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18th Sunday after Trinity

01 October 2020

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

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THIS Sunday’s parable exposes sin as a tragic rejection of God’s invitation to the joyful banquet of his eternal Kingdom. An inordinate attachment to lesser goods tempts each human being — like the first set of guests — to resist and reject this truly life-giving summons. In Christ, God is both the one who makes this invitation, and is the food and drink that is spread before us. His life, freely offered to us, is the source and summit of all goodness.

The details of the parable emphasise the host’s labour on behalf of the guests. “We are struck by his great personal involvement in every detail of the arrangements, similar to the minute description of the landowner planting his vineyard” (Erasmo Levia-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St Matthew).

As St Gregory the Great explains, in their frenzied pursuit of this world’s goods, the first set of guests fail “to take notice of the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation”. The incarnation reveals that the created order is capable of bearing the very life of God. Yet these guests are pursuing worldly goods in a way that makes them forgetful of their Maker. In Christ, he has come among them in a humility they fail to recognise and respect.

The murderous response of this first set of wedding guests reveals the depth and nature of human hostility to God. They are so violently attached to the goods they are pursuing that, when the king persists in his invitation, they maltreat and kill his messengers.

In telling this story, Jesus is warning his disciples against a naïve underestimation of the power of sin, and alerting them to the inevitability of spiritual struggle and resistance in Christian discipleship. Sin does not simply make us inordinately attached to lesser goods: it makes us violent in our resistance to the summons of God.

As in the earlier Holy Week parables, Jesus has in his immediate sights his rejection by the chief priests and Pharisees. This parable echoes his declaration that “the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (21.31); for the king now sends his servants out to invite everyone they can find — “good and bad” — into the feast (v.10).

The breadth of God’s invitation and the lavishness of his hospitality are central themes of our reading from Isaiah, with its promise of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines” for “all peoples”.

The harshness of the final verse of our Gospel (in which a guest is cast into “outer darkness” for failing to put on a wedding robe) is in keeping with the wider parable, which includes judgement as well as invitation (v.7).

A distinction made by John Barclay can help us to understand this aspect of the story. In the teaching of Jesus, as reinforced by Paul, God’s grace is unconditioned (that is, it is offered freely to all). But it is not unconditional: to receive what is offered requires something of us (Paul and the Gift). Just as the initial guests and tenants were not to take their place for granted, so the new guests who replace them have obligations.

As St Augustine explains, “the garment that is required is in the heart, not on the body.” What is required of us is an openness to the transforming work of God’s grace. Though God in Christ has freely offered his life to us, in accepting that life we are united to his self-offering.

Augustine is one of many Patristic commentators who draw out the sacramental resonances of our Psalm (Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries). In the eucharist, the “cup” from which we drink unites us to the struggle and the sacrifice of Christ (cf. Mark 10.38). The “table” is spread “in the presence of those who trouble” the Psalmist (v.5). His context, like that of every disciple, is one of spiritual struggle and resistance.

Jesus, our true Shepherd and Host, does not desire the destruction of his opponents. The parables are told to disturb and to warn those who reject him; indeed, we find him praying for their forgiveness even as he is taken to the Cross (Luke 23.34). In his passionate rebukes, we see the depth of God’s longing for them to enter into the joy of his wedding feast.

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