Sermon #203 St. James the Less #110 10/11/20
O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
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.”
The Messianic Banquet
Last week we were given the image of a vineyard, and this week it’s a wedding banquet. And just like last week, Jesus again borrows a scene from the prophet Isaiah.
In our reading from Isaiah 25, the prophet has a vision of God setting the world right at the end of the age, and Isaiah describes it in terms of an extravagant feast with rich-food and fine wines.
The vision that Isaiah lays out would capture the Jewish imagination for generations to come. When people thought of the end of history—when God’s kingdom would finally be fulfilled—they understood it to include a banquet with the Messiah, known as “the messianic banquet” (309).
And tucked in amid all the details about the quality of food and drink that will be provided at this eschatological feast, Isaiah slips in the small detail that “all people” will be invited: meaning Gentiles (those ritually unclean, pagan unbelievers) as well as Jews.
But as the centuries went on, the Jewish vision of the messianic banquet began to change ever so slightly. During Jesus’ day, a translation of the Hebrew Bible was being passed around in the common language of the people, which was Aramaic. This was the main language that Jesus and his contemporaries spoke, and this new translation was called the Targum.
The translators of the Targum felt they were at liberty to add their own words to the text, as a way of clarifying what the passage actually meant. For us today, the Targum gives us a clue as to how first-century Jews interpreted the Bible.
In the Targum’s translation of Isaiah’s messianic banquet, “all people” are invited to the banquet (including Gentiles), but the translator added, “And although they supposed it is an honor, it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end” (310).
The Targum had completely changed the meaning and purpose of the messianic banquet. The banquet was a trap for those filthy unbelievers.
Another document was being passed around by the first century that also said that Gentiles would be invited to the banquet, but the angel of death would be present as well and would use his sword to destroy the Gentiles.
It even went into graphic detail, saying that the true believers would have to wade through the blood of the Gentiles in order to sit with the Messiah at the true banquet (Enoch 311).
Like the childhood game “Telephone,” that had gone terribly wrong, the original message that Isaiah was laying out for the people of Israel—a message of hope for all people—had been distorted and marred as it was passed down through the generations.
By the time of Jesus, some 700 years after Isaiah, the good news of the messianic banquet had been limited to only the children of Abraham. The feast would end up being a judgment of death on all the other nations.
You can then understand how surprised Jesus’ original listeners must have been when they heard him give a very different interpretation of Isaiah’s banquet.
For one thing, it is shocking, even abhorrent, to think that the invited guests would not attend. They would rather go work on their farm or at their business or even maliciously attack the messenger who was inviting them to the king’s table. That is utterly shocking.
What good is labor and work when history is coming to a close? They are too self-absorbed to read the signs of the time.
But Jesus takes it even a step further; if the invited guests won’t come then the party is open to the street people, the common folks, the outsiders, both good and bad. No RSVP needed.
This parable is all about the overwhelming graciousness of God; the God who invites and calls us to his banquet, even if we are not literal sons and daughters of Abraham, those holding the RSVP or VIP pass.
But as the parable shows, this is also the God who lets us say no to him, so that we can continue to do the work we’d rather do. He has given us the freedom to walk away from him, to busy ourselves with the other things we think are important, and even the freedom to scoff at his gracious invitation.
All are welcomed to the feast, the door is wide open, nothing is in our way, but there is this odd interaction at the end of our parable where one of the new guests is not wearing a wedding robe and he is thrown into the outer darkness.
How is this any better than the Targum translation? Either way, you are doomed-by plague or bound in darkness.
Many theologians throughout the centuries have wrestled with this ending to the parable. What is the wedding robe that we should be wearing?
The early church thought it was holiness, Augustine said it was love, the Reformers claimed it was faith. What is clear is that though the door is wide open to get into the banquet, something is expected, even required, of those who dare to dine at the Lord’s Table.
This is a parable warning all Christians, lukewarm Christians specifically, that outward profession of faith may not be enough. Saying we’re a Christian when it is convenient or acceptable may not do the trick.
Like all the ancient prophets, Jesus too is calling for inner transformation in the life of the believer. In the psalms God says that he abhors sacrifices and solemn assemblies; what he really wants is a broken and contrite heart that seeks after him and him alone.
What is required to stay at the messianic banquet is a life of faith and holiness, and when you think about it, it’s the least we can do for our gracious Host.
The writer Matthew focusses time and again on God’s overwhelming generosity—in this parable alone the king invites the guests multiple times and then opens the way for all people (both good and bad), but there are expectations of those who plan to stay.
The Demands of Membership
I want to think for a moment about faith and expectations, and how that may work in our lives today.
I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who serves a healthy and growing congregation in Texas. At his church, they’ve done things a little differently than many other churches.
Many, if not most, churches these days are in serious need of some new people and will do anything to ensure that they don’t leave. Think about it, the average Sunday attendance of a typical Episcopal church is 50 people. You’ve got to have a core to continue your church for years to come. Churches talk about being welcoming and inviting, not forcing anything onto people.
There’s some good sense to that. You don’t need to invite someone who just walked in the door to join the choir or the Altar Guild—that really does scream desperation.
But my friend is concerned that we’ve watered it down so much that there are no expectations for church members, new or old. We’re afraid that if we say, “A church member is expected to do x, y, or z,” that might rub some people the wrong way and they’d end up going to another church.
We’ve made it so easy for people to come and go, and we thought that putting expectations on members would send people running for the door, especially those on the fringe, but maybe not…
Our parable shows us that something is expected of all of us Christians, and it may not be such a bad idea if churches expected something out of their members.
My friend says that at his church they have created some expectations for any new potential members, and the same goes for long-time members as well. If a person is going to be a member of that church they must agree to work towards a tithe, because generosity is an important Christian virtue. Getting connected with a ministry of the church is something they may or may not want to do, but if they’re going to be a member, then they’re expected to be engaged in the work of the church.
You might think that this would turn off many new members, and some do head for the doors, but you’d be amazed at how many people want to be a member there because something is expected of them.
I think part of it is that each person is seen as a valuable part of the church. They take people’s gifts and talents seriously, and they put those gifts and talents to work for the glory of God. They feel appreciated and needed BECAUSE they are needed.
This parable has convicted me, and I hope it’s hit a chord with you. I want to challenge all who are here: Come and worship with us and come often—that’s a huge piece of the puzzle—come build relationships with those you are worshiping with. Stick around after the service and meet someone new—take a chance.
Get connected in one of our ministries, partner with our outreach projects, volunteer at CCM, invite a coworker or friend to church, maybe even have a socially distant meal with someone you’ve wanted to get to know from church. You’re needed; we value the gifts you bring to this place.
Our church (and every church) is becoming smaller, partly because of the growing secular nature of our culture but also the pandemic has quickly shrunk our numbers even more. We must rethink what’s the purpose of being a member of a local church anymore. There are so many other things to do with our time: why this?
It is not a social club nor is like a play at the theatre that you come and passively watch from the mezzanine, but it is something that you participate in—where together we live into our mission “to boldly proclaim the gospel and joyfully share God’s abundance.”
And we do that within the context of this community, together, and you are the hands and feet of our church to those outside these walls.
This shouldn’t be a burden, and God willing it isn’t bad news. It is a feast after all, as our parable tells us, it is something to be enjoyed and excited about; to partake in as active members of God’s banquet.
May we embrace not only the invitation that we are so graciously given but also to live into the expectations that are demanded of every disciple of Jesus Christ.