Sunday 15 October 2023

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

We all love a good wedding, don’t we!

It’s such a privilege 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 such 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 to ourselves. Let us tease out some of these meanings.

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, 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. He 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, a mixed Jewish and gentile church, as the people chosen by God to replace the rotten 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 hindsight, 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 many 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, even 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.

The mainstream churches no longer preach this, though some fundamentalists still 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 interpretation. By their fruits you shall know them, Jesus says of false prophets. We must always test our interpretation of scripture against the fruits it yields, and this interpretation has yielded evil fruit.

We should instead see the parable as good news for us all.

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, Jew and gentile, to join him in a heavenly kingdom as joyful as any wedding feast. 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!

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 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, inclined to do what we know is wrong, or not to do what we know is right. To share in the banquet, the stains of our sins must be washed from our garments to turn them into wedding robes. God will wash the stains away by forgiving us when we truly repent.

The man without a wedding robe could make no answer when God challenged him: he could not repent, so he could not be forgiven, and he was cast into the outer darkness and denied a part in the banquet.

Some people have seen the outer darkness as a terrible thing, 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’. I prefer to see the outer darkness as the ‘naughty step’.

All parents know about the naughty step. 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 to bear a child’s 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.

So to conclude

·         Let us give thanks for God’s graceful generosity revealed by Jesus in this parable to all people.

·         Let us accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet of the kingdom of heaven with joy.

·         And let us trust in God’s Fatherly goodness as he teaches us how we are to behave there.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Martha, Mary & Jesus


Mary, Martha & Jesus, Jan Vermeer 1632 – 1675

A reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator onTuesday 10th October 2023

Almost everyone remembers how Martha is always busy with the chores, while her sister Mary sits and listens to Jesus. I’m sure of this, because I sometimes say in joke ‘Every home should have a Martha’, and most people laugh at the reference. Particularly if they know my wife Marty was christened Martha…

I know I am a very lucky man, because my Martha does so much to make our home run smoothly, while I plan services and pen sermons in my office. She tells me she doesn’t resent me, as the other Martha resented her sister Mary. But I know I don’t tell her often enough how much I value all she does for me.

I like this story told by Luke (10:38-42) because it reminds us of the human side of Jesus. We often neglect Jesus’s humanity in favour of his divinity, I fear. Yet as Trinitarian Christians, we believe him to be both fully human and fully divine.

After a long journey, Jesus stops to rest and relax awhile with Martha and Mary, sisters who are close friends of his. What can be more human than to take a break from travelling and teaching to enjoy the company of friends? We can see just how close Martha and Mary are to Jesus, because John’s Gospel (John 11:1-44) tells us they send word for Jesus to come when their brother Lazarus is ill and dying. When Jesus arrives to find Lazarus has died, he weeps, he consoles them, and he calls Lazarus out from the tomb.

In this story, Martha seems flustered by the visit, making herself busy about the house, making it presentable for visitors, I suppose – we are told she is ‘distracted by her many tasks’. But Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to what he has to say. Martha resents her sister leaving her to do all the work, and eventually she snaps. She asks Jesus to intervene, ‘(Jesus), do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me’.

Jesus’s response is interesting. ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’. What Jesus needs of Martha just now is her company, not her busy service.

Martha and Mary in this story display two opposite poles of personality, I suggest: inclined to be active, or inclined to be contemplative – a bit like being extrovert or introvert. Martha’s instinctive response to Jesus is to make herself busy. Mary’s is to be still and listen. Jesus urges Martha to let go of all her busyness and be more like Mary, just to be present with him as his friend.

But on another occasion Mary is the doer. ‘Mary was the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair’, John tells us. When Jesus’s disciples object that the expensive perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor (Matthew 26:1-13), Jesus rebukes them, saying, ‘She (Mary) has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.’

All of us, I believe, are mixtures of Martha and Mary. Sometimes we need to act, and at other times to contemplate. Wisdom is to know when each behaviour is appropriate.

Sunday 8 October 2023

Wicked Tenants


Derelict vineyard, Wellow (photo David Martin CC BY-SA 2.0)

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th October 2023, the 18th after Trinity

The chief priests and elders were absolutely furious when Jesus challenged their authority on their own ground, in the Temple.

After he told them the parable of the wicked tenants which we have just heard (Matthew 21:33-46), ‘They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, (who) regarded him as a prophet’, we are told.

To understand why they were so angry we must delve a bit.

In today’s OT reading, Isaiah (5:1-7) uses a vineyard as a metaphor for the Israelites as God’s people. God ‘dug (his vineyard) and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines’. God ‘built a watchtower … and a wine vat in it’. And God ‘expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’. So, says Isaiah, God ‘will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns’.

It is a thundering prophecy designed to call the Israelite leaders in Isaiah’s time to repent for exploiting the Israelite people. 

Jesus begins his parable by referencing the opening lines of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The chief priests and elders would surely have understood that the landowner who plants the vineyard stands for God. The wicked tenants mistreat and beat and kill the vineyard owner’s slaves when they are sent to collect the harvest. And finally, when the owner sends his own son and heir, they kill him too, in the hope of inheriting the vineyard.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel, writing a generation later, believes that Jesus is the Son of God. He intends us to identify the son with Jesus. But notice that although Jesus often refers to God as his Father in heaven, he himself never publicly claims to be the Son of God. He leaves that identification for his disciples to make, and he swears them to secrecy. The chief priests and elders, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time, would never have suspected Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God, because he didn’t do so. This is not what angered them.

The chief priests and elders felt utterly secure in being good people, quite unlike those Isaiah prophesied against. Long after the days of Isaiah, Jerusalem was laid waste and the Israelites had been carried off as captives to Babylon. But the Jewish leaders traced their ancestry back to the faithful remnant of Israel that returned from exile to Jerusalem. They were utterly confident that they yielded good grapes, not wild grapes.

Jesus asks them, ‘When the owner returns, what will he do to those tenants?’, and they reply, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’. Just as, they believed, God had returned Jerusalem to their ancestors.

Nothing Jesus has said so far would have upset them unduly.

But Jesus then goes on to quote from Psalm 118: 22-23.

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. And he addresses the chief priests and elders directly, ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls’.

Jesus would have been speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic. Notice that in both, the word for son - ‘ben’- sounds like the word for stone – ‘eben’. With this pun Jesus identifies the Son of God with the Cornerstone, which will break and crush anyone on whom it falls.

Jesus is unmistakably telling the chief priests and the elders to their faces that their behaviour is unacceptable to God and that their place as leaders will be given to others – just as Isaiah had to their predecessors. And Jesus has tricked them into pronouncing their own sentence! No wonder they want to arrest him and shut him up…

Over the centuries many Christians have seen this parable as a story about Christianity supplanting Judaism.

In this story, the vineyard’s owner is God. The tenants are the Jewish people. The vineyard owner’s slaves are the prophets sent by God and so often rejected and killed. The Son who came last is none other than Jesus himself, whom the Jews kill. So God will rightly reject the Jews - all of them - and choose another people, Christians, the followers of Jesus. The Jews will be broken and crushed by Christ, the Cornerstone. It is a vivid story of the ultimate doom of the Jewish people. But it is a false and very dangerous interpretation.

This story is false because Jesus - a Jew himself - focusses his criticism on the Jewish leaders in the Jerusalem of his own time, not on the Jewish people. In fact, the Jewish people’s belief that Jesus was a prophet prevented the leaders from arresting him there and then. The Jewish leaders will indeed be broken and crushed, and the Temple destroyed, a generation later, not by Christians, but by the might of pagan Rome when they rise up in revolt. The Jewish people will survive as a diaspora. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us, though the earliest church was a Jewish church, it soon received gentiles into membership through the insights of St Peter and St Paul – both themselves Jews. It is this mixed Jewish and gentile church that Matthew was writing for.

This story is dangerous because over nearly 2 millennia it has been used to justify Christian persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Shoah, the Nazi genocide of European Jews. By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus of false prophets. And the fruits of those who speak like this is the murder of millions of men and women each made in the image of God. It is an evil blasphemy!

It is better, surely, to reflect on what Jesus’s parable tells us about the nature of God.

It tells us of God’s generosity. The owner provided the tenants with all they could wish for in a productive vineyard. In the same way, God by his grace has given us this wonderful living planet to tend and care for.

It tells us about God’s trust in us as human beings. The owner of the vineyard did not supervise his tenants like a slave driver. He went away and left them with their task. In the same way God entrusts us with his work, and he gives us the freedom to do it however we think best.

It tells us of God’s patience and mercy. The owner did not respond with sudden vengeance when his first messengers are attacked, he sent others. He gave the tenants every chance to respond, even sending his son and heir. In the same way God bears with all our sinning and will forgive us, if we will only repent. We Christians are assured of this by Jesus, God’s only Son, the corner stone once rejected by the builders.

It tells us of God’s judgement. When the tenants carried out their deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience, God eventually took the vineyard away and gave it to others. In the same way if we continue to refuse God’s forgiveness and fail to repent, we become useless to God. In the end God’s stern judgement on us will be to give the job he made for us to someone else, and we will die of shame. Perish the thought!

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Almighty God,
your Son Jesus was the stone rejected by the builders,
and, by your doing, he has been made the chief cornerstone:
grant that, by the power of his Spirit working in us,
we may become living stones built up into your dwelling place,
a temple holy and acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen