Homily for October 12, 2014 28th Sunday Ordinary Time Year A.
from Matthew 22:1-10. (a revised from a homily first posted on October 9 2011.
(NOTE: I am much indebted to N.T. Wright for the thrust of this homily)
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading from St. Matthew offers us one more parable in this ongoing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Jesus, still pounding away at them, now blatantly confronts them with their unwillingness to approach and follow his Kingdom project, saying, therefore:
"tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of them to the Kingdom (21:31)"
"the Kingdom of GOD will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom."(21:43)
But Jesus is still not through with them. Again he tells them a parable. This time it is a comparison of the Kingdom with the story of a King who gave a wedding feast for his son.
When this King dispatched his servants to summon the invited party guests, they not only refused to come -- sending the servants away, but they even killed some of these servant-messengers! (Remember last week’s parable?)
The King, bring so enraged at what the invited guests had done, sent his army and had them killed, and then invited those not really part of the wedding guest list -- including those good and bad, so that the hall was filled with guests, but not the kind of guests who were invited originally. The hall was filled with outsiders.
We can be sure that the religious leaders got the gist of the message. In essence, Jesus is saying to them:
"OK. This is it. You are rejecting the Kingdom; you are rejecting the King and his son? Therefore, you will be left out. You will be replaced. You will be killed. Others, not so chosen, not of the chosen people, will benefit instead."
Well, this was quite enough for these leaders, and as we shall see next week, they pull out the stops to have Jesus arrested, which actually brings us to the first turning point of the text:
WHAT IS JESUS ATTEMPTING
TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THESE PARABLES OF CONFRONTATION?
There seems to be few options here. Either Jesus intentionally provokes these leaders so they will arrest him, or he is purposely being provocative so as to break through their cognitive barriers, that they might open themselves to the message of the Kingdom that had come through the ministry of John the Baptist, and was present from the Christ claimant who stood before them, the man Jesus.
Whichever of these alternatives are true, and I happen to think it is the latter, it seems abundantly clear that Jesus is calling the question. These leaders, and eventually the nation, would have to decide what kind of Messiah they would follow. And decide they did.
Two passages will have to suffice. First, the rejection coming from the religious leaders from St. Matthew 26:
But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death." Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, "Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?" (Matthew 26:63-68)
And second, we find the rejection from the nation in what is perhaps the most poignant moment of St. Matthew's trial narrative, Pilate speaks to the crowd:
The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" 23 Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"(Mt. 27:21-22)
What must be seen is that this decision would ultimately devastate the nation. In our present text Jesus warns these leaders before him that to reject the Messiah-as-Servant and to follow a scenario involving a Messiah-as-Power, seeking defiance and war over walking the second mile and turning the other cheek, would ultimately place them in rebellion against the most powerful nation in the world, the Roman Empire, which meant the Hebrews would, in due time, be slaughtered.
In fact, it is in this way that I take Jesus’ allusion in the parable to the soldiers coming to kill those refusing guests as referring to what would happen to the next generation when the Roman emperor drove his armies into the city, sieged it and sacked it.
I am not necessarily saying that Jesus actually visioned Roman actions ahead of time, but I am saying that Jesus saw the way the people were pining for a Messiah-as-Power, an "eye for an eye" version of retaliation and rebellion, and he knew this would lead to the destruction of the nation.
His purpose, therefore, was to warn the leaders and the people, and to offer them a different way, a way that opposed violence and rebellion. He was offering the way of the servant, the way of sacrifice, the way of burden-bearing. This was his kingdom message; this was his version of Messiah.
You see, somehow, Jesus captured the suffering servant theme of Isaiah 40-55 and reinterpreted it to himself. That is, he chose this as his ministry motif and the path to fulfillment of his calling.
A good example of what I am describing comes from St. Matthew 20 concerning the dispute over position that arose among the disciples:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:20-28)
This explains Jesus' understanding of the location of power, real power, and it was not at the end of a sword, the barrel of a gun, or in the hands of empire. The rulers of the Gentiles live in pomp and splendor, and they run roughshod over people.
In contrast, Jesus teaches that real power comes from the posture of service and sacrificial love. In the end the nation was unwilling or unable to hear this message. Therefore, the Romans crucified the King of glory and the nation ended up plunging themselves, headlong, into the abyss of Roman cruelty.
Or, finally, think about Jesus' warning on his agony walk to the cross. St. Luke records this:
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, "Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.' Then they will begin to say to the mountains, "Fall on us'; and to the hills, "Cover us.' For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:26-31)
Clearly this is a warning against what is coming upon the nation, a warning that reminds us of Jesus words to Peter, to take up the sword is to die by it.
For us, the take-away from this parable is subtle yet simple:
WE MUST SEEK THE POSTURE OF THE SERVANT TO BE PART OF THE KINGDOM PROJECT JESUS BEGAN
Simple to say? Yes. But most difficult for us because we in the West are from nations of power and prestige. We practice the theology of resurrection and not the theology of the cross. We see ourselves within the context of having faith and therefore as having arrived, instead of seeing ourselves within the context of daily conversion, as yet on the way and as struggling to faith.
Always remember this: The Gospel,
supremely, is something to be done.
Somehow we see the world -- by which I mean the planet, the cosmos, the people -- not as part of GOD's future and therefore not as being really good. Often this means we practice a theology of neglect (or contempt) where we have given up on the world, it no longer deserving our concern. Instead, what concerns us is going to heaven when we die to escape this mess. Said differently, we merely wait for the end and rescue, and while we wait we enjoy.
O, Brothers and Sisters, if this is even somewhat true about us, we have missed the mark of the Jesus-way because what he always intended to do in us was not to reform us, or to cognitively cloister us, but instead to transform us into a genuine humanity (bearing the image of the Almighty which is found in sacrificial love) and displaying that humanity through loving service to all care to see!
That is, in our service we are proclaiming the GOD who sees, the GOD who heals, the GOD who is there. In our service, which is freely given without expectation of reward or gratitude (thus it is grace), we offer the truth at work, the truth of Trinity, the truth of sacrificial love, but a truth experienced, not bookish or propositional.
Said differently, we have accepted a Gospel of grace, and that is what it is, but we have often failed to hear the words echoing within that Gospel:
"Follow thou me!"
Follow me, said, Jesus. Follow me into the hellholes and dives of a world broken and poured out. Follow me into the hovels of the working poor. Follow me where the polite and sweet-smelling dare not go. Follow me, by walking into the underbelly of the beast to find the forgotten ones of the Empire, and serve me there. Drop your success dreams and become a servant, at this particular time, in this particular place (what is incarnation if not this?). In a world of loss, grief and death take your place on the cross (remember: take up your cross, daily?) and continue to carry Christ’s burdens for a world of violence and poverty and brutality, a world out of control, a world at war with itself.