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This Sunday's readings: 16th Sunday after Trinity

by Martin Warner

Proper 23: 16th Sunday after Trinity

Proper 23: Exodus 32.1-14;
Philippians 4.1-9;
Matthew 22.1-14

THE east face of York Minster is still deep in restoration. Behind the veiled scaffolding a hidden work of fantastic intricacy is going on, each stone being mapped and documented for its contribution to the whole edifice.

Only a trained eye can detect the complexity of this ancient stonescape, familiar though its outline is to so many people. The sense of masonry as a collage can also help our approach to understanding the readings for today.

The first level of collage creation comes in the work of Jesus himself. He draws from a quarry of existing allegories for heaven by using the image of a supper to describe his mission of calling all people to life with God. So, in the book of Proverbs, we read that Wisdom prepares a supper and sends out messengers to invite the simple, saying: “Come eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled. Forsake the foolish, and live” (Proverbs 9.5-6, KJV).

As editors and evangelists, Matthew and Luke consolidate this work of building a collage to illuminate the theme of mission. In today’s Gospel reading, it looks as though Matthew has conflated two parables — the invitation to a meal (Matthew 22.1-10), and a second story, about judgement (Matthew 22.11-14).

The first story is remarkably similar to Luke’s account of the parable of the great supper (Luke 14.15-24). However, there are also differences. For example, Luke’s story tells us that the householder giving the supper sent out two subsequent invitations: Matthew records only one.

The interpretation of these follow-up invitations has played an important part in Christian history. Luke’s version, “compel them to come in” (Luke 14.23), has been used in the history of Christian missions to justify the most appalling violence, of which we can only be penitent and ashamed.

The mid-20th-century commentator Andrew Plummer tries to defend the text by translating the Greek version as implying persuasion rather than compulsion. It is an eccentric reading, and ignores the huge and prolonged influence of the Latin Vulgate, which baldly states, “compelle intrare”. This equates fairly obviously with our English translation quoted above.

However, Luke’s subsequent double invitation has also been interpreted as an allegory of God’s gracious call through the prophets to Israel, and similarly through the Church to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. A less inclusive interpretation has been placed on Matthew’s version.

Some commentators have chosen to read Matthew 22.7 as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, carrying with it the implication that this was a sign of divine retribution. T. W. Manson, in The Sayings of Jesus (SCM Press, 1949, 1971), rejects the link with 70 AD, but hints at the dispersal of the Jews as a sign of divine disfavour. He interprets the gathering in of people from the highways as “the Jews who avoid the fate of their recalcitrant brethren and become Christians”.

A more recent commentator, Daniel Harrington, a Jesuit, is all too aware of the damage that such a reading has done in fostering Christian hatred and persecution of the Jews. He writes that “care must be taken lest Matt 22.7 be made an indictment of the whole Jewish people and part of the ‘wandering Jew’ myth”.

Matthew’s version ends with an enigmatic parable about the wedding garment. Since the guests were invited at short notice, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to have a party outfit to hand. The suggestion that one guest chose not to wear a garment that had been provided is built on insubstantial historical evidence. 

Uncertainty about Matthew’s own understanding of this parable has resulted in many interpretations being supplied by subsequent commentators. The second-century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, says that wearing the wedding garment represents being “adorned with the works or righteousness” (Against the Heresies, 4.6). A couple of centuries later, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, identifies the garment as the charity described by St Paul in 1 Timothy 1.5 and 1 Corinthians 13.1.

Here the collage of interpretation turns us in a more challenging direction. We cannot allow ourselves to believe that we have easy access to a privileged place among the chosen. Our election becomes reality insofar as we are vested in the values it demands of us.

These interpretations of the latter part of today’s Gospel are surely valid. This is, perhaps, affirmed by a third level of interpretation: today’s lectionary choice of another passage from the Christian scriptures.

Philippians 4.8 is the text that I was asked to read as the penance for my first confession, when I was still at school. It was like soothing balm on the hot wounds of teenage anxiety.

Now this text is put before us in a similar way. The collage of interpretation that we have built around today’s parable may blend an extraordinary mix of bloodshed and hope, sin and holiness. But let the Gospel do its patient work of intricate restoration in us.

May things emerge from the collage of our lives that are true, honest, lovely, and of good report — all to the glory of God, who makes us capable of revealing them.

Exodus 32.1-14

1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” 2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. 7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 9 “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Philippians 4:1-9

1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! 2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 22:1-14

1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

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