Year A — The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

Commentary for October 9, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 32:1-14
I used to relish picking arguments with a few of my more “fundamental” brethren (rarely are any of my “sistern” fundamental, for some reason) —  over the statement “God never changes.” Sputtering, they would assert vehemently that, if God could or should ever change in any manner, then surely the fate of the world as we know it would hang in the balance! Supposedly, the created order depends on God not being able to exercise an option available to each and every one of us weak mortals — the ability to change one’s mind.

Of course, I would then cite Exodus 32:14 (which — being part of “the word of God” — is unassailably inerrant and infallible.) There proceeded much gnashing of teeth, and of course, there was no real purpose served by any of it. (I did eventually reform my ways and give up on such exercises.)

All of this to say, just what are we to make of the idea that God sometimes needs input in order to make up God’s mind? I’m probably glad, if the truth were told, that God has not acted instantly upon every stupid decision I have made in my lifetime — I have had my share of “golden calf” moments. 

Doesn’t this have something to do with the concept of God’s grace?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Truer words have never been spoken than those in v.6 — we have sinned, as have all those who have come before us (and, presumably, will those who come after us.) And thus, we have a problem!

I am thankful for those who answer the call of Moses and “stand in the breach.” Parents, teachers, preachers, friends…all of these at one time or another are found in the role of intercessors on our behalf. Sometimes, their intercession comes in the form of a swift kick to the behind — for us, not for God. Anyway, thank God for the “breach-fillers!”

Isaiah 25:1-9
Later preachers and seers would echo Isaiah’s bold words from this passage. Paul found his image of “death is swallowed up in victory” here (see 1 Corinthians 15:54) and John’s Apocalypse brings the message that “God will wipe away the tears” from all eyes (see Revelation 21:4.)

I am a bit partial to the images of “rich, marrow-filled food” and “well-aged wines” as avatars of God’s graciousness. But, it is only fair to note that, sometimes, God’s work takes the form of fortified cities reduced to ruin — and the abode of “aliens” resigned to the midden heap. 

Those final words are the kind of things “that make you go, hmmmmm….” (Kudos to Arsenio Hall.)

Psalm 23
Okay, you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really try to add to the commentary available for passages like Psalm 23. What else can I say?

I do love the image of the “darkest valley” — perhaps I hear strains of Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — to remind me that there is nowhere I will ever be, that God is not already there.

Philippians 4:1-9
Two godly church women in a squabble — who says the Bible isn’t true to 21st-century life? (A pastor’s life, anyway!)

Euodia and Syntyche were fomenting division in the church. (There is a nice play on words in the Greek here — their names mean “pleasant aroma” and “dwelling together” — and the fight they were having was distinctly odorous and unharmonious.) What is the antidote to such church-rending?

Rejoice in the Lord…let your gentleness be known…don’t worry; instead pray. Think on the kinds of things that are honorable, true, pure, just, et cetera. You’d be surprised how the peace of God can fill a space when we are willing to back down, chill out, and invite God in!

Matthew 22:1-14

Remember what I just said about the handiwork of God sometimes resulting in leveling the town? Well, here you go…here’s a parable for you!
The requirements for being “chosen” in the kingdom of God are beyond mysterious sometimes.Anybody remember the old commercial from American television in the 1970’s — “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”
Whatever else may be said, the invitation to come to the Lord is not to be taken lightly or trifled with. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that. 
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
The question of appropriate attire used to be more important than it is now.
I confess that I’m a little old fashioned about this. It bothers me to see men eating with caps on indoors, for instance, and while I don’t expect people to dress up for church the way they used to, a little specialness would be nice. But, the world has changed, and as a sign of my age, I confess I’m not sure it’s for the better.

Anyway, we’re a little out of touch with worries about wearing the wrong thing to a social event; but our Gospel lesson hinges on just such rules and expectations.

Pastor Frank Honeycutt in his book “MARRY A PREGNANT VIRGIN,” says that oftentimes a Bible story seems to be about one thing, but it throws us a curve ball and is really about something else.

So it is with the Gospel story we read this morning.

It starts out normal enough – the king’s son is getting married and the king is hosting a banquet to celebrate. The date was announced months ago, the invitations went not long after.

We all know our fairy tales; invitations to this party should be the hottest ticket in the kingdom.

But, in this version, things go wrong immediately. The king’s servants go out to tell the guests that the banquet is ready, but they refuse to come.

The king can’t believe it. The guests must not have understood. So he sends out other servants, makes a new announcement, a more explicit message: “Dinner’s ready. We’ve got a great menu. I’ve booked an A list band. Let’s party!”

Now, it really gets strange. Not only do the guests refuse to come; some of them insult the king with the lame excuse that they have to work, while others, unbelievably, torture and kill the king’s messengers.

Of course the king is outraged, and in true fairy tale fashions, sends in the troops to punish the murderers.

Next, the king sends out more messengers to work up a crowd, to find other people to come to the son’s wedding feast.

“Go out in the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” he says.

And the servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests (verses 9 and 10.)

Well, so far so good. The story makes a certain amount of theological sense.

We can read it as the king is God, and the wedding banquet is the Kingdom of God, and the servants are the prophets and the invited guests are like the Jews or the Scribes and Pharisees, or the Chief Priests or something like that.

And the people gathered up off the streets are the tax collectors and sinners or the gentiles, or some combination of the three; sinful gentile tax collectors. So, it makes a certain amount of sense; I guess.

But, remember what Pr. Honeycutt said about Bible stories throwing us curve balls, meaning something else than what we originally think? Well here comes the really strange part.

The king walks through the banquet hall, and throws a guy out of the party for failing to come properly dressed. I think we can understand why Jesus says the man was speechless. He’s probably thinking to himself;
what’s going on here? I was hanging out at the corner, minding my own business, when this guy comes up to me and asks me if I want to go to a free party. I said, sure, why not? So, I came to the party and then this other guy kicks me out ‘cause I’m not wearing the right clothes? What kind of nut cases are these people?

This story only makes sense if we realize it’s not about clothes and banquets; it’s a story about seriousness and faithfulness in responding to the grace of God.

It is a story not about kings and slaves and prophets and Jews. It’s a story about us, and about God’s invitation to us, and about our response to God’s gracious invitations and promises…

This is a story about taking God and God’s Kingdom seriously, about not presuming upon the grace of God to the extent that we assume that God must forgive and accept us no matter what we do. It is a story about the paradox and mystery of God’s love.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ walks a very narrow path between two large ditches.

On the one side is legalism, which sets out a series of things we must do to be saved. We fall into this ditch when we insist that in order to make God love and accept us we must hold a certain form of theology or follow a particular type of worship, or practice a strict code of morality.

The other ditch is “antinomianism,” which is preacher talk for “anything goes,” an attitude that says that no matter what we do God, being God, has to love and accept us anyway.

This parable, this story seeks to point us down the middle path between the ditches.

All are invited, many come, both good and bad, the banquet hall is filled. It is true; God’s invitation to discipleship is offered to all. No legalism here, no prior requirements, no price of admission.

But, once the invitation has been accepted, it is expected that one’s life will be changed in response to God’s gracious gift of love.

The wedding robe represents the desire to amend one’s life, to dress one’s soul in the garments of righteousness, to behave appropriately as befits a guest of the Most High King.

To fail to do so indicates that one does not appreciate the gift one has received.

I’ll tell you a secret; one of my boys, when he was younger, opened all cards from his grandmothers by tearing open the envelope and shaking out the check or cash from inside, never looking at or reading the card.
At least, he did that until I caught him at it. Shall we say the Dad “was enraged and sent in the troops,” and leave it at that?

When Jesus shows the king throwing the inappropriately dressed guest into the outer darkness, He is cautioning us against taking ourselves, our souls or our God lightly. He is warning us not to presume upon the grace of God.

You have been invited to the Wedding Banquet of the Son of God.

You have been brought into come into the Kingdom of God.

What are you going to wear from this day forth?

Are you going to put on Christ, dress yourself in the garments of righteousness,
put your best foot forward, bring into the Kingdom the best you have to offer?

Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Because God in Christ has been so gracious to you that you can do no other than to offer God your very best.

What are you going to wear?

Amen and Amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A — The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

  1. I've always been disturbed by the end of this parable in Matthew, so I appreciate your take on it. You've given me some new insights about the meaning of this passage and ideas for how to preach it on Sunday instead of ignoring it like I had been tempted to do. Thanks!

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