Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 15, 2017
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 23A
Those of us who have had the privilege of working with young adults as parents, teachers, or both know just how difficult it often can be to set appropriate expectations and boundaries while, at the same time, creating the necessary framework for exploration, genuine growth, and development in freedom. The so-called “wonder years” are not always so wonderful, especially in those times and circumstances when we must set limits, speak the truth in love, and hold our charges accountable and responsible for all their choices—good and bad—all the while communicating, by word and action, our unconditional acceptance and love. Like God—whose throne, according to the psalmist, is rooted and grounded in “justice and mercy”—we too are often challenged to give love its direction from justice, and to temper pure justice with the quality of mercy. No easy task, as many of us know from hard experience!
This difficult and complex reality is at the core of Jesus’ parable in this morning’s Gospel according to Saint Matthew. And, like every parable, it plunges us into a very murky and ambiguous world of hard choices and, sometimes, bitter consequences. In another of his efforts to communicate the nuances of the “kingdom of God” to both his opponents and his disciples, Jesus, this time, chooses a great king’s wedding banquet for his son as the metaphor for the new reality that Jesus the Christ has come to inaugurate.
In the Middle East to this very day, wedding banquets are the apex of social life for the peoples of that region. In the holy city Jerusalem and its environs, every night during the summer months is still punctuated by the sight and sounds of fireworks from all directions as people celebrate the marriages of their relatives and friends. In Jesus’ time and place, many weddings were an eight-day affair of eating, drinking, and dancing that went on long after the bride and groom had left the scene. Think of the story of the marriage feast at Cana in St. John’s Gospel and the staggering amount of wine required for that celebration: small wonder that the guests were amazed that the householder in that instance had saved the best wine for last. At most Middle Eastern weddings, the mediocre wine was served last, long after people were too besotted to tell the difference. And in Jesus’ honor and shame society—then and now—the invitation to a wedding feast was an offer that you literally couldn’t refuse because to do so would be to dishonor and publicly shame the host. In a sense, for people in the Middle East, the world is a wedding; hence, what better way for the New Testament to describe the Holy Eucharist and “the life of the world to come” than as “the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.” The loving union and fidelity of spouses; the celebration and joy; the eight days of festivity with more than enough food and drink; the mutual affirmation of public honor and value for host and guests: the marriage feast is the perfect metaphor for the mystical union of Christ with his spouse, the Church, as well as for the final consummation of God’s covenant with God’s covenant people when “God will be all in all,” described through another metaphor of a great feast in this morning’s reading from the holy prophet Isaiah.
With this cultural and theological perspective in mind, we can appreciate the profound depth and meaning of the affront to the king in Jesus’ parable. To refuse any wedding invitation would have been to publically dishonor the tribe, clan, and family of the host; to refuse to come to the wedding banquet for a king’s beloved son is almost unthinkable. And, according to Jesus, the parable’s refuseniks “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.” No wonder “The king was enraged”! So he acts with appropriate and unsparing justice by “sending his troops, destroying those murderers, and burning their city.” This, after all, is the Hebrew Bible’s “master story” of covenant, sin, exile, redemption, a righteous remnant, and return. A just and gracious king leaves the killers to the prescribed consequences of their murderous acts, and then turns in mercy toward the so-called unworthy without any discrimination. “Go therefore to the main streets,” the king commands, “and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” this time without any preference, conditions, or qualification. And here, Jesus might have ended his story with an affirming nod to custom and conventional morality: the ungrateful louts who repudiated the hospitality of the king by tending to their farms and their businesses and, in some cases, by killing the king’s servants, receive their just retribution as the doors to the banquet hall are flung wide open to all sorts and conditions. Who could disagree or, for that matter, expect anything more?
But that’s not the end of this story. While everyone—without exception or qualification—is invited to the king’s “wedding banquet,” one of his guests fails to show the proper respect for the dignity of the occasion by coming without “a wedding robe.” And now, Jesus’ story makes a direct reference to God’s words spoken through the holy prophet Isaiah, who demands that God’s covenant people put on “the garment of salvation” and the “robe of righteousness. Later, Saint Paul would express it even more pointedly for his Christian communities when he tells them to “put on Christ.” In God’s great “mercy,” and “steadfast love,” God invites everyone without discrimination to the feast of faith. And God, as we hear in this morning’s psalm, “leads,” “renews,” and “guides” us in “right paths as befits God’s holy Name.” God, the “Shepherd of Israel,” “comforts,” his chosen people with his “rod” and “staff” through the gift of the Torah; and in Christ, the Good Shepherd, God lights the way to redemption and salvation for the nations through his beloved Son, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” These—Torah and Gospel—are the “wedding robe” God expects the guests at his “marriage feast” to don for the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “heavenly banquet” of the Messiah. For Jews, this means observance of the Torah in fulfillment of their promise to God at Mount Sinai that “We will do and we will hear”—and in that order; for we Christians, it requires faithfulness to all the promises of our Baptismal Covenant when we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP)
My sisters and brothers in Christ, God in Christ always accepts us just as we are, but he never leaves us there. All of our choices and actions have moral meaning and content and, on this side of the grave, they fall somewhere on the spectrum between good and evil. When we “put on Christ” in holy Baptism, we take on the benefits and the burdens, the rewards and the responsibilities, the disciplines and the duties of the “children of God.” Christ’s “yoke” may be “easy” and his “burden” may be “light,” but it is not a relativistic free-for-all. We too are expected to show up for the “heavenly banquet” wearing our God-given “garment of salvation” and “robe of righteousness.”
And, of course, we will always stumble and fall and fail to meet God’s expectation to live fully into the vision of human possibility intended by a just and merciful God for our true happiness and good. We know, in the words of emeritus Pope Benedict that “without the Creator, the creature fades to nothingness”; that there is no real happiness or freedom apart from “love in the truth.” If the true vocation of a human person is to be fully human, none of us are faithful to that call at all times and in all circumstances. But, when we fall and seek God’s forgiveness and the grace to amend our lives, God is always there to guide and to renew us with “bread for the wilderness” in Christ and through the sacramental life of the Church—including the rite for the “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” When we find ourselves falling down and getting up; falling down and getting up; falling down and getting up again and again, perhaps it is time to experience the grace of forgiveness and renewal available to us through that neglected sacramental rite. Remember, that in the Anglican tradition the rule regarding the “Reconciliation of a Penitent” is that all may; some should; but none must. And we don’t need to be perfect; we only need to be humble and truly human. We have the grace, the merit, and the example of Jesus Christ, the “author, exemplar, and pioneer of our faith,” to show us his “Way.” Then, when our all-too-brief and passing lives come to their appointed end, and we find ourselves before the great judgement seat of a just and merciful God, let us dread to hear the king’s just words from this morning’s Gospel: “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.” Instead, let us pray and prepare ourselves to hear the merciful words of the king in another of Jesus’ parables: “Come, thou blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” For God’s mercy always moves through and beyond God’s justice, and mercy expresses God’s very essence and sovereignty. In an era defined by the tyranny of relativism, when every aspect of human life, and all our institutions—divine and human—seem malleable and subject to human manipulation; in an age whose idol is the self, whose icon is the “selfie,” and whose only moral code is “whatever works for you,” this morning’s Gospel is a poignant reminder that mercy does not preempt justice, but justice must always bend to the possibilities unleashed by God’s infinite compassion, mercy, and steadfast love. AMEN.