10.12.14 The Wedding Parable
18 Pentecost Proper 23 A
October 12, 2014
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HolySpirit. Amen.
There are a lot of things about this gospel story that I like and that I understand. I can accept that the story is a parable about God’s Kingdom. I see many of the parallels between the King in the story and God in our lives.
The invitation to enter the wedding banquet is clear, and it’s also very clear that not everyone takes up God’s invitation to live the way God likes.
I like how even the undesirables and outcasts of society get to come to the wedding banquet—or to the Kingdom of God. That’s beautiful. But there’s one thing that really perplexes me. Even offends me.
That’s the poor guy who came to the party without the right clothes on and got banished forever because of it…yowza, that is some punishment, to be thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What is gnashing of teeth, anyway? It’s grinding the teeth together, and it’s always paired with weeping or wailing. I guess it’s a symbol of anger, despair, and hopelessness…
Just the idea of coming to the party with the wrong clothes on and suffering eternally for it—that’s awful. It seems so capricious. Even more awful is what this passage implies about God. The King in this story—our symbol for God—is vindictive, harsh, judgmental, and punishing.
Some of us may have these associations and fears about God. Fears that we’ll never be good enough for God because we’re not “wearing the right garments”. Fears that we, too, might be banished into the outer darkness.
What might we do with these awful fears?
We have to admit—it’s so much more comfortable to dwell on images of God as loving, kind, and forgiving, isn’t it?
What do we do with this dualism in God’s character that we see in Scripture?
Well, to address this perplexing split personality, I’d like to first point out that the gospel of Luke gives us this same parable, but with a significant difference. The story is in chapter 14 of Luke [Luke 14:15-24]. That account of the big dinner given by a rich man doesn’t have any mention at all of the fellow who showed up without the right clothes on. That’s interesting.
Only Matthew’s gospel gives us that troubling detail. Matthew also gives us a whole lot of teeth-gnashing and angry father-figures. There is mention of gnashing of teeth 5 times in Matthew’s gospel but nowhere else. Could it be that what was happening in Matthew’s community got translated into these very negative vibes in this gospel?
Actually, many scholars think that Matthew is reacting to persecution of his community by Jewish authorities as well as the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that happened in 70 AD. Matthew seems to have an axe to grind, and he’s grinding and gnashing away at it.
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Sometimes Holy Scripture is troubling, isn’t it? Sometimes we get conflicting images of God’s personality. What can we do in times like that?
Here’s some advice from a very prolific contemporary Franciscan priest in the Roman tradition, named Richard Rohr. This guy is a terrific writer and his theology is sound, in my humble opinion. Listen to how he addresses the problem, in his book called Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (2007, p. 12):
“Life itself—and Scripture too—is always three steps forward and two steps backward. It gets the point and then loses it or doubts it. In that, the biblical text mirrors our own human consciousness and journey. Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship).”
Rohr says that as we grow spiritually we’re better able to see the vindictive passages in context and in relationship to the many more passages of forgiveness and love. That is certainly our “homework” for our entire lives.
OK, so that being said, isn’t there still some point in Matthew giving us the scene with the fellow without the proper clothing? I think there is. Commentators from early church theologians up to now have commented that the proper “robe” for entering into the Kingdom of God is the white garment of baptism. They have seen this passage as a commentary on what they perceived as the necessity of baptism for salvation. But let’s go a little farther than that, shall we?
St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians talks about being clothed with Christ. This surely is the apotheosis of what it means to be clothed with the right garment in God’s presence.
Being clothed with Christ is more than being baptized, although that can be a profound beginning. But being clothed with Christ also is following the advice of Paul in his letter to the Philippians, a passage of which we have before us today. Paul urges the Christians in Philippi to rejoice in everything, even the stuff that is difficult in our lives. Be a poster child for gentleness. Don’t worry about anything [easy for him to say??] but turn to God instead. And you will know peace, having turned over worry.
And meanwhile we keep ourselves informed about the needs around us and on the other side of the globe, and we act to help and pray and give as we can.
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And now, we haven’t totally addressed our discomfort with our parable today. There is still that “what if?” that remains—what if God really does judge us unworthy to inherit eternal life? What if we are thrown into the outer darkness?
If anyone here struggles with these ideas of possible condemnation, I want to commend this little book to you. It’s written by one of the shining lights in 20th Century Christianity, the Anglican writer C.S. Lewis. The book is called The Great Divorce, and it’s a little parable itself. But it’s not about marriage and divorce; instead, it’s about the separation between Heaven and Hell.
The upshot of the book is that even after we die we may be given significant opportunities to repent, to turn from our preoccupation with our selves, to ask for transformation. What it takes is the openness to receive what we know we need. And when we turn, we are saved.
Read this sometime if you struggle with ideas of God’s goodness and God’s judgment. It’s from our library. I’ll take it to coffee hour today, in fact.
Our God is complex, but as Scripture shows, our ability to discern God’s character has evolved through time. May we grow up into maturity and trust, knowing that the only full and solid faith that’s worth anything / is faith in Jesus and his Father God.
Be open to being changed. He will do it.