Monday, October 16, 2023

A Weird Wedding Feast


Matthew 22:1-14

Proper 23 / Year A

Today’s parable of the wedding feast proclaims one particular thing which truly is good news: you and I are invited to God’s feast.  In fact, it is open to everyone who will respond to the invitation to attend.  This is good news indeed.  But, as they say, the devil is in the details and the details of this story leave much to be desired. 

It starts off on such a high note – a king plans a wedding feast for his son.  When all is ready, he sends out his servants to summon the invited guests.  Although not identified, we would expect these folks are family and friends of the king along with various dignitaries and worthies.  But this group refuses to attend.  The king resends his representatives to plead with the invitees.  Some guests go about their daily affairs while others mistreat the envoys, going so far to kill them.  It is an act of unexpected violence not merited and seemingly without any particular motivation or aim.  The king retaliates with a response out of proportion to the atrocities committed.  He sends his troops to “destroy” the murders and to burn their city. 

It is impossible to hear this ancient story without connecting it to what is happening now in Israel and Gaza.  The Palestinians have been the victims of human rights violations for decades, but (to be clear) this in no way justifies attacking and slaughtering innocent civilians.  The actions of Hamas, a radical fringe of the Palestinian people, is bringing untold suffering to innocent Christians and Muslims within its own population; many of whom are peaceful and support working with Israel to resolve nonviolently the difficult issues between them.

Israel has responded to these attacks as it must to secure its people and borders as well as eliminate the threat Hamas poses to its safety.  But in so doing it is creating a humanitarian crisis beyond imagining.  I am not a military analyst so I don’t have a blueprint for how to conduct this war.  But I am a human being and what I can say is my heart breaks for both sides.  I pray for a just peace but fear the possibility of ethnic cleansing. 

So, back to the parable.  After destroying the murderers and burning the city, the king sends his servants out to invite whoever they can find.  Out of the ashes and ruins enough people are found to fill the hall.  Are they there because they want to be or are they just attending because they fear what the king might do if they stay away?  Either way, the guests are compliant, going so far as to adhere to ordinary customs around such an occasion.  All, except for one.  The king notices a man not wearing a wedding robe and orders him to be bound hand and a foot and thrown into the outer darkness.  Perhaps it softens the thud of this act to know the king provides wedding robes for people to wear, thus, not wearing one is an act of defiance.

Traditional interpretations of the story hold the king represents God, Jesus represents the son, prophets such as John the Baptist represent the servants, the religious leaders and authorities of the day represent the initial invited guests, and the people who respond to the invitation are the folks who follow Jesus.  The man without a robe is an allusion to people like Judas who are in the Jesus movement, but not of it.  One of the troubling things about this interpretation is how it portrays God.  If the king represents God, then God is both generous and vengeful, reactive with fury, and willing to judge our character if not our attire.  Fortunately, this is not the only parable Jesus tells and he gives us a much broader picture of God the Father in the rest of the gospels.

We had a pretty full agenda for last Monday’s meeting of the Vestry.  After mulling over various issues with the building and property and reading through the financial reports, we had finished everything on our list, but the meeting was not over.  We got to talking about the people and families who have not returned since the pandemic.  Like the invited guests who don’t to come to the feast, we pondered why these folks have not come back.  We don’t have any real answers, but recognize we are not alone.  Pretty much every church, regardless of denomination or theological leaning, has seen its average Sunday attendance drop.

And it isn’t just churches.  Summer camp registrations are also down.  The Chanco Board has hired a consultant to help us to better understand who we are and what we offer in order to better market ourselves.  At our meeting last Tuesday, she shared some basic marketing principles.  The first, which relates to your product, is this: people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.  In today’s parable this would transform the invitation to come the feast into “I want to celebrate my son’s marriage.  Will you join me?”  Perhaps at St. Paul’s our message should not be “Our Sunday service is at 9:30”, but rather “Faith, friendship, and a focus on outreach drive us and all we do.”