In the lectionary texts for today, the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and the golden calf episode in Exodus 32, I see warning concerning complacency, a diagnosis and a way forward in the kingdom of God.
The parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew has a more gentle parallel in Luke 14. Matthew’s account is more challenging, more edgy. True, there are times when we might prefer to immerse ourselves in less aggressive feel-good story-telling, but perhaps once in a while we should stretch ourselves and learn more about God by engaging Biblical text that seem to clash with our sensibilities. The same goes for the Exodus account of the golden calf disaster.
So let’s hold on to our hats and dive right in.
Jesus gave the wedding banquet parable at a time when his confrontation with the religious leaders of the day was rapidly escalating. But first there is this curious story about a fig tree.
On the way to the temple, Jesus had seen a fig tree in full leaf with no fruit. He cursed it and the tree withered and died. The fate of this unfortunate fig tree set the stage for what was to come.
At the temple, Jesus told three parables in succession:
- First was the story of the 2 sons and the question of who did the will of the father. The answer, the one who had initially said “no” but did his father’s will in the end. Obedience is better than just lip service. Bearing fruit is better than just producing leaves. Remember the unfortunate fig tree?
- The second, the story of the vineyard owner. The tenants murdered the owner’s son provoking him to destroy the murderers and replace them with workers who will produce fruit. Again, the image of the fruitless fig tree.
- The third, the story of the wedding banquet, pushed the envelop further, accusing the religious leaders of intentionally pretentious disregard of the call of God.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man – a king – who gave a wedding celebration for his son.”
Revelation 19:7-9 portrays the final victory and exaltation of God the Son as a wedding celebration, the bride being the church, the body of Christ, we the children of God.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”Revelation 19:7-9 (ESV)
And so the king summoned all who had been invited to the wedding celebration.
But no one among the invited bothered to come. Some couldn’t care less –in their minds had more important things to do, more pressing needs to address. Some were hotheads: they killed the messengers.
The rejection made the king angry. He sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Why this violence?
We reach back to when Jesus began his public ministry at the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth. The attendant of the Torah gave Jesus the scroll of Isaiah and Jesus read this passage:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,Isaiah 61:1-2 (ESV)
Wouldn’t that time be a joyful gathering that one expects to happen in a huge gathering like a wedding party?
After reading, he sat down. Contrary to what we do in the West, sitting down was a gesture of authority in Jewish rabbinic tradition. In sitting down , Jesus was declaring in full authority: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus had revealed himself to be the true Messiah.
At first, the synagogue was impressed. The synagogue was initially complacent, even condescending to a mere carpenter’s son. But then Jesus proceeded to say, quoting more of the Hebrew Scripture, that God intends to bless the foreigners as well, those not of their bloodline.
The synagogue was not ready to be stretched – they rejected the idea that God’s kingdom reaches beyond the limits of their own ethnicity. This drove them mad with anger. And with foam at the mouth rage they tried to snuff out the bearer of the message they didn’t want to hear. They tried to kill Jesus.
Fast forward three years, Jesus at the temple telling the parable of the wedding banquet, days before he was put to death on the cross.
In the time of Jesus, the people in power, the religious leaders and in particular the Sadducees, had turned a blind eye to the fragile politics of the time. In order to keep power and what they thought was peace, they collaborated with Rome and sought to eliminate those they saw as political and religious troublemakers. They ignored the invitation that really mattered: the call to the wedding banquet prepared by God in Jesus Christ, God the Son, the Word incarnate, God with us. Instead they went for the seductive call of Rome. In their trust in Rome, they hoped for the perpetuation of their traditions so long as they kept doing what they did. They deluded themselves into pretentious complacency in order to save themselves and preserve their power.
Their pretense didn’t work. Led by Titus Flavius, the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem in AD70 and dispersed the Jews – the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. Rome’s victory over Jerusalem is commemorated on the Arch of Titus erected in AD82 on the Via Sacra in Rome.
Today we still see what complacency can bring. Across the world I have personally seen the incredible disparity in abundance versus poverty, in libertarianism versus authoritarianism, the excess of progressivism versus the resistance of tradition. Many have been deceived into championing causes they have elevated from the inconsequential to an imagined urgency. Many have turned away from the invitation to the communal and profound inner joy and beauty of the presence of God in God’s kingdom, and instead allowed themselves to be distracted by the urgent call of the world in the hope of some elusive fulfillment of purpose.
As a result, we have witnessed the world slip into territory we all have wished to try to forget. It doesn’t look good.
Whereas last year, so many were offended by the disturbance in Ottawa, today we are at a loss as to how to respond to the massive crowds overtly calling for death all around.
This is where the parable of the wedding banquet comes into painful focus. Many ignore the wedding invitation to God’s communal banquet in the now kingdom of God celebrated in fellowship and graciousness to each other. Many have opted instead for the temporary and the fleeting.
In a real sense, the complacently pretentious in the parable who were too busy to be bothered have come home to roost in our own time.
The story is not finished: The wedding banquet does not end at destruction. The king now invites anyone and everyone to his son’s wedding banquet, whether they be good or evil. And so people from everywhere came to the feast. It’s ironic: this open invitation was what enraged the synagogue in Nazareth in the first place.
The story does not end there: the parable continues to challenge our sensibilities. There was this unfortunate individual the king threw outside because he did not wear the prescribed wedding garment. What was that all about?
We need to go back to Revelation 19, the passage I presented earlier. The wedding garment is a metaphor for righteousness before God. It doesn’t come from us, it is a gift of God. We are clothed in it because God invited us to do so through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. In a real sense, putting on this garment of grace empowers us to move forward in the kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Refusing this garment is the height of pretentious complacency, the consequence of which is too painful to consider.
If then Matthew’s retelling of the wedding banquet parable shows us two faces of complacency, avoidance and presumption, the story of the golden calf in Exodus strangely teaches a way forward.
Years ago I was on a university project in one of the western African nations, a country where Christian faith co-existed with the voodoo religion. Driving around, my guide pointed to a massive stone church situated across the street from the main voodoo plaza.
He drily commented that both the Christians and the voodoo practicioners held their meetings at the same time. When they finish, the people crossed over from one side to the other and vice versa to “cover their bases.”
Humanity is fundamentally fearful of the supernatural – westerners have simply insulated themselves with a veneer of empiricism and rationality we call science. The non-western world, according to my guide, remain recognizant and respectful of forces unseen and beyond human control. This perspective motivates “covering their bases” in face of the invisible powers. The apostle Paul called it the “powers of the air.”
I suggest that this was the story behind the golden calf episode: the fearful Israelites, thinking and worried that they may have been abandoned by Moses, began to “cover their bases” by appealing to a god of their making – the golden calf. We shouldn’t be too dismissive of what the Israelites did – we might have done the same under those conditions.
I call this a form of complacency, just as treacherous as the other two in the wedding banquet parable. This third type balances on the knife-edge between self-reliance on one hand and dependence on God on the other.
When we fall from that knife-edge onto the side of self-reliance, we become complacently satisfied in what we can do to help ourselves. If we have ever quoted the maxim attributed to Ben Franklin “God helps those who help themselves,” then we have fallen into the complacency of self-reliance.
Like the king in the wedding banquet parable, God’s response was immediate. God was going to destroy the ungrateful and unfaithful Israelites who wanted to cover their bases.
Moses defended his people by bringing God into account. Yes, Moses dared do that.
Moses reminded God that it was He, God, who brought Israel out from Egypt. If He kills them now, what would the Egyptians say?
Moses reminded God of the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: a multitude of descendants living in the promised land. Was God going to break His promise?
I believe that Moses’ appeal was more than an accusation against God: Moses’ appeal was a defense against the complacency of self-reliance:
Faced with a threatened annihilation, Moses in reminding God really was reminding himself of the promised way forward for the people of Israel. God’s words of anger became a test of Moses’ own character, contained in this short sentence imbedded in the passage: “I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” Moses refused. God relented.
Thus, these are the faces of complacency: avoidance; presumption, godless self-reliance.
As Central Presbyterian moves forward in minsitry, may God empower each of us to be people of conviction and action, to be people of integrity, honesty, purity, humility, kindness and transparency. May we be people who will always defer to God’s will, people who will place God’s domain in priority over our own imagined little kingdoms, people who will intentionally depend on the power and will of God.
Let me close with this thought: When will the kingdom of God be? A question asked since the time of Paul the Apostle and through the centuries until today. In several instances, Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In several instances he also said: “A time is coming and has now come”, the Biblical principle of the “already and not yet.” Jesus while on earth has inaugurated the kingdom of God which is at work in our lives today.
And yet the kingdom of God – the full realisation of the new heaven and the new earth is yet to be, at which place and time there will be no more death nor sorrow, no crying, nor pain, for God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. This is what we long for. This is what we look forward to. This is what we celebrate even now. May it be, Lord Jesus, may it be so.
To Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.