This is the homily The Revd Rob Morpeth delivered at Epiphany on October 9, 2011. His text was that day’s Gospel reading:
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, `Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they 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. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `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.”
Things are coming to a head between Jesus and the Sadducees and Pharisees, the two primary religious groups in Israel. In this section of the Gospel of Matthew they mount their most pointed attack on Jesus. They fire off question after question, hoping to trip him on some fine point of doctrine and belief. They hope to catch him in a theological error and pull a noose around him as tight as possible…ridding themselves of this perplexing and troublesome fellow who presumes to speak for God.
It is important for us to recall that it is within this context of attack and confrontation that Jesus says what he says. It is not a friendly Sunday school room with like minded people politely discussing the Sunday reading. Those who are asking these questions are openly hostile. In this tense context Jesus speaks pointedly…directly…even harshly.
In the parable of the wedding feast his message to the Pharisees and Sadducees was clear enough. In this parable there are those who had not the time to join the feast when the invitation went out. They were too preoccupied to attend. It may be that Jesus even hints of his own approaching death, mentioning in his parable that the invitees killed those who came to invite them to the feast. They lose their place at the great wedding banquet and in an image that would turn their world upside down, Jesus pictures the riff-raff of the city being welcomed to the feast. Significantly, good and bad are all welcomed.
There is little question that Matthew, the author of the Gospel, includes this story partly because it would have been important in helping the Gentiles in his congregation…now some 50 years after Jesus first told the parable …. it would be helpful to their understanding of their events that lead to their inclusion in the kingdom. They would have understood from this story that Gentiles were those invited in the second round of invitations. They would have understood that the Jews were those who had declined the original bidding of the host. The destruction of the city mentioned in this version of the parable would have reminded them of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans.
But those messages to the Sadducees and later to the Gentiles in Matthew’s congregation are not compelling for us. Those are no longer our questions. That is no longer our context. We are right to wonder if there might be something more in this story when placed within our own time.
There is certainly something to be said for those passages about gnashing of teeth and weeping. We can let our imaginations run wild conjuring up horrific images of hell and eternal suffering. We can imagine a God-forsaken time and place somewhere beyond…somewhere out there. And we can dangle the prospect of such endless suffering before us as a negative reinforcement to our moral journey. But such fantasies take it all too literally, I think. and more importantly, they leave us with some difficult questions about the nature of God.
Another approach, more consistent with that I believe about God, … another approach is to realize that, if we are still just long enough…and if we are attentive enough to our own souls we can find a place within … a place within that is God-forsaken. A place that has not been kissed by grace. A place within our own spirits and psyches where there is gnashing of teeth…a place deep within where our souls cry out.
A place of hurt…a place in which we feel bound by the past. Unable to loose ourselves from things done and left undone. A place where we fell vulnerable…clothed only in remorse, in regret. Our place of gnashing teeth and weeping eyes need not be on some distant shore beyond the grave. It may be as close as our own troubled spirit and darkened memory.
And it is here perhaps that we may now recognize ourselves in this story this morning. We may now see that we fit best in the role of the man who is cast out at the end of the story. He is cast out of the feast because he lacks the proper clothing. He is bound hand and foot and thrown into darkness. this hapless character may be our point of entry into this story from Jesus.
We are this man. We are if there is a place within that remains somehow off limits to God. We are this man if we have rejected the garment offered by the host at the wedding banquet. Perhaps because of ignorance…perhaps because of pride and stubbornness…perhaps because our wills remain as yet unbroken. Whatever the reason we are become a little like Adam and Eve who grasp at a fig leaf supposing they can hide from God. But this garment does not meet the dress code for the banquet. A garment of our own design held onto long after it has served any possible purpose. And thus in our refusal to accept the garment offered, we are left weeping and gnashing our teeth.
The answer, of course, is to accept the garment offered by the host. To cast aside pride and stubbornness in favor of grace and forgiveness. to grant the healing spirit of God entrance into our hearts and memories that the bindings might be loosed and the darkness illuminated. so that whatever is broken within us might be made whole.
To understand it might be helpful here to recall another parable of forgiveness and feasting. The prodigal son would know well what we mean if we speak of an inner place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. In that story the son runs off to make a life for himself. Turning his back on his father…even wishing his father dead by asking for his inheritance early – the son sets out on his own prideful…determined…even lustful course. But he does not succeed for long. he is soon out of money, out of pride and out of his mind in regret.
And it is just at that moment that the story of the prodigal son parallels the parable today. the judgement visited upon the son as he weeps amongst the pigs is a judgement of mercy. A judgement that seeks not condemnation and death but rather transformation. It seeks to make new that which is judged. The son is seized by the memory of his father and turns…turns back toward him. And the father who exclaims his joy upon seeing that the boy has turned back to him offers him a new garment …. the father runs to his son and clothes him in the finest robes and welcomes him to a feast.
The theme is repeated in the writing of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah portrays God as the one who clothes us upon our turning to him. He writes, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for God has clothed me with garments of salvation. God has covered me with the robe of righteousness.
George Herbert understands it rightly in his poetry. That great parish priest writing in the 17th century knew what it was to be delivered from places of grinding teeth and weeping. Listen as he casts the truth of this parable in poetry…he writes …
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack from my first entrance in
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, if i lacked anything.
A guest, I answered worthy to be here,
Love said, you shall be he.
I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear i cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply.
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them
Let my shame go where it doth deserve.
And you know not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
The poet priest models for us the heart that is properly turned that it might be clothed and attend the feast.
The invitation is now … in this moment … to all who would put aside their preoccupations and come … to those willing to lay aside vainful pride and to confess a need. Let the host provide your garment. Be loosed from that which binds and blocks loves abiding in your life. The King of Love calls. Come and join the banquet.