Sunday, 15 October 2017

The uncomfortable wedding feast

I saw a movie once called “Dogma” (1999). I’m not necessarily recommending the movie, but one part of the movie that was memorable what when the Catholic church unveiled their “buddy Jesus” statue. It is a comedy, but sometimes what we laugh at tells us something about ourselves.

The comedian George Carlin plays a cardinal and unveils the “Buddy Jesus” statue saying, “Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic church. They think of us as a passé, archaic institution. People find the Bible obtuse… even hokey. Now, in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal… both of faith and of style. For example, the crucifix. While it has been a time honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified. Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies… He came to help us out. He was a booster. And it is with that take on our Lord in mind that we’ve come up with a new, more inspiring sigil. So it is with great pleasure that I present you with the first of many revamps the ‘Catholicism WOW‘ campaign will unveil over the next year. I give you… The Buddy Christ”.

It's a silly satire, but I think it is pointing out something. Namely, we lean towards the comfortable teachings of Christ and lean away from the uncomfortable teachings. Our Gospel reading today definitely falls into the “uncomfortable category”. But, we don’t do ourselves any favors by not dealing with these difficult teachings. … For the sake of us having healthy souls it is important that we look at both the comfortable and uncomfortable parts of the Gospel.

This parable isn’t comfortable because It doesn’t say what we want it to. We want a nice story about God throwing the doors open to everyone to join his party. We don’t want to talk about judgement, or demanding holiness, or weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Let’s look at this parable in a bit more detail and see what blessing are there for us there. The Parable is about a feast. The kingdom of God and the arrival of the messiah was often spoken about in Jesus’ day as a feast. In Jesus’ day passages like Isaiah 25 would have described this feast, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food …, of aged wine … . … He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Is 25:6-8). It was a massive banquet that included the Gentiles.

This passage was nearly offensive to the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day. The thought that Gentiles would be welcomed was unthinkable. There were interpretations of this passage (The Targum) that said it would actually be a trick and the Gentiles would come to the meal only to then be afflicted with plagues, or to have the angel of death strike them down (1 Enoch 62:1-11). The community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls believed that only those Jewish people who observed the Law would be allowed and that not even people with a physical disability would be present (IQSa 2:5-10; 2:11-22).

So when Jesus starts telling a story about a king throwing a wedding feast for his son it was no doubt seen as the feast at the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, to which only the most observant Jews would be invited to. When the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other important leaders heard Jesus mention this feast, they would be assumed to be there at the meal.

There is a scholar named Kenneth Bailey who has spent a lot of time in the Middle East trying to understand Jesus’ teachings through the middle eastern culture. He says that in a Middle Eastern village the servants would go out to invite specific people to an important meal. Generally if a social superior invited you to a meal, especially a king’s wedding feast for his son, you can’t refuse except. There are very few excuses you could give that would be considered valid. To not come and to not have a valid excuse would be deeply offensive. The servants would come back to the host of the feast and let them know how many people would be attending and them the host would arrange for how much food to make. When the food was all prepared he would send out his servants a second time to gather those who had been invited. At this point attendance is not optional. If you have received the invitation and there is no family member on their deathbed, you must go or you offend the host. In an honour shame culture that is a big big deal.

In our context it would be a bit like this- You invite people over for a dinner party. Before the meal people sit in the living room having wine and coffee and when you come to tell them that the food is now on the table guests start telling you that they have to leave. It would be offensive, unless they received a phone call that someone was in a car accident or just went into the emergency room.

The servants would have been interpreted as the prophets, or perhaps John the Baptist and maybe Jesus, as well. Those invited guests would be the leadership of Israel. It is the stereotypical story of the prophets that they are often not listened to by the important people of Israel.

We read that the servants go out to call those who had previously been invited “but they will not come”. The king then sent other servants to urge those who had been invited to let them know that the luxurious feast has already been prepared. It says they made light of the invitation and went off to their farm or business. Some ignored the servants while others mistreated them and killed them.

There is a very similar parable to this one in Luke 14:15-24. It too has people who refuse to come to a feast. One says that he has bought some land and has to now go see it. But in a Middle Eastern context it is an incredible careful and involved process that can take months or years. No one would buy land without seeing it and knowing it in a great deal of detail. So the excuse is not valid. It would be a bit like saying you’re late for supper because you bought a house over the phone and now you have to go take a look at it. To not have a valid reason excusing you from the feast is to publicly insult the host.

Similarly, in the parable from Luke 14 one person says they have bought 5 yoke of oxen and have to now examine them. But, like the purchase of land, no one would buy a yoke of oxen without first testing them out carefully. If they can’t pull together they are useless. So again, it is not a valid excuse.

The final reason for the person not attending in the Luke 14 parable is quite crude. He says that he has married a wife and can’t come. I’m told that that way of speaking about his wife is crass and against Middle Eastern chivalry that causes one to speak with respect about one’s wife. It would be something like saying “I’m busy with a girl out back”.

Matthew doesn’t go into detail about those who refuse to come, but they seem to nonchalantly reject the invitation. Some even abusing the servants, even killing some of them.

This is deeply offensive to the king who invited these people to the wedding feast. They nonchalantly reject his invitation without any valid reason, which is a purposeful and deliberate offense. They also abuse and kill his servants. It is hard to overstate the level of offense this would cause a king in an honour shame culture. The expected response is what happens- “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city”.

In this action, many later readers would see a warning about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD after the leadership rejected and killed both John the Baptist and Jesus.

I wonder if we can see ourselves in this parable here. Aren’t there times God calls on us, or we promise something to God and we sort of nonchalantly walk away from God’s call, or flat out walk away from what we told God we would do? … Are there times when we are the Levite or the priest who avoids helping the man who was beaten up and left in the ditch, like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)? … Are there times when we don’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger, and clothe the naked (Matt 25)? Even when we have committed ourselves to being followers of Christ? …. I know that feels like me sometimes. There are times that I haven’t followed through and I had no good reason not to. I just got busy. Or something more pressing caught my attention. And it is troubling to think about the offense that causes God in light of this parable. It’s not even the consequences I’m worried about as much as I care about the offense I’ve caused.

The king will not be put off by those who have rejected him. He will not let them ruin his son’s wedding feast. So he tells them, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests”. The servants go to the wrong side of town and they invite the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the riff-raff, the nobodies, the blind and lame, the forgotten and rejected of society. Jesus probably has in his mind Isaiah 56:8 when God “gathers the outcasts of Israel”.

I think I can see myself here too. I can see myself as someone unworthy of this kind of generous invitation. I look back on some of the things God has done in my life and I’m left wondering why do You pay attention to me? Why bother with me? Why bother with a high green-haired punk kid that barely got through highschool, who constantly rejected Christianity? Why give that shy person a role to speak in public every week? …. I suspect you could say something similar when you look back on blessings God has given you. Why have you given us the people in our life? The health in our bodies? The friends we have? The years we have lived? The abilities we have? … God is incredibly gracious. Who am I that Jesus Christ would be willing to die for me, in order to save me. I don’t deserve that kind of love.

God’s invitation is generous. It goes out to everyone. Everyone is invited to the King’s feast. It doesn’t matter what your nationality is. It doesn’t matter what happened in your past or what kinds of things you did. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, male or female… you are invited.

That’s sort of where we want the parable to end. Everyone is invited and we have a big party. But then we read this, "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." It’s not the high note we would like to go out on. It’s not the way “Buddy Jesus” would end things.

I remember being with some friends who wanted to stop by a wedding reception to congratulate the couple they knew. We were on the way to their house in the country. I was not invited and I was not prepared to go to a wedding reception, but my friends said it was an open invitation and not to worry we would walk in say hi then walk out. So, I walked into the hall with them. This was when I was a teenager and had green hair. Soon my friends saw people they knew and left me to go say “hi”. There I am, alone- a punk kid with green hair at a wedding reception in rural Alberta surrounded by strangers. I was soon approached by very angry people telling me to leave. I know what it is like to be that person too I think. I definitely saw the gnashing of teeth.

For the parable to work we have to assume that everyone has a wedding robe available to them, but this person chose not to wear one. Perhaps he assumed that because it was the kind of party that was letting just anyone in that there was no expectation about preparing yourself properly to be there.

Jesus reaches out to where we are, but his love won’t let us stay as we are. If love wants the best for us, then love includes growth. He loves us even in the midst of our sin, but he loves us too much for us to just stay that way. We are called to respond to his invitation as well. This is sanctification. There is a spiritual formation process that happens in us when we focus on Jesus intently. It shapes our character into a more spiritual, moral, kind, generous, and loving person. The wedding robe is this sanctification. It is working with God to be shaped into people that are Christ-like.

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks about cheap grace, which is coming to the party and not thinking there is anything expected of you. He says, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Of course Jesus’ words are hard for us to hear, but sometimes the words we need to hear aren’t the words we want to hear. Christ loves us more than we can imagine. He has offered the invitation to the feast, and yes, he has some expectation that we will be prepared, but ultimately that is so that our joy, and his will be complete.

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