity and justice.
How will this feast be possible, since humanity is caught in unending strife? Since hate, it turns out, has made a comfortable home here? I saw someone on Twitter bemused about the creed of this age– ‘all are welcome, no human is illegal, kindness is everything etc, etc.’ Isn’t it funny how many people inclined to vaunt those signs and their sentiments are eerily quiet when requests to condemn Hamas are lobbed across the interwebs. It’s pretty cheeky of me, probably, but I did trundle over to my favorite body-building progressive, a “Christian” who is usually quick to weigh on political topics of various kinds, just to see if he had noticed how some people around the world are baying for the deaths of their enemies, but after scrolling for quite a long time, I can’t find anything except for announcements about National Coming Out Day.
The trouble for all of us is that you can’t get to Isaiah 25:6-9 without tripping over Isaiah 25:1-5 which goes like this:
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you; I will praise your name,
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the foreigners’ palace is a city no more;
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat;
for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall,
like heat in a dry place.
You subdue the noise of the foreigners;
as heat by the shade of a cloud,
so the song of the ruthless is put down.
All the people and all the nations will come to the feast for the marrow and the wine, but not before all those nations and those people have been subdued, until their hatred–chiefly against God–has been stilled and quieted. It puts the feast in rather a different light. It isn’t the case that anyone can saunter in and take whatever they like from the Table. Not every person is going to be able to muscle his way to a seat and enjoy the good things the Lord has provided. The feast itself sounds glorious, satisfying, restful even. But it comes at a cost. Someone has to do the work–arranging the tables, getting the food together, deciding on the decorations and the guest list. All that takes weeks, months perhaps. But the preparations are only half of the work. The other half is making the people who come peaceable enough to enjoy what is given.
It isn’t just that the Lord promises to feed you and shelter you from all your enemies, it is that you are the Lord’s enemy. You are the person who, when the food is served, demands to know why all the other people are there and what they are doing. Strife and enmity proliferate, spoiling the peace of the celebration. Strife and enmity, both in small things and in great ones, are the common cup, the bread humanity shares together at every moment and on every occasion.
So, when Jesus rises up to explain yet again to the leaders of the people who he is and why he came, the story he tells is a barb, an opportunity to consider the properties and characteristics of the Feast. Here’s the story, in case you haven’t gone over to read the lections yourself:
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The moral of the story is so obvious that a lot of people spend a lot of time wondering what it means. A king wants to marry off his son and so arranges the wedding feast. But the people invited “would not come.” Why wouldn’t they come? Did they hate the king? Were they too busy? Did they not like what was being served? Had the king offended them in some way?
It’s as if the invited guests feel they have some right, some justification to refuse to come. That would be strange on its own. Who really has a right to say to the person to whom they owe honor and obedience, “no?” A lot of people today think they have that right and teach their children that they don’t need to do what other people–not even God, says. But then Jesus adds another, more terrible trouble. Not only did the invited guests say no, they then went and killed the messengers who delivered the invitation. Jesus calls the invited guests “murderers.” Not ‘people who are justified to do what they desire’ but murderers.
So then the king sends an army to destroy the city. He burns it with fire. In other words, the guests who rejected him got what they deserved. They owed the king obedience and were offered a beautiful feast, but instead, they bent in toward themselves, rejecting him and all he offered them, and as a result they received judgment.
The scene cuts, finally, to the long-awaited feast which is replete not just with food, but with people who hadn’t originally been invited. This is no prodigal moment. The son who was invited in the first place changing his mind and coming back. No, these are people who didn’t know there was a king. These are people who never made any promises to anyone, who were far off, who never bothered to inquire about the kingdom, the king, or the son. These the servants of the king sweep up and bring to the Feast. And as they are brought in, they are changed from being caught in ignorance, unforgiveness, and disobedience to being true guests. The sign of this change is that they receive a wedding garment. The king himself furnishes clothes for all the people who come to his table. They get to eat the food, but they must also wear what he gives them.
It is rather like, if you were looking for some kind of modern-day analogy, wandering in off the street to sit in a cavernous, nearly empty church and yet find there people wholly unlike you who nevertheless welcome you and treat you as though you had always belonged to them. You creep forward, inch by inch, to understand what kind of greeting this might be. You are initiated into their community through baptism, you go forward to receive the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of their Lord, and you find yourself bound to them in ways you could not ever have anticipated.
One day you wake up, though, and find yourself angry with those people, bitter because they sinned against you in some way. You want to revert to your old way of life. You want to eat the food, but you don’t know if you can actually kneel down on that kneeler and accept the rules and expectations of the One who drew you in and made you part of his own Body.
So anyway, maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with the story Jesus is telling, but he goes on. The king wanders through the great hall of this great celebration and finds there a guest who isn’t wearing his special clothes but who is still there eating and drinking as if nothing is wrong. When asked why, he does not defend himself, and worse, does not beg the king for mercy. And so he is cast out. “For,” says Jesus, “many are called but few are chosen,” which is a hard way of saying that obedience to the King of Kings, and the kinds of consolations that he offers, are hard to swallow. They are aged wine and marrow. They are the way out of death and into life. But you do not get to have them on your own terms. You do not get to make the rules or insist on your own way. The Lord is at hand and will not let you continue in your disobedience and unbelief. Your hate, selfishness, and stubborn unforgiveness have no home here.
So anyway, see you in church!
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