Sermon given at St Matthews, Riverdale, Toronto on Sunday October 12th, Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend
Matthew 22: 1-14
As the rector reminded us last week, we are at that place in Matthew’s Gospel, and in our lectionary readings, where a series of parables come one after the other, repeat themes, and reinforce one another. Jesus has now arrived in Jerusalem before his passion. He has spoken openly to his disciples about his pending death, and the violence that will precede it.
“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.”
Now he has arrived at the fateful moment and he begins to address them in parables. One thing is striking. The theme of violence is unmistakable. A prominent householder builds a fine vineyard with all the bells and whistles. He lets it out to tenants who not only produce nothing worth mentioning but beat and kill his servants when they arrive to inspect. He sends in reinforcements and they get the same terrible treatment. At last he sends his own son, thinking this will bring them to their senses. Instead they devise to kill him, so the vineyard will be theirs.
At this point Jesus turns to the religious leaders and asks what ought to be done? Their verdict is swift: put the wretches to a miserable death and let the vineyard out to those who will produce fruit.
This morning we get a similar story in three rounds. Now we have a king who puts on a lavish banquet, in honor of his son. Save the date notices have gone out, and servants are dispatched when the great day arrives. But the invited guests refuse to show up…
He sends out servants to clarify what a grand affair it is; and the food is piping hot! For their effort they are ignored, or indeed, beaten and killed. This time the king’s response matches the verdict given earlier by the religious leaders. Incensed, the king sends out troops who destroy the murderers and burn down their city.
Before we turn to the parable’s conclusion, notable surely is the almost irrational violence displayed, first to servants and the son of the vineyard owner. And then to the servants of the King…by guests invited to a lavish banquet! This is not only refusing to attend Mom’s thanksgiving dinner, but going on a senseless rampage when she says to turn off the TV and blowing up the car in the driveway.
The violence within these parables in Jerusalem only makes sense against the backdrop of Jesus’ last days. Accurately, if tragically, they anticipate the treatment Jesus will receive from his own people, as well as the gentile rulers. The vineyard owner’s son has come! The messianic banquet is ready! But Jesus knows what is in store for him. And he is right.
Now at one level the parables are fairly straightforward. God expected a responsive vineyard and joy at a banquet he had labored to prepare. But rather than seeing Jesus as its true fulfillment, the very son of God, the invited guests reject and kill him.
So what does he do? He goes out into the streets and invites others to come. Good and bad, you and me.
But as with last week, the parable is not so straightforward as it first seems. Someone is there at the banquet and notable for not bothering with a wedding garment, appropriate to the occasion and available for free at the door. Unlike the others, he is at the buffet table in a trench coat with deep pockets, piling in the chess pie and turkey with dressing. For this, we should note, his treatment is every bit as severe as that of the ingrates who killed the King’s servants. “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into outer darkness.”
Surely at this point the parable turns on its searchlight and scans for you and me. Am I wearing a wedding garment? What does that mean? One answer for sure is: to be a joyous participant at God’s banquet is more than just shuttling in with someone else’s battered and unused invitation, left behind after the city of invited guests was razed.
Last week it was the stone that caused stumbling. This week the wedding garment. To remind us surely that God’s final work in Jesus, for you and for me, is much, much more than getting to sit in seats vacated by those who refused to come before us, who indeed refused violently, who had high-grade stock invitations and clothes fit for the occasion.
Brother Jim was bad and had to go to his room, so I got to eat his turkey with stuffing.
I have found it difficult for my mind not to go to the movie that captures something of the deep truth of Jesus parable today, Babette’s Feast. If you don’t know the story please bear with me.
The pious daughters of a stern but holy minister have now reached ripe old age. Though the catch of the small Danish town where they grew up, they never married. Instead they lived lives of religious simplicity and sanctity, and did good deeds. Fleeing persecution in France, the mysterious Babette one day appears and places herself at their service. As the days go forward, Babette discovers that an old lottery ticket she has kept is in fact a winner. She proposes to the elderly daughters a banquet to honor the 100th anniversary of their pious father. They do not know the vastness of the sums she has won, and that she in turn spends, to prepare this lavish banquet for them, having all the exotic herbs, and vegetables, meat and poultry and fish, cases of wines for each course, all brought over from France.
Now as the feast approaches they grow restive and worried. The rich and foreign food frightens them, and they fear the sensual pleasure will dishonor their father. Who knows all the reasons for their anxiety? The strangeness of the food, patterns and habits they have grown used to, which are now threatened, the things done and left undone in the way their lives and ours unfold.
But in the end they agree. Fortunately one of the old suitors, who has lived a rich and worldly life, returns and is a guest alongside them. Twelve in number. He savors each dish. He eases them into the enjoyment of this unbelievable banquet Babette has so lovingly prepared. He declares only once in his life ever to have eaten such a meal, long ago, at a restaurant in Paris.
Now it is in the midst of the banquet, lost a bit in the food and wine, that their minds return to the past, the years now gone, and their stern but loving father. Old scenes are played out, wounds and petty skirmishing amongst them re-lived, and forgivenesses exchanged and received. Life brought back over so many years past, and redeemed in the presence of the banquet and of one another and of their loving hostess.
For the people of God, the messianic banquet was one in which the faithful in Israel moved from this life to the life to come. In the fullness of time Jesus comes personally to set the table for the banquet. But it frightens his own to the point of death itself. The reasons are not fully clear or stated, though the reaction is deeply wounding. And for those of us who have been invited to take their places, or sit alongside those who did come, we cannot enjoy all that Christ comes to give us without a wedding garment. So where do we get that?
Jesus says the one without the garment is cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And that is of course the place he has himself come to occupy amongst us, without a garment of his own, except one parted and for which soldiers cast lots. So that, in him, fresh garments might be made for all. The first and the last.
The parable does not stay at the level of ”˜they are out, so you are in’ but probes more deeply. The ladies in Babette’s feast never wore wedding garments of their own, and in their duty and in their ordered lives must have missed out on much. Things that over time seemed lost for good, or upon their approach, scared them. So a man sat at table with them and helped them view the broad landscape of their lives without fear, and where regret and wounds arose, to heal and to bind them up. Clothing them in the love the banquet released then and now.
In the end they anticipate that, with the banquet now completed, their beloved Babette will leave and return home to France, not knowing that she has spent every single penny she has on them.
It is of course to this kind of banquet we have been invited, every day of our life. Our wedding garments have been woven by the one who spent all he had that we might be rich in his poverty and in his love. The outer darkness has been laid claim to, so that the save the date time is always there for our Yes and our decision to join in the feast. Will we join in? Will we put on the lovely garment he has made just for us and in our size? It sounds too good to be true because in Christ it is.
As for the Israel that refused, or that ignored or went away on business: Isaiah speaks from deep within their own number and proclaims the promise we hear this morning. So let’s end with that. It was directed from afar to us, who were not of the household of Israel and had no wedding garment. But now it speaks to them and bids, them and us both, come.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine””
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The LORD has spoken.
In that day they will say,
“Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the LORD, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
The Reverend Professor Christopher Seitz is Senior Research Professor at Wycliffe College, Toronto and has recently published a Commentary on Colossians. He also serves as Canon Theologian in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.