Thought for the week - 11 October 2020

"For many are invited, but few are chosen."

The other day a friend and I were talking about the parables of Jesus and of how many of them, particularly in St. Matthew's gospel, were difficult to make sense of.  The reason it is difficult to make sense of is that they are located in an historical situation that is far remote from ours. Many of the parables pre-suppose the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities; the conflict between Christian and Jew. So much so that they can actually appear to be anti-Semitic. And this rather disturbs me.

Take last week's Gospel reading - the parable of the Vineyard. In this story a landowner going on a journey lets out his vineyard to tenants. When the time comes to collect the rent he sends his agents and they kill them.  So he sends more servants and they kill them also. Finally he sends his son whom they cast out of the vineyard and kill.  When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do? He will put those tenants to death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.  Clearly, in this parable the Vineyard is Israel; the agents are the prophets; the son is Jesus himself; and the owner of the vineyard is God.  No wonder the chief priests and Pharisees were angry when they heard this parable for "they perceived that he was talking about them", and they sought to have him arrested.  It is a rather disturbing parable. The parable we have just heard in this morning's second lesson is equally disturbing. This time the imagery is that of a marriage feast. "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son."  The king, like the landowner in the other parable is clearly God; and the son is Jesus himself.  "He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come."  Those whom had been invited are clearly Israel.  The servants who call the guests to the wedding feast are again, as in the other parable, the prophets. And they are either ignored or killed. "He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. "     "Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'      "But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business.  The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them."  Because of this the king destroys them and burns their city. "The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." In the form that the parable has come down to us in Matthew's gospel, this probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, and the final end of the kingdom of Israel. As the parable continues the servants go out into the highways and by-ways and gather all whom they could find both good and bad, so that the wedding hall is filled with guests. "Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.'  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.    This refers to the mission to the Gentiles.  If Israel will not respond to God's invitation then the gentiles will.   No wonder we are disturbed by these parables. They are disturbing - not to say cruel. No wonder the Jewish leaders were angry and disturbed. They knew exactly what Jesus was saying and sought to do away with him. But the parable has an even more disturbing sting in the tale:    "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.  'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.      "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  " What a remarkable thing. How could those who had just been gathered in from the streets expect to have a wedding garment?  Surely it is not his fault?  Why should he be bound hand and foot and thrown out into the darkness?  I certainly find this particular parable very disturbing and difficult to make sense of.  It seems a very spiteful thing for anyone to do - let alone God. I suspect that what has happened is that the original parable that Jesus told has somehow been modified and adapted by the writer of Matthew's gospel to fuel the bitter dispute between the Jewish Christians and the Jews that took place after the fall of Jerusalem. If that is the case then what can we make of it today?  Certainly we ought not to use in anyway to suggest the superiority of Christians over Jews - two centuries of anti-Semitism reached a terrible finale in the Holocaust. What, I suspect we have to do is to relate it not to the relationship between Christians and Jews - even though that might have been its original setting - but to ourselves. We too have been called to the wedding feast of the Son. The question we have to ask ourselves is how do we respond to that invitation. Do we simply ignore it? Or even worse do we oppose it?  Furthermore, are we prepared for it - are wearing the wedding garment?   Or put in another way we must not assume that because we have been invited or called to serve our Lord that we need to do no more. There can be no place in the Kingdom of God for self-righteousness. Isn't that the point Jesus was making to the Jewish religious leaders.  And doesn't that apply equally to?  I'm not sure that I have completely grasped what this parable is all about; but I suspect it is something like that. "For many are invited, but few are chosen."  It is not enough just to be called - we need to be chosen. Let me end with some words of St. Paul from today's epistle   " Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." If we follow Paul's advice then perhaps we will indeed not only be called, but also chosen." 

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St Stephen on the Cliffs, Holmfield Road, Blackpool, FY2 9RB

An Anglican church in the Diocese of Blackburn

 

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