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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 28, Year A
Ride to Worship Week
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 12, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

‘Weeping and gnashing of teeth’

“Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables.” Indeed. This particular parable a first-century retelling of a parable by Jesus is a multilayered allegory, and more than a little provocative. It contains the graphic refrain “weeping and gnashing of teeth” one of seven references to such in the New Testament (six of which occur in Matthew’s Gospel). While on one level this signifies anger and pain, it is a comic exaggeration and provokes us to rethink, to reimagine what we believe about salvation, judgement, the kindom of heaven, and so on. Do we believe in a deity who banishes and punishes? Do we not have sympathy (at least a little) for the silent guest who is bound hand and foot? There’s something funny going on … God be with you

In fact, the entire parable is about misunderstanding salvation it’s also about missing out on salvation. It works, that is, on a number of levels.

If God is the ruler, and Jesus the heir, then the parable continues the biblical theme featuring relations between YHWH and Israel in terms of spousal and wedding imagery (Hos. 2:19-20; Isa. 54:4-8; 62:5). The story presupposes that an initial invitation has already been made: the “invited guests” (v. 3) would represent Israel; those sent to issue the reminder in the first instance would be the biblical (Hebrew) prophets. Those sent following the first rejection would be Christian missionaries devoting their efforts to Israel (10:5); the message they convey “everything is ready” (v. 4) reflects the sense of the messianic era having arrived with the ministry of Jesus.

Addressing messianic believers, the story appeals to self-righteousness. Yes, we can imagine a self-righteous believer agreeing, the non-messianic Jews have rejected the Gospel, and the Ruler, consequently, has destroyed Jerusalem (has “burned their town”). Matthew is playing along with popular Christian interpretations of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70CE. And this is the first major provocation. Does God deal judgement by way of Roman military action? Really?

The story resumes with a final invitation, this time going into the streets to draw everyone, bad and good alike, into the wedding hall for the banquet. In view at this point is the mission of the Church beyond Israel to the nations of the world. Yes, we can affirm the inclusivity of this vision perhaps to such an extent that we downplay or deny the previous violence and anti-Semitism. This is the kindom we believe in a kindom of street people. We’re much happier at the banquet now.

But now comes the part of the parable many hearers find most disturbing: the ruler’s unreasonable treatment of the unfortunate person who, picked up from the street, is faulted and ejected into outer “darkness” for not having a wedding robe. How could he have had time let alone resources to get one? One commentator writes: “The [person] without a wedding garment represents all those who accepted the invitation but did not, within that calling, undergo the conversion of life required for entrance into the final kingdom. At the judgement imaged by the [ruler’s] coming in to see the guests they will be found lacking the ‘wedding garment’ of good works and suffer the exclusion described …” (Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden).

The commentator may have a point. The provocation here may have to do with complacency it may serve as a challenge to complacent believers, all-too sure of their place at the banquet. Perhaps it serves to challenge what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” a passive and apolitical sense of entitlement.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something funny is at work. The silent guest whom the ruler calls, creepily, “My friend”, the binding and casting out, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. It’s over the top. It’s a disproportionate use of force. It’s ridiculous, cartoon-like. There’s really no way to maintain respect for this ruler who is a tyrant. And so, we are led to rethink and to reimagine. Might this heavy dose of retribution be offered in response to our own desires for retribution? Offered as a cure of some kind? An inoculation? Once we have seen this tyranny up close exaggerated it’s impossible not to see it.

It’s possible to see that the ruler (like the golden calf) is not God at all. It’s possible to see that the guest among the street people, the one who keeps a silent dignity in the face of brutality, the one who is bound and banished, is Jesus himself. The outer “darkness” is the place of crucifixion. The weeping and gnashing of teeth is the pain and anger of those denied justice. The brutalised guest is the Christ who now, as host, invites us again to the banquet. Here at this table our theologies are turned inside-out. God is the one we would banish. God is the one we would exclude.

Commentators point out that the language of the final verse reflects Semitic idiom, in which “many” can mean “all” and “few” can mean “not everyone”. All of us, that is, are called to share our lives with Christ and with the outcasts and those hungry for justice the poor and abused, the threatened species, the poisoned earth and air and water but, sadly, not all of us are willing to forego belief in vengeance and entitlement.

Judgement, conversion, salvation … these are inter-related mysteries. We’re called today to rethink and reimagine our place within the “kindom of heaven”. Walking or riding a bike to worship the wind and sun in your face, the street a little closer, the street people more visible and audible is one way of being open to God whose real presence incites joy, humility, the wonder of discovery, and … (let’s complete the homily together) … Amen.