“Cast Away” – Sermon on Oct 16, 2011

Oct 16, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 22: 1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 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. “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.”

Sermon: Cast Away
by Rev. Doreen Oughton

I hope you’ve all had your caffeine fix today, because we’ve got some meaty scripture passages to work through. If not, feel free to relax, try not to snore, and maybe read the sermon on the website another time. But I hope you’ll join me on this bible adventure. Today we have stories of a wrathful God who seems much less moral than Moses, and a gospel that starts out with a message of inclusion, but ends “in outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a gift and a privilege, isn’t it, to deal such challenging passages? This is one perspective of my sermon title, these challenging passages, and a challenging God that is difficult for us to understand and connect with.
I don’t know if you react as I do, but I am so uncomfortable with some of these images of God that I look for different ways to interpret, to make it softer. I don’t want to hear about God as a tyrant, seeking to kill those who displease. I certainly don’t want to think too long about Jesus threatening eternal damnation to those who would show up to a party inappropriately dressed. Other theologians who feel this way suggest that in the parable told by Jesus in Matthew, we are not to put God in the role of the king. They say we should hear the tale as a caution against acting like this king, so quick to judge and scapegoat and condemn. We are meant to feel compassion for the man thrown out to outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I want to talk a minute about this phrase here – weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s used 7 times in the bible, six of them in Matthew. I always picture some sort of teeth-grinding, intense weeping. But there is another use of the word “gnash” in the book of Acts that may give us a little more insight. There is an incident in which the religious leaders are furious with the apostle Stephen. Scripture tells us that they “gnashed on him with their teeth.” So gnashing seems associated with intense anger and hatred. Not with remorse, sorrow or regret. So the message in Matthew is likely intended to convey that those who are thrown into outer darkness will not be examining their behavior and feeling regretful, but rather they will be outraged, furious at the perceived injustice.
It might be the kind of reaction you would have if as a young man you were caught urinating in a public place, then found out years later that as a result you have to register with the local police as a sex offender. It might be the kind of reaction you would have if, say, your retirement account went bust because of extremely poor management by people who made themselves rich while breaking you. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. You are in deep trouble, there is nothing you can do about it, and you don’t believe it is fair, or your fault. It is not random bad luck. No, you have been cast out. Some say the fate of Jesus is like that of the man without a coat. He came to save, but wasn’t dressed the way people expected. Instead of clothing himself in power and might and riches, he came humbly, eating with the tax collectors and sinners, submitting to his crucifixion. And he was cruelly cast out for it, on the surface, powerless to the scapegoating. Yet his response is so different from the wedding guest. There is no impotent stewing rage, but instead there is compassion and mercy.
So although this interpretation gives me food for thought, ultimately I do not accept it. As I read the passages before and after this one, it is clear to me that the gospel writer Matthew, if not Jesus, indeed intended us to understand the King in the parable as God. In the passages that surround this, Jesus gives the consistent message that those who think they are righteous, but do not follow what God wants will not only lose their position, but will be broken and crushed. He warns against mistreating messengers and servants. And the beginning of this parable follows along with the rebuke to those who assume they are already “in.” The first invitees, the “worthy” guests ignore or refuse the invitation to the banquet, or even worse, abuse and kill the messengers. Then those who are perceived generally as unworthy are rounded up and brought to the wedding feast. The message seems clear. Jesus came to save the Jews, but some did not accept the invitation to a new way of understanding God. So others, good and bad, were invited in their place – the gentiles, slaves, the tax collectors and prostitutes. God’s banquet is now open to those usually on the fringes.
You know I’m still not crazy about the king here. He doesn’t exactly seem welcoming. His rounding up of the others seems almost spiteful, or sour grapes. Like, “fine, they won’t come, I’ll show them. I don’t need them for my party. I’ll invite just anyone. That will make them sorry.” He walks in to see who is there, and we don’t hear anything about a joyous welcome. Instead he zeros in on the one guy who is not wearing a wedding coat and becomes all indignant. Get him outta here! And don’t just evict him, but bind him up and throw him into outer darkness where he can stew in his impotent rage. What is up with that?!
Some biblical scholars point out that it seems Matthew took two parables of Jesus that were originally separate, and stuck them together. And this might make sense for the community that Matthew was addressing in his writing. They were one of several competing Jewish movements in the early first century. The dominant movement led by the Pharisees were hostile to the smaller sects, wanting everyone on board with their way of thinking, and the holiness codes were still important to them. They charged the Christian group with being unclean, with associating with riffraff who would keep the whole group of them from being saved. The first part of the parable is a response to such harassment. You who think you are chosen, don’t be so sure of your place in heaven. God will invite whom God will invite, and the party won’t wait for you.
But there was also a problem in this new community that the attitudes and morals of the newcomers, the non-Jews, were confusing or downright offensive to the Jewish-Christians. They might have wondered, “so okay, we welcome new converts, but does that mean that anything goes? Is there to be no expectation that they follow the guidance of the laws and the prophets?” In some ways, Matthew was like a good marriage counselor with this parable, offering validation and challenge to each side. “Now you need to help more with the household chores, but you, you can’t criticize the way she does them.” The newcomers are to be welcomed into the new community, but are expected to make efforts to change, to respond appropriately to this welcome.
It’s also likely that the listeners knew that the king’s banquet is sort of like a restaurant that requires a jacket for men. There are always back up garments for the person who shows up without one. So the guest without the wedding coat would have been offered one, and would have had to refuse to put it on. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing or not having the resources. It is about a stubborn refusal to fit in, to forgo individuality enough to appreciate the great honor and gift being offered. It is not much different than the self-importance of the landowners and business people who couldn’t bother to show up.
I can appreciate this message. Of all the gospel writers, Matthew seemed most concerned with teaching people how to be a community. The survival of the movement was at stake. Strong language got attention. The temple had already been destroyed, and the covenant people were scattered. They needed to come together, to share the banquet, to manage a balance between inclusivity and apathy.
So okay, I get the message to the community, but I still don’t like the message about the king. Is God just waiting for us to mess up, wanting to jump all over us for our mistakes? What happened to the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to save the lost one? And this king is so aloof, so out of touch!
In many ways, I prefer the God of the Exodus story, angry at the people, murderously angry in fact, but so engaged, so involved. The story starts out with the people who are not feeling the presence of God, represented for them in Moses. “That man,” they say, “we don’t know what’s become of him.” It is so interesting that they say he is the man who brought them out of Egypt, then say the same thing about the god of the golden calf. How badly do they need to feel the presence of God? So much so that they create one, and project upon it the work of the true God.
But God is attuned to them, is aware of what they are doing. And I love how God addresses Moses here. God says, “Hey Moses, your people, who you brought out of Egypt, have acted perversely.” Have you ever said something like that to your partner, “do you know what your child did today?” It’s never anything good, is it? And then God blusters and fumes, with burning hot wrath, all the while setting Moses apart in comparison. “Let my wrath burn hot against them, and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses won’t have it. He turns it around so skillfully. No angry confrontation, no jumping on the bandwagon. Just a reminder of whose people they really are, of who really brought them out of Egypt and why. Just a reminder of the promises made, of the ultimate good of keeping them – the glory and honor of the one true God. And God’s mind is changed.
Now I can relate to God who is angry but wants to be talked down from it. I’ve been there. I mean, after all, who can push your buttons better than the ones you love the most, the ones who are closest to your heart. And, unlike the unfortunate wedding guest, Moses is not mute in the face of this anger. There is a dialogue, there is relationship, even if often a rocky one. Sometimes, when people speak or write about the difficult passages of the bible, they talk about the inscrutability of God, how God is God, completely other, unknowable and mysterious. Sometimes we are asked to let go of our need to understand and just dive into this mystery. But the way God is presented in these two stories is almost too understandable. After all, aren’t we the ones who over-react, who want to give up on people, who judge without listening, who are jealous and demanding? We, or at least I, expect more from God. But perhaps this understanding is also an illusion. God is always bigger and more complex than any understanding we try to attach. Even here we are called to let go of what we think we know, and dive into the mystery.
And for these stories, when I dive in, I want Moses as my guide, as my model of how to respond when others are on the hot seat. Matthew wanted to give a message about how to be a community, but Moses enacts it. If Moses was at the banquet of the parable, he’d be running up to the king saying, “just a minute your majesty. Let me talk to your guest, who you had brought in from the street. Please, let me help to give him the chance to show you proper honor.” And perhaps the king would change his mind.
I believe we are not meant to stand smugly, or even idly by, while others are cast away. Perhaps we are called to do our own gnashing of teeth. Perhaps our collective anguish at losing anybody to outer darkness will empower us to challenge violence and scapegoating in any form, from any source. Perhaps it is then, when we bring our anguish and outrage and pain, when we challenge God about the way things are, we might be given vision of what they could be, and what we can do about it. And maybe only then can the banquet will truly begin.