Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown , NJ
October 11, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 25:1–10; Matthew 22:1–14
In the past whenever I looked at the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times, I always wondered who gets invited to those social events reported and how did they get invited? They weren’t always the so-called beautiful people, but they were usually rich. Some of the names were familiar: Astor, Rockefeller, and Tisch, and some of them were not so familiar––well, at least not to me.
Obviously, I never moved in those circles. The photos were always of the partygoers fluttering about in small groups, sometimes standing next to some celebrity, sometimes just by themselves. By virtue of their money and social position, they seemed to be the called and the chosen.
In this parable, Jesus refers to the practice in the ancient world of being told twice of a feast to which people were to come. First, people were invited ahead of time so that they would have time to prepare for the feast; then they were told when to actually come. This was a society where all communication was by some form of personal contact, whether verbally or by a hand-delivered letter. You had no other way to communicate. There were no telephones, no computer to tell you “You’ve got mail.”
Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus telling this parable as part of salvation history and as a warning to the readers. God’s first invitation was to the people of Israel, who killed God’s servants, the prophets; then the Messiah comes and invites all, including sinners and Gentiles, and those who put on the clothes of righteousness will share in the feast. The one hapless soul who thinks he can just show up without preparing for the feast is cast into the outer darkness.
Scholars think that this is probably what the writer intended for his audience in the recitation of Jesus’ parable. Theologians like Augustine and Calvin used the parable in support of their varied doctrines of predestination. “Many are called; few are chosen” became a particular hallmark in Calvin’s doctrine of the elect.
For centuries, religious people have struggled not just with the idea of salvation but also with the idea of who gets saved. As people of the twenty-first century, most of us have put away what we consider to be medieval concepts of hell and eternal punishment because they are––well, really uncomfortable for us. Critics of the concept of eternal damnation have been around since at least the fourth century but were declared heretics.
With a few exceptions, it was only with the Enlightenment that people began to seriously question whether a loving God would really pack people off to hellfire and brimstone forever no matter what. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was, of course, one way to address the concern that people had for their loved ones in eternity.
So, what do we do with a text like this? What sense does it make for our lives? How does it relate to texts such as the one from Isaiah this morning, which was not the accompanying lectionary reading but one that made more sense in light of the Gospel reading for the day.
Back in May, I included some information about the historical Isaiah, one of the few personages in Hebrew Scripture whose existence is actually verified through an archaeological find. We know that the historical Isaiah, the author of this morning’s text, prophesied both the destruction and the restoration of Jerusalem.
The poetic imagery is lovely: God is a refuge to the poor and needy, a shelter from the rainstorm, and a shade from the heat. It is in Isaiah that we begin to see the promise of God extended beyond a small tribe in Judah to all the earth: On this mountain––Jerusalem––the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast . . . and God will destroy the shroud cast upon all peoples, the sheet spread over all nations: death.
Matthew’s Gospel, written late in the first century after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, was probably intended for a Jewish Christian audience, seeking to persuade the readers that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and that God’s salvation was open to all, including Gentiles. The imagery used by Matthew’s Jesus would have been familiar to his listeners. I say listeners because very few people were actually literate and the texts we know today as the Gospels were usually read to worshipers in the small, but growing churches. The Passion narratives which included the meal we know as the Lord’s Supper were usually read as part of worship.
Early Christians looked to the promise of everlasting life as essential to their faith because so many of them were actually being killed by the Roman authorities who saw this new religion as subversive and unpatriotic, primarily because early Christians refused to participate in the imperial cult––a bit like pledging allegiance to the flag in today’s world. It was only sixty-five years ago that in our own country that Jehovah’s Witnesses were extended full civil liberties when they refused to pledge allegiance, the equivalent of our own imperial cult, a decision decried by many as unpatriotic in the midst of the Second World War.
The early Christians would have understood the story of the improperly attired guest as someone who did not prepare properly for worship; that is, the one who had not prepared spiritually and had not truly repented of past misdeeds and sins. Essential to worship were repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The passing of the peace at communion is a symbol of the reconciliation so essential to being spiritually attired, so to speak. It is the Christian version of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation that Jewish communities practice on the Day of Atonement, celebrated two weeks ago.
So, how do we spiritually prepare in response to God’s invitation? What is it that we need to do? First, we need to confess our own sin and weakness, our own failings. Part and parcel of that confession is stating why we are upset or angry and that includes telling others that we are upset with their behavior and failings as well. Reconciliation is a two-way street; we can’t be reconciled until we forgive others and are forgiven. God’s invitation to us includes our spiritual preparation for the feast. Our response should be just that.
Let us pray: God of forgiveness and reconciliation, bring us into harmony with you as we confess our sins and failings, as we seek forgiveness for our weaknesses, and as we reconcile ourselves with you by reconciling with our brothers and sisters. Amen.