Sunday 12 October 2008

The Banquet and the Naughty Step

1. We all love a good wedding, don’t we!

It’s lovely to be able to join the bride and groom, and their families, to rejoice in their love for each other and to wish them joy in their new life together. It’s so much fun to join in their celebration feast and raise a glass to toast them. And it’s so rewarding to meet and get to know the other half of their family. I never turn down a wedding invitation if I can help it!

In today’s gospel reading Matthew (22:1-14) records Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a sumptuous wedding reception prepared by a king for his son. But the guests the king planned to invite would not come! They were asked twice, but they ignored the invitation: some went on working on their farms and in their businesses; others went so far as to mistreat and even kill the king’s messengers. The king, quite reasonably, was enraged. He sent his army to destroy the murderers and their city. He declared those who had been invited unworthy of the celebration, and sent his servants out into the streets to gather all the people they could find, good and bad, to fill the wedding hall and feast in their place.

This is a parable, and parables used by Jesus always have multiple meanings: one will be the meaning understood by the people who first heard it; and there will also be at least one, probably many, deeper spiritual meanings, revealed by reflection to Christians over the ages and ourselves. Let us tease out some of these meanings.

2. This is one of several parables that Jesus addresses to the chief priests and the elders of the people – in other words the Jewish elite of the time.

They understood his meaning very well: he was talking about them, they were the rude and unworthy guests. He was saying that they had ignored God’s invitation to the wedding banquet made first through the prophets, and later by John the Baptist and himself. Jesus was promising the people that they, not the elite, would enjoy the kingdom of heaven. The elite wanted to arrest him to shut him up, but they were afraid of the crowds who followed him, we are told.

The early Christians interpreted it this way too, including Matthew who was writing probably half a century later between AD80 and 90. For them of course the king’s son was Jesus, God’s own Son. And they saw themselves, by now primarily a gentile church, as the people chosen by God to replace the bad Jewish elite at the banquet, in the kingdom of heaven. By this time Jerusalem and the 2nd temple had been destroyed by the Romans following the Jewish revolt around AD70. Did Matthew, with hind-sight, add the passage about the king’s troops destroying the murderers and burning their city, in order to turn Jesus’s parable into a prophecy? Perhaps, or perhaps not; for Jesus elsewhere is recorded using strong violent images in his teaching to ram his point home.

But what is certain, shamefully certain, is that later on Christians identified not the Jewish elite but all Jews, as a race and as a religious community, as the unworthy, the Christ-killers. In a sermon on this parable, the great reformer Luther could say that this is why ‘there is not now a poorer, a more miserable and forsaken people on the earth than the Jews. Such is the end of the despisers of God’s Word.’ Mainstream churches no longer preach this, but some fundamentalists do. It is one of the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the horror of the Holocaust. It is a false and wicked doctrine I believe – we must always test our interpretation of scripture against the fruits it yields. This one has yielded very bad fruit.

Rather, I think, we should see the parable as good news, good news for each and every one of us. The OT prophets had imagined God as a stern judge loving only the righteous, with a special relationship with the children of Israel. Here Jesus reveals a different image of God to us, a king like a loving Father who invites every passer by on the street to join him in a heavenly kingdom as joyful as any wedding feast - Jew and gentile, Irish and immigrant, settled and traveller, black and white, banker and labourer. We do not even have to be particularly righteous, for both good and bad are invited to fill the wedding hall. We are all invited to rejoice with him: as Christians we are to be joyful, not gloomy and depressed! All we must do is to respond to the invitation, not behave like rude, unworthy guests!

3. But I have missed out the second half of the parable. What are we to make of the man without a wedding robe thrown into the outer darkness?

The first half of the parable teaches us that by God’s grace the door to the kingdom is open to all of us. Christians have traditionally seen the second half as teaching us that with that grace comes a responsibility to amend our lives. We all know that we are by nature sinful creatures. To share in the banquet the stains of our sins must be washed from our garments through our true repentance and God’s forgiveness. The man without a wedding robe could make no answer when God challenged him: he could not repent, so he was bound hand and foot, removed from the banquet, and cast into the outer darkness.

Some people have seen the outer darkness as a terrible thing, nothing less than eternal damnation, forever cut off from the joyful kingdom. But I can’t agree. That would not be the act of a loving Father. And the king starts by calling the man ‘Friend’, after all. I prefer to see the outer darkness as the ‘naughty step’.

Do you know about the naughty step? All parents do! When our children behave badly we tell them they must go and sit on the naughty step, or go to their room, until they are ready to say sorry and really mean it. It can be very difficult for a parent to bear the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but this is the way a loving parent teaches children how to behave. When the children feel properly sorry we give them a kiss and let them rejoin the family.

In just this way, I think, God uses the outer darkness to teach us the self-discipline to recognise when we have done wrong and to repent. When we have finished wailing and gnashing our teeth, when we are truly contrite, he will forgive us, and he will allow us to return to the joy of the banquet.

4. So to conclude
  • Let us give thanks for the grace of God revealed by Jesus in this parable.
  • Let us joyfully accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet of the kingdom of heaven.
  • And let us trust in God’s Fatherly goodness as he teaches us how we are to behave there!

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Earthly and Heavenly Harvests

An address given at the Lorrha Harvest Festival, Sunday 7th September 2008.

1. First, I want to say what a privilege it is for me to join you today in this ancient holy place for your Harvest Festival, to give thanks to God for all the good things he has given us all. And I must thank you, Archdeacon Wayne, for your invitation.

Like all of us I’m sure, I’ve loved Harvest Festivals ever since I was a child! Let us just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty. The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements, and those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house! We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, the familiar harvest hymns, and the cheerful people.

I’m going to talk about two things today: the earthly harvest, for which we are giving thanks today; and then a different, heavenly harvest. The two are deeply interconnected.

2. So first, the earthly harvest.

I do hope you’re cheerful, because we have so much to give thanks for, even though this is a difficult time for many. Cheerfulness is a Christian virtue!

It has been a difficult year for those of you who are farmers, with so much rain, and so little sun. Many of you will be disappointed with how it has turned out, with the return you have got from all your planning and hard work. And many more of us will be anxious about the economic recession, and the turmoil in global financial markets. Worries bubble up: Is my job safe? What about my savings and my pension? How can I stretch my income to pay the rising bills for energy and other things?

But let us look at the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest:

  • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, hay for cattle. If the grain price is lower than we would like, it’s because the northern hemisphere grain harvest is bigger than ever before this year, whatever about here in Ireland.
  • And there’s much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there: there’s milk and honey, butter and cheese, fruit and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, peas and beans, cabbage and lettuce, and gardens full of flowers!
  • Many of us work with animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year - I have a new grandson myself, a little dote - thank God for them too!
  • Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our god-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes intelligent planning and hard graft!
In this rich corner of the world today, we will not starve, as our forefathers so often did after a bad harvest. With our cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. If we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit. So let us be cheerful and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy (26:1-11): ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Yet for all our cleverness, the earthly harvest is perishable and uncertain. Why has God not given us perpetually good harvests? Perhaps to remind us that we are not masters of the universe: God is. God’s laws don’t change: Nature is as God made it; and what we sow, we shall reap. We remain as we have always been, totally dependent on God’s continuing fatherly goodness.

3. In the passage from John’s Gospel (6:25-35) that we’ve just heard, Jesus asks us to look beyond the earthly harvest, to a different heavenly harvest.

He tells the crowd: ‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ He tells them that ‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ And finally he makes the great claim: ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whosoever believes in me shall never be thirsty’. What is Jesus talking about?

His teaching is difficult; at least I find it so, but then so did many of Jesus’s disciples, according to John. One way to look at it, which I find helpful, is this:

  • Just as God has made us clever, able to till and keep the world of which we are part, so he has made us in his image to be moral beings, to be souls, with the capacity we call conscience to distinguish right from wrong, truth from lies, love from hate; and to prefer good to evil, as he does. If we use our conscience to make the right choices, we reap a heavenly harvest of good, which nourishes us for eternal life. As the old saw says, the good we do lives after us.
  • But we are not masters of our own souls, any more than we are masters of the universe: our souls are as God made them, with free will, vulnerable to temptation. So it’s hard to be good. We have to work at it, just as we do for the earthly harvest. It is hard work resisting temptation, putting what is right above our own desires. All too often we fail. We sin. And when we fail and sin, the evil we do poisons our soul, and the evil too is eternal. A bad deed done can never be undone!
  • What a mess it is! How can we possibly be as good as God wants us to be? As good as God has made us want to be in our best moments.
  • This is where Jesus’s teaching speaks to me: he promises us all the help we need to reap the heavenly harvest. All we require is the faith to come to him, to believe in him. As the bread of life, he strengthens our souls. He helps us to resist temptation and to do good. And when we fail, he sucks out the evil that poisons the soul – in other words he redeems us. The only cure for a bad deed is forgiveness!
  • It is in this sense that Jesus is the bread of life that endures for eternal life.
What are the practical implications of this? Consider greed for example:

  • Greed is the cause of so many of the problems we face, I think, from global warming to the global crash; old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Greed to consume more than we need at the expense of our planet. Greed for profit at the expense of other men and women.
  • To overcome the problems we need to learn to be generous to others, not greedy for ourselves. We must learn to share. This wonderful planet – our God-given Garden of Eden – would be enough and more than enough for all of us if only we could do so.
  • But we cannot do this by ourselves, because of our innate tendency to sin. We can only do it through the grace of Jesus Christ, the bread of life, who will help us transform our sinful greedy natures into generous ones. He will help us to be as generous as God wants us to be.
  • And think on this: our greed threatens our future; without Jesus’s help to transform our greed into generosity, we stand to lose the earthly harvest too. The earthly harvest depends in a very real way on the heavenly harvest.
4. So to sum up:
  • Let us thank God for this bountiful earthly harvest. God makes it possible, and we work hard for it, so we should celebrate it and enjoy it.
  • But let us work just as hard for the heavenly harvest of goodness, to nourish our souls.
  • Let us also thank God for Jesus, whose help we need to reap this heavenly harvest.
  • And let us pray that Jesus will transform our greed into generosity.
If we believe in him, if we come to him, we will never be hungry or thirsty for good things!