Today’s Gospel lesson is pretty challenging and it brings up a central issue about salvation: What exactly is it that saves us? Are we saved simply by believing in Christ? If so, what does that say about people of other faiths? Or are we saved by our works, by good deeds in our lifetime? If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?
What do we mean when we talk about being saved? And what does that mean about what choices we make?
Matthew has Jesus using another parable to highlight the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership at the time. I’ll get to Matthew’s motivation in a moment. For now, let’s open up the parable a bit.
The King (God), is giving a wedding banquet for his son and the people who are invited, (the Jewish leadership or the people of Israel), would not come. And even though God sent people to come after them (the prophets), the people make light of the invitation, refusing to go, even killing those who have been sent.
And in answer to this violence… God seeks vengeance. The king destroys the murderers and burns the city. Then goes and seeks different guests for the wedding, both good and bad.
Let’s stop here for a moment. Let’s consider what Matthew is writing and why.
Much like John’s Gospel, Matthew is writing for a group of people who were Jews and had been telling stories for several generations about this man named Jesus who had been put to death by the Roman authorities. Both John and Matthew were writing for these kinds of communities whereas Luke and Mark were writing for more mixed communities that included non-Jews.
We know that about 30 years after Jesus died, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, forcing the grief-stricken and traumatized Jews into a new way of life. No longer having the Temple at the center of their faith, Jews began following various teachers called rabbis. Today, there is no Temple Judaism, there is only Rabbinic Judaism.
And this leads us to the differences in the storytelling of the Gospel writers. You see, it’s not just a matter of style, but the common stories are told with different emphases and slants. Because each community was dealing with the fall of Judaism in different ways in different contexts. Each community was developing its beliefs and telling stories that helped them to form those beliefs, to form their identities, their sense of belonging.
The Matthean community had come to understand Jesus as the messiah and the divinity of Jesus became very important to them, to offer legitimacy to their movement in the face of the other Jews in the area who didn’t believe. Thus, the stories of the Matthean community were purposely divisive, blaming the Jewish people for killing Jesus, giving themselves a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of belonging to God.
And in this series of parables that we’ve been reading over the past month or so, Matthew intensifies the divide with each parable, increasing the violent imagery each time. Blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.
I said this a few weeks ago and I want to reiterate it because it’s incredibly important. For centuries, scripture has been deeply misused by Christians to provide a reason to hate Jews and has created the misunderstanding that Christianity is the sole inheritor of Judaism. All of these parables are in danger of being read this way. And, it’s an improper reading of them.
And this brings us back to the beginning of the sermon and the point of this parable – exactly what is it that saves us? Are we saved simply by believing in Jesus as the Christ? If so, what does that say about people of others’ faiths? Or are we saved by our works, by our good deeds in our lifetime? If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?
As we continue to move through Matthew’s parable for today, we can discern that this is not just about believing in Jesus as the Messiah.
Those that were invited, the Jewish people, are now destroyed because they were unworthy. They did not believe. So, the king invites everyone else to the banquet and they all come, both good and bad. But here’s the thing: even this isn’t enough for the king. He wants everyone to wear the right clothes, kicking someone out saying, “many are called, but few are chosen.”
God invites everyone to the Table but if you’re not doing the right things, even though you’re coming to the banquet, you still might be tossed out.
It’s a mixed message but worth examining a bit more. And it has to do with how we receive what is offered at the Table. Whether we are willing to drop our armor and allow ourselves to be changed by God’s grace at the banquet of Love.
I’ve invited the people of St. John’s to read a book called Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, a professor, a priest, and a writer. Life of the Beloved begins by defining the spiritual journey as learning to avoid the temptation of self-rejection.
Nouwen says that we are constantly looking for ways to legitimize or prove that we are loved or esteemed. And when we fail or when something happens, we usually don’t examine the circumstances and take an appropriate measure of limitations of the situation. Instead, we listen to the darker parts of our inner dialogue, the daemons, the parts that tell us we deserve to be abandoned and forgotten, punished and rejected.
And lest we think that some people are immune from this because they are so incredibly arrogant, Nouwen reminds us that arrogance is nothing but the need to put ourselves on a pedestal because we are so afraid of being seen for what we fear that we are. Arrogance, you see, is just another form of self-rejection.
The deepest spiritual problem, Nouwen says, is that “we succumb to the belief that we are not truly welcome in human existence.”
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” And being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence… Aren’t you like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along and give you that final feeling of inner well-being that you desire?… But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. (pg 35-36)
But, he says… it doesn’t have to be this way. The truth of our existence is that we are the Beloved. That when the dove descends upon Jesus and God speaks, “This is my child the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God is speaking about all of us as creatures of God. We are all the Beloved of God, known by God before we are even knit in our mother’s womb. And we belong to one another because we all belong to God.
This is the work of the spiritual path – to find that voice that reminds us, that calls us back to remember this. From this place, we have the strength and wisdom for our ministry. From this Belovedness, we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And so the lesson of today’s Gospel, although particular to what Matthew’s community was going through in its grief and pain, still points us to the confusing reality of the spiritual path: We’re always looking for something outside of ourselves that will save us, some experience that will make us feel better. But it’s this inner work of accepting the banquet’s grace, really allowing it to change us, that will actually save us.
And, hopefully, this opens today’s parable up for us because we come to realize that Matthew was trying to articulate, even in their slanted story, just how widespread the invitation to the banquet actually is – that all are invited. Even those who laughed it off, they were invited.
But that it’s also not always easy to allow the banquet to change us, to give us new clothes to wear, so to speak so that we learn to rest in our true identity of belonging, as the Beloved. We are so tempted by self-rejection that we can end up refusing the teaching of the banquet and we never learn how to show up for one another, how to treat one another, how to be in community with one another.
Paul often refers to this “clothing ourselves with Christ.” The clothing that we learn to put on, is not one that legitimizes us over and above others it’s not about self-righteousness. It’s the clothing of grace that we receive, the clothing that reminds us of our Belovedness, our truth, our deepest identity.
Because the Table’s salvation is this grace, this reminder, that we are Beloved, that we belong, we are invited in this human existence and those voices of self-rejection, those wolves of our psyches, that tear at our clothing, are lies and they are the most deadly of all sins.
Those voices are what we are called to leave behind as we are absolved from our sins.
All are invited to the banquet of Love. All. No exceptions.
And we, as Christians, find our sustenance at this Table, the Table of Reconciliation. Where we are first reconciled with God so we might be reconciled with ourselves. Where we come to remember we are the Beloved so that we might learn to stop being tempted by self-rejection. Where all are welcome at God’s Table.
Where each one of us is invited and where each one of us is, hopefully, changed by this invitation, by this experience… changed by the truth that we are Beloved.
And salvation lies in this: that we are so changed by this truth, that it becomes the clothing that we wear whenever we come to the banquet of Love. That we come to know we are Beloved so deeply that we wear this clothing all the time, as we carry this banquet, this Love, with us out into the world as the Beloved of God. To be Christ’s hands and feet in and for the world.
You are the Beloved of God. This is the simple truth.
May you remember. May you always remember.