Sunday, October 15, 2023 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…and once more Matthew is speaking to his community in a very thinly veiled…very anti-Temple-authority allegory. We’ve had several of these the past few weeks…and we’ll have a few more before we shift to the Gospel of Mark in December.
The Matthew we’re reading now…the Matthew of chapters 20-26…is very binary. He doesn’t want any gray areas. He wants there to be good people and bad people…sheep and goats…wise and foolish…forgiving and unforgiving…and he really wants the bad, unforgiving, unwise, inattentive goats to be punished with an awful lot of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Sidebar) Matthew loves this phrase…it’s used a total of 7 times in the New Testament. Luke uses it once…Matthew uses it the other six times.
Matthew’s Jesus is never really warm and fuzzy…but in these later chapters…in Jerusalem…when everyone is stressed out and anxious…and some of the leaders are looking for a way to make “this Jesus problem” disappear…Matthew’s Jesus…in this context…gets even more incendiary…goading them…provoking them…
As Jason so clearly pointed out last week, Matthew’s community is primarily Jewish…but a decided minority within the larger Jewish community…And so, Matthew’s relationship to his fellow Jewish siblings is deeply conflicted. Matthew’s Gospel is full of both very traditional…some would even say conservative…Jewish/rabbinical interpretation of the Torah—The sermon on the Mount is Jesus at his most Jewish and Rabbi-like. But Matthew’s Gospel is also full of devastatingly harsh invectives against other Jewish leaders. What are we to do with this?
We have to remember that whoever wrote Matthew was working in a time and situation that was dire. The Roman Empire had marched legions in and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70 CE. Matthew is writing in the decade or so after that carnage. Given what is unfolding in the world right now, we might have a better—more tragic—and hopefully more sympathetic understanding of what that crisis did to the Jewish people. And how the destruction of Jerusalem drove a wedge between all the groups who claim Abraham as their ancestor.
Matthew—in these later chapters in particular—is actively ignoring all of the things he has in common with his fellow Jews, and is strategically hammering on the differences…and making the choice so stark and terrifying that it’s really not a choice at all. It’s coercive, and as Jason also pointed out last week has led to thousands of years of heinous anti-Jewish beliefs, and unimaginable and persistent violence towards the Jewish people. So we have to be very careful when approaching these texts.
And, as I said a few weeks ago when reflecting on the parable of the unforgiving servant…I think that because Matthew is so insistent on contorting this parable into polemic, that he’s actually misrepresenting the core of it.
This story of the king who gives a banquet that no body comes to…is also told in Luke, and in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, but the context and the crux of the parable in those books are very different. First of all there is no context in Thomas, which tends to be just a collection of sayings. So there, it’s story of a man is having a dinner, but all the guests are too busy…one because he has a business deal, one because he had just bought a house, another because he’s bought a farm, one because he’s getting married. So the man tells the servant to go into the street and invite anyone you find [Gospel of Thomas, 64].
Luke has Jesus tell this story while at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, and everyone is jockeying for position…trying to get a better seat. And Jesus says, “When you give a dinner don’t invite the rich friends hoping they’ll return the favor…instead invite people who aren’t able to reciprocate, i.e., the poor. And then he tells this same parable…of how all those invited began to make excuses…one bought some land, another bought some oxen and wants to “try them out”, another has been married. The host becomes angry, and insists that the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” be brought [Luke 14:16-24].
That’s all in Matthew too, but look at what Matthew adds: he adds the seizing, mistreatment, and killing of the slaves…he adds the subsequent sending of troops to destroy and burn the city…and he also adds this odd coda about this speechless un-wedding-be-robed person who is summarily ejected and cast into the outer darkness where there is (of course) weeping and gnashing of teeth. If this part of Matthew appeared on the internet today we would say that he was “hate-baiting” or “rage farming”… manipulating the story to generate outrage…and keep his community’s ire focused on the group he blames for all of their troubles.
In a way…because Matthew adds all of these distractions, it becomes almost a meta-parable. Because, the core parable is about all of the invited guests missing out on this wonderfully generous, cosmically eternal feast that God is always trying to throw for us because they are all too distracted…by all of their worldly obligations, and tasks, and possessions.
Does that remind you of another story…also found in Luke…about someone being distracted, and someone else “choosing the better part.”
Mary and Martha. He goes to their house, and Martha is “distracted by her many tasks,” and fed up with her sister who is sitting and absorbing everything Jesus says. And when Martha complains, Jesus replies… ”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part,” [Luke 10:38-42].
He is NOT saying that all of those worldly tasks (and the people who perform and get anxious over them) aren’t important, or valuable, but simply that there is an order…there are priorities…and LISTENING to Jesus…actually hearing the Word of God should always be a prelude to action…just as hearing and responding to the invitation to join the banquet must take precedence over everything else. Of course, homes, and farms, and work, and marriage are important…and require focus, and time and attention…AND…hearing God…listening to Jesus…being in God’s very presence…that always needs to come first.
There are an astonishing number of crises going on right now. We will always have to make choices about where to put out attention…and there will always be bright, shiny objects (golden calves)…and worries both personal and worldly to distract us…In the midst of all of this let us remember that the feast is ready…the invitation to be a participant in God’s realm of peace and justice…is open to everyone…and let’s make listening to God, and caring for our fellow humans the priority. I encourage all of you to read our bishop’s statement on the Israel and Palestine which came out this week. It includes links to relief and advocacy organizations. I encourage you to reach out to your Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors…they are really hurting now.
I close with the prayer offered by Archbishop Naoum head of the Anglican province of Jerusalem and the Middle East
O God of all justice and peace we cry out to you in the midst of the pain and trauma of violence and fear which prevails in the Holy Land. Be with those who need you in these days of suffering; we pray for people of all faiths – Jews, Muslims and Christians and for all people of the land. While we pray to you, O Lord, for an end to violence and the establishment of peace, we also call for you to bring justice and equity to the peoples. Guide us into your kingdom where all people are treated with dignity and honour as your children for, to all of us, you are our Heavenly Father. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.