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Readings: 17th Sunday after Trinity

by
03 October 2014

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Proper 23: Isaiah 25.1-9, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14

Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

WE HEAR Jesus's parable in the context of Isaiah and this week's psalm, Psalm 23, where banquets and celebration point us to the joy of the Messiah's heavenly wedding feast. Isaiah spells it out vividly: a feast of rich food and matured wines strained clear (a luxury in those days). More than that, the shroud of death hanging over people is destroyed, and, like a tender parent with a distressed child, God himself wipes away remaining tears.

Turn back one chapter in Isaiah, and we grasp his context of impending or actual exile in Babylon, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground in ghastly, bloody actions that are echoed too frequently around the world today. I have pictures of people weeping over the ruins of their homes, to help me to hold them before God. It can take courage to hope in redemption, but Isaiah insists: "Let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."

Unlike the previous parable, with its contractual relationship of the people to God, God is here not landowner, but host and joyful father of the groom, while the people are not tenants, but invited guests. Both parables contained judgement, and were told in the Temple, where Jesus faced calculated opposition.

In contrast, Luke's version of this parable (Luke 14.15-24) was told in the home of a Pharisee who had invited him for a sabbath meal - a meal traditionally shared with family, which indicates that Jesus had close friends among the Pharisees, who were not all hostile.

Matthew had set the scene for this parable much earlier in his Gospel (Matthew 8.11-12). Speaking then of a Roman centurion, Jesus envisaged many from East and West coming to eat with the patriarchs in the Kingdom of heaven, while the heirs were thrown out. This parable develops that theme, as the invited guests throw etiquette to the wind and, having accepted the invitation, come up with lame excuses for not fulfilling their commitment to attend. Like the second son in the earlier parable, they say "I go," and then fail to do so.

As with the tenants we heard about last week, some guests went over the top by seizing and killing the messengers sent to call them to the son's wedding feast. The point could hardly be lost on Jesus's hearers, who were party to plots to arrest and kill him. Still reeling from the previous parable, they would be appalled by Jesus's audacity and the threat he posed to them.

The NRSV puts a paragraph break in the middle of the parable, but it is really all one story. Too many attempts to make sense of the final verses - which sound to us at best nonsensical, if not malicious - fail, because we do not understand and enter the culture of the time.

Unlike today, when a wedding is often an excuse for a trip to the shops, then it was the host of the wedding banquet who provided wedding garments for all the guests who had accepted his invitation. So, to show up without the wedding garment was to have gatecrashed your way in by the back door, and come on your own terms.

As last week, George Herbert ("Aaron") has words for this. Drawing on Old Testament imagery, and writing about being dressed in Christ to be a priest, the poet nevertheless has a message that applies to everyone who is in Christ:

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons dressed.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest thus am I dressed.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well dressed.

Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me even dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new dressed.

So holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ
(who is not dead
But lives in me while I do rest)
Come people; Aaron's dressed.

 

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