Banqueting at the end-of-term dinner with the Durrell School of Corfu ... we are all invited to the heavenly banquet, but are we ready to accept the invitation? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Next Sunday [15 October 2017] is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23). The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that Sunday are: Exodus 32: 1-14; Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14.
Putting the readings in context:
How can we make connections with the different readings each Sunday? You may decide, for example, to preach on the Gospel reading. But it may be one of the other readings that has caught the imagination of the people you need to reach. Making connections helps to bring people on the journey with you.
So, just a little note on the other readings for next Sunday:
Exodus 32: 1-14
The Old Testament reading from the Book Exodus is set after Moses has received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.
Aaron and the Israelites have been waiting from Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. Moses has been up there 40 days and 40 nights and is late, or, as one translation puts it, ‘shamefully late.’
As the people wait, they grow impatient. In response to their impatience, Aaron takes gold from the people and makes a golden calf to represent God for the people. When God sees this, he is angry with the Israelites for worshipping a false god, and is filled with wrath.
After Solomon’s death in 930 BC, Israel split into two kingdoms. To stop people visiting Jerusalem in the south, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom, set up two golden calves, one at each of two alternative places of worship (see I Kings 12: 28-30). The writer is not only recording history, but is also teaching that Jerusalem is the only proper place for worship.
But, as we read this story we are uncomfortable not only with the worship of false gods, but with the wrath of God. Wrath is not an emotion we are comfortable with associating with God. Instead, we tend to think of God as loving, gracious, kind and so on.
What does the wrath of God mean?
How should we respond?
What is false worship? And what is appropriate worship?
Moses is not tempted by the offer to become the founder of a new “great nation”. Instead, he stands by Israel and pleads and argues with God.
Are there going to be times when what you think is a call from God becomes a temptation that you should resist?
When have you found yourself arguing with God?
Moses responds by standing before God and testifies to God’s power and might, reminding God of his faithfulness to the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt. As Moses speaks, God changes his mind (see verse 14).
What other examples in the Bible can you recall when God changes his mind in response to prayer?
We often speak about God being unchangeable, yet in this passage we hear a story about God’s mind being changed in interaction with Moses.
What does it mean to you that God’s mind has been changed?
Is it possible that God can, at once, be both unchangeable but yet also changed?
Have you ever been impatient with God?
Have you ever had your mind changed as a result of praying?
Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23
These portions of Psalm 106 continue the themes in our Exodus reading.
In the first portion of this Psalm, we move from praise and thanksgiving to petition and confession, through the full range of human emotion and the complexities of our relationship with God, relying on God’s continuing faithfulness.
In the second portion, though, we move to a confessional tone.
What spiritual practices do you have that help you balance your prayer life?
Philippians 4: 1-9
In this reading, we meet two leaders of the Church in Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, women who have struggled alongside Paul in the work of the Gospel. Now they differ with each other in their understanding of the way of Christ. This causes disunity in the Church. But the Apostle Paul does not deal with them harshly, nor does he accuse them of divisiveness. Instead, he urges the members of the Church in Philippi to care for one another, to stay strong and faithful even when they face hardship, and to rejoice in the Lord always.
Apart from Paul, Euodia and Syntyche, there is a fourth, unnamed ‘loyal companion’ (verse 3), sometimes named Syzygus after the Greek description of him here. He is asked to be instrumental in achieving reconciliation. And there is a fifth person, Clement, who appears nowhere else in the Pauline texts.
The idea that God keeps a ‘book of life’ or a roll of the faithful to be opened at the end of time, is also found in Exodus 32: 32, Psalm 69: 28 and Luke10: 20.
At that time, many Christians were expecting the second coming, and thought it had been delayed. Like the freed slaves in the wilderness in the Old Testament reading, they think that the returning Christ, like Moses, is delayed, perhaps even shamefully late.
Are there divisions among them that are tantamount to idolatry?
Yet Saint Paul tells them: ‘The Lord is near’ (verse 5). The Philippians should seek unity in prayer and find peace in God.
Matthew 22: 1-14
This parable, which is the third parable about the kingdom of heaven, is particularly difficult. It tells the story of a king hosting a wedding banquet for his son. The king has invited a long list of guests, but even after being repeatedly sought out, none of these guests comes to the banquet.
To refuse to come, to refuse a king’s command, is treason; to kill his slaves amounts to insurrection. So the king sends troops to put down the rebellion.
The king then sends his slaves into the streets to find enough people to sit at the tables at the wedding banquet. Notice how he invites all people, ‘both good and bad’ (verse 10).
Yet, when the king sees that a man is not dressed appropriately for the event, the king throws him into the outer darkness.
If you were to imagine yourself as one of the characters in this parable, who would you be?
And would you behave that way?
Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet?
Are you a wedding guest who has denied the generosity of the king?
Are you one of the people brought in from the streets, but not prepared for the celebration about to take place?
Where do you find Good News in this parable?
Christ’s audience would naturally associate a festive meal with the celebration of God’s people at the end of time. The wedding feast is a recurring image in the Bible of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom.
A grave in Kerameikós, Athens, where Pericles delivered his funeral oration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
What is meant by the many and the few here?
I have read that in Western thought many is a quantity much more than the majority, while few is many less than the majority. In Eastern thought, one less than 100% would be considered few.
We could put the Greek use of ‘few’ and ‘many’ by Christ in this parable in its cultural context. Pericles, in his ‘Funeral Oration’ in Athens, according to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, uses ‘the many,’ οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy. He contrasts them with ‘the few’ (οἱ ὀλίγοι, hoi oligoi), who abuse power and create an oligarchy, rule by the few. He advocates equal justice for ‘the many’, ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.
When we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that Christ is the victim, and that he said his blood is shed ‘for you and for many’ … you being us, the Church, the few in this parable; but the many, οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), refers to the masses, the multitude, the great unwashed, who are called too.
Christ dies for the many, the lumpen masses, all people, and not just for the few, the oligarchs. The many are invited to this banquet this morning. And who are we to behave like a tyrannical despot and exclude them? For if we exclude them, we are in danger of excluding Christ himself.
This story has elements of harshness and tragedy, and some of the responses seem out of proportion to the crime.
The first guests are those who are hostile to Christ. The one who arrives without wearing wedding robes represents those who do not count the cost in becoming disciples. The judgment on anyone who does not prepare will be at least as severe as that on those who reject Christ. The final verse is the moral of the story – a generalisation of Christ’s intent in telling the parable: ‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’
Wedding garments were provided to all comers, so refusing to wear one was not a matter of pleading poverty – it was a deliberate and direct insult to the host.
Yet is the king in the parable a paragon of virtue or a model for how Christ behaves? Christ’s condemnation of violent retaliation is clear and consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his ministry but also in his example of becoming subject to death on a cross.
I have difficulties with the traditional, exclusive claims made in many interpretations of this parable, the standard storytelling of this parable. Is Christ proclaiming that God will retaliate violently when God’s messengers are attacked?
The wedding feast is a consistent image of the messianic banquet. How often do we try to shorten and edit the guest list for the party? The task of the slaves is to gather all – ‘both good and bad.’ If it is for anyone to decide who should be ejected, that call belongs to the king.
But there is another, alternative reading of this Gospel passage. The guests have been compelled to come to the banquet, not because they have something to celebrate, but because they are in fear of the tyrant.
In this telling, Christ is the only one who speaks out and who protested against the king’s tyranny, the tyranny of the kingdoms of this world, by refusing to wear the robe, and ended up being rejected, being ejected, and being crucified on behalf of the many, on behalf of all those who are marginalised, thrown out, expelled.
For many are called to the way of the Cross, but few are chosen.
On the other hand, we might think of the person was invited by the king, but who does not change. Many are invited to Christianity, come to the banquet, but do not change, thinking that God’s grace will cover it all.
As with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discussions of Cheap Grace and Costly Grace, we are invited to the banquet, but we must change.
Or you might see the guest who shows up without the wedding garment as being like someone coming to a party but refusing to party. How often am I like that person? Are you?
Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.
These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:
Exodus 32: 1-14:
584: Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult
637: O for a closer walk with God
Psalm 106: 1–6, 19–23:
353: Give to our God immortal praise
30: Let us with a gladsome mind
634: Love divine, all loves excelling
45: Praise, O praise our God and King
20: The King of love my shepherd is
Philippians 4: 1-9:
349: Fill thou my life, O Lord my God
225: In the cross of Christ I glory
16: Like a mighty river flowing
636: May the mind of Christ my Saviour
505: Peace be to this congregation
507: Put peace into each other’s hands
539: Rejoice, O land, in God thy might
281: Rejoice, the Lord is King!
71: Saviour, again to thy dear name we raise
627: What a friend we have in Jesus
Matthew 22: 1-14:
406: Christians, lift your hearts and voices
408: Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest
418: Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face
421: I come with joy, a child of God
587: Just as I am without one plea
433: My God, your table here is spread
445: Soul, array thyself with gladness
20: The King of love my shepherd is
448: The trumpets sound, the angels sing
529: Thy hand, O God, has guided
451: We come as guests invited
145: You servants of the Lord