Proper 23: Isaiah 25.1-9, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew
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
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
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.