Sermon Seeds: Filled from the Streets
Sunday, October 15, 2023
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 23 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 • Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 • Philippians 4:1-9 • Matthew 22:1-14
Filled from the Streets
The Vineyard (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
How do you compile a guest list? It might depend on the nature of the occasion or perhaps the depth of your budget. You may choose invitees based on your relationship to them or on their expertise and interest in the topic or theme of your event. Maybe you have received an invitation from them in the past and now want to return the courtesy. In any case, few of us would open up our doors and let anyone we could find into our gatherings and celebrations.
Weddings are particularly special occasions. They mark a commitment between two parties to live life together. The moment inspires joyous celebration and encourages guests to bring their support for the marriage along with their gifts to the couple. It’s not uncommon, even today, for the parental figures of one or both spouses to host the reception. Often, the guest list holds as many of their circle as those of the new spouses. As Jesus uses the wedding banquet guest list as a metaphor for inclusion and welcome in the kindom of God, it should not surprise us that he offended those who preferred invitations whose exclusivity indicated privilege, power, and prestige. But, that’s not how the kindom works. It’s filled from the streets.
Jesus has shared a series of parables about the reign of God in an adversarial encounter with the religious leaders of his day. The acrimony simmers beneath the surface, but it is clearly present and felt. The ministry and message of Jesus is disruptive and can be off-putting to those who have aligned themselves with the kingdoms of this world in manner and deed if not in speech and word. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Matthew 15:8-9) Jesus uses these encounters to deconstruct those human precepts to call his audience to faithful living according to God’s will rather than human design.
As Alejandro Duarte articulates about Matthew’s account, “The ethics of this gospel is not an ethics of principles to be implemented, but an ethics of response to the presence of God and Christ in my/our history.” When asked about doctrine, Jesus tells a story. When questioned on precepts, Jesus tells a story. The answers to questions about belief come not from commands, but from a story that demonstrates how human beings relate to God and to one another. Even as Jesus shares the greatest commandment–to love God and your neighbor as yourself–it is in the context of a story. Following Jesus is not about what you believe but how you relate.
In this parable, a parent prepares a guest list of the usual suspects for their child’s wedding feast. To their amazement, those invited do not show up. Equally surprising, the parent, who is also the monarch or ruler, sends a message to those guests to assure them how well they have prepared the banquet. They try to convince the guests to show up. It’s an invitation so the ruler attempts to convince the guests that they will enjoy themselves and be blessed by attending rather than using coercion or force. The invited guests treat the invitation with derision, contempt, and even violence. They do not participate.
The ruler decides to open the doors by expanding from the list of favored guests to available and willing subjects. Anyone who can be found is invited to the biggest and best table the ruler has ever prepared. The wedding hall is full. At the same time, there is one among the new guests who shows up unadorned for the occasion. This one gets thrown out as the ruler is offended by their attire.
The passage ends before we can observe the response of the religious rulers with whom Jesus shares this story. It does not take much imagination to know they were not pleased:
The point of the story is not lost on the Pharisees. They see they are identified with the guests who made light of the invitation and even mistreated and killed the messengers sent to invite them. They stand accused of persecuting and killing the prophets. They have missed their chance for a place at the messianic banquet; others have been invited in their stead.
Of course, this story is not just about those specific religious leaders. In some sense, Jesus is relaying the biblical history of the rejection of the Law and the Prophets and equating that with the rejection of his Presence. The who came to fulfill the Law and was foretold by the Prophets receives the same response. This story is about the human response to God’s generous and persistent invitation to sit at their table and enjoy the feast of a covenantal relationship.
The extraordinary shift in the parable is its transition from an exclusive party of invited guests to a party of “invite everyone you find” (v. 9). This is consistent with the widening circle of inclusion that has been opening in the Gospel. “The banquet now taking place…is not a banquet for the selected few, not for the social elite, not for the politically powerful, not for the religious insiders. These people have boycotted it. And now it has become a banquet for the people—outcasts and strangers.” There is something quite shocking about the openness of the invitation, now yielding a hall “filled with guests.”
There’s no litmus test for inclusion nor seemingly any conditions on belonging. The ruler makes it clear that the good and the bad are equally welcome to participate. Apparently, the only requirement is that guests be dressed for the occasion. This is curious as it seems incongruous to the ministry of Jesus and even the tenor and tone of this story. Why is the ruler so offended that this one guest does not have on the proper attire for a wedding?
It has to be a metaphor. In a parable, after all, everything stands for something. What is the significance or representation made by the wedding robe or lack thereof? The ruler is astounded that this guest was able to gain entrance without it.
While many interpreters have readily found judgment on Israel in 22:1–10, they have been less happy about finding it extended to the wedding guests in the added scene of 22:11–14. The debates are long-standing. Origen engaged the question of this display of God’s rejecting anger. Luther called it a “terrible Gospel.” The referent for the requisite “wedding robe” has been debated. Initially, the dominant reading identified it with good works, particularly works of love (Augustine). Others, though, saw it as baptism or Christ put on in baptism (Aquinas), or the Holy Spirit. The Reformers (Zwingli, Luther, Calvin) saw it as active faith expressed in works of love. This church-centered reading of 22:11–14 regards Israel’s rejection (supposedly presented in 22:1–10) as providing a warning to the church.
It would seem that this guest suffers from a condition not dissimilar to the first guests. The first guests didn’t see the value in the invitation or desire to be in the company of the host. This guest wanted entry but on their own terms. As Matt Woodley reminds us, “Throughout this Gospel Jesus has made it clear that we don’t follow him on our own terms. We don’t come to him with our own choice of wedding garments.” It is a cautionary tale for those of us convinced that we have found the most faithful and authentic articulation of the gospel or knowledge of the divine. It’s a warning to remain humble and curious in our walk with God. It’s a reminder that it is God who invites, God who makes space, and God who sets the terms.
No matter how expansive or inclusive the invitation, it is still the Holy One’s kindom. That is both freeing and limiting. We don’t establish our own guest list, but we are free to include anyone we may find searching for a meal and companionship. We are subject to the Creator’s menu, but there’s always enough manna and the wine keeps getting better and better. We sit with our neighbors and friends, but we also share a table with our enemies. The invitation is special and personal to each of us and, at the same time, filled from the streets.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Hope keeps our hearts beating. It helps us see the light in the darkness. It gets us up in the morning. Jesse Jackson would say, “Keep hope alive.” Hope on. Don’t ever stop hoping. Our ancestors were slaves who hoped for a better day when their children’s children would one day be free. During the civil rights movement, we hoped to one day arrive at the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about—that day when all of God’s people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We can’t let go of that hope.
To lose all hope would be devastating. Langston Hughes ponders that in his poem “Harlem.” He asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” What do you do when you have nothing left, not even a dream of things getting better? I know something about that. There was a time in my life when, after the beating I suffered in jail, I lost hope. I lost all hope for a better life for my family and for my people. It was as though the cruel beatings crushed all the hope I had for better days to come. In the hospital where I struggled to keep living, I was full of anger. I wanted to die. Then I wanted to go after the people who had treated me so violently. I wanted revenge.
Suicide and genocide are the fruit of hope lost. My heart breaks as I see what is happening in the streets of many of our cities today. It’s not pretty: Young people have lost hope. The gangs, violence, and anger are signs of hopelessness. We must rekindle our hope, following the instructions of our ancestors. Our hope is not in political systems. Our hope is not in financial means. Our hope is in Jesus alone! Our ancestors would sing, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand! All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand!” Yes, Jesus Christ is our hope. He has brought us thus far, and he will carry us on.
We still claim the promise that God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been carried away to Babylon: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope’ ” (Jer. 29:11 NLT). We must hold on to hope, moving forward at the direction of the One who made us, loves us, and has good plans for us.
–Eric Mason, Urban Apologetics
For Further Reflection
“If your soul is wide, the narrowness of the street does not bother you; if your soul is narrow, the width of the street does not comfort you!” ― Mehmet Murat ildan
“She was perfectly sane in streets unknown. She loved conversing with people tagged as strangers. She was social, amiable & all that is her. Yet, with known people she felt unknown, she choked words and fought inside. And indeed she tripped insane while traversing those streets known. She stared at others and consumed their happiness through senses cold. And so she waits for Winter’s warmth to touch her in streets of distant shore, in her own world of simple happiness.” ― Debatrayee Banerjee
“There’s something about arriving in new cities, wandering empty streets with no destination. I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I’m born to leave.” ― Charlotte Eriksson
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Go outside and invite your faith community to observe the community and notice who is out there who is not in there. Plan a time of fellowship to extend hospitality to anyone you can find in the streets.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 • Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 • Philippians 4:1-9 • Matthew 22:1-14
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=163