Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dangerous Feasts

The wedding feast described in Matthew 22:1-14, the gospel text appointed for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, is a feast that one wonders if we would want to be invited to or not!  Some who are invited and fail to RSVP properly are destroyed and their city burned.  Another poor soul who obeyed the call to come in from life on the streets and join the party is suddenly informed that wedding garments are required and he finds himself thrown into "the outer darkness."  Is this parable, as some scholars have argued, provided to show us a way contrary to the way God deals with us, or is this a warning to us who presume we have been invited to the feast?  That will be for us to decide.

(The following questions are an attempt to address some of the fundamental concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  These questions come from the method I have developed in my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  No matter how you understand this parable, as one showing us the way of God or showing us a way contrary to God's way, the Word functions here as Law.  In the first line of the chapter Matthew tells us that "once more Jesus spoke to them in parables."  "Them" refers to the chief priests and Pharisees identified at the end of the previous chapter. (21:45)  The parable then goes on to lift up the outrageous behavior of wedding guests who have been invited to the banquet of the prince, but who show, not only complete contempt for the king, but even go so far as to seize the king's messengers, mistreat them, and finally kill them.  This early portion of the parable announces clearly, "Beware of this king!  He will judge those who act as these scoundrels did!"

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is little Gospel here, any word that proclaims what God in Christ has done.  One could argue that the announcement that "both good and bad" were called into the feast is a Gospel word, but even that word is overshadowed by the last piece of the parable.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are called to identify with the chief priests and Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking.  This parable functions as the Law often does, as a mirror, showing us our sin.  "We have Abraham as our father," was the line of the Pharisees.  We might substitute any number of other presumptuous lines ourselves:  "We have Luther as our forbearer."  In any case, presumption will not do.  We also, in our self-righteousness, might bristle at the thought that "both the good and bad" are invited to God's banquet table, not celebrating the generosity of God.  In many ways this parable is fashioned to lead us to repentance.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The final piece of the parable has been seen by many commentators as a call to obedience.  The necessity for a wedding garment is once again a warning to us of any further presumption we might have regarding God's expectations of the elect.  We have been chosen to attend the feast.  Good.  Now, be dressed in a manner worthy of Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  With little evidence of a Gospel word here, we are left to our imaginations regarding couplets.  We might try:  uninvited/chosen; outside the feast/called to the feast; unclothed/clothed.

6. Exegetical work:  Any number of commentaries on the parables of Jesus are helpful with this text.  David Buttrick reminds us that "Behind the parable of the Feast is an image of the great messianic banquet, a symbol of worldwide salvation. [from Isaiah 25]." (Speaking Parables, p. 158)  Luise Schottroff argues that this parable must not be read ecclesiologically but eschatologically.  She rejects the idea that Matt. 22:14 means "salvation for a small, elite group and rejection of the rest of the world." [Rather] "The genre of Matt. 22:14 is "praise of God who has called and chosen, and thus has given a task to both the many and the few." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 47-48)  A number of ancient commentators have centered on the final piece of this parable, notably Augustine:  "The garment that is required is in the heart, not on the body, for if it had been put on externally, it could not have been concealed even from the servants.  But what is the wedding garment that must be put on?  We learn it from these words, 'May your priests be clothed with righteousness.'"  And later Augustine more precisely identifies this righteousness as "charity" as defined by St. Paul.  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1b, p. 147)

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry insists that we must always move our listeners from equilibrium into disequilibrium and then out again.  This parable is an excellent vehicle for this, for this follows the story line quite closely.  The difficulty will be to make the gospel sing when it is all but hidden in the story itself.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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