Sunday, October 30, 2011

Doing Good and Doing Well

Doing Good and Doing Well

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;

therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;

but do not do as they do,

for they do not practice what they teach.

Tomorrow is Halloween, or, to be historically and liturgically correct: “All Hallow’s Even.” In our culture in general and, sadly, among Protestants in particular, it is seldom remembered any more the night before the celebration of All Saints Day, November 1st.

For many years now, Protestants have celebrated the day nearest Halloween as “Reformation Sunday,” rather than focusing on a pasted-over old pagan holiday as a theme for our worship. It still works for me as long as we remember that the key phrase in the Presbyterian part of the Reformation that swept Europe over 400 years ago was “a church reformed and always reforming.” It seemed to the Calvinists and others in what came to be called the Reformed tradition of churches, that a reformation must always be under way in the church, to keep it from degenerating into habit, or empty formalism, doing what we do because we have always done it that way. Of course, uttering a key phrase and keeping it ever before the church are two different things. Like all churches, we have our struggles with the temptation to follow what have been jokingly called the Seven Last Words of the Church: We never did it that way before.

In our scripture passage Jesus spoke of the “Moses seat.” It sounds quaint, antiquated, doesn’t it? Yet if pressed to do it, we could think of several contemporary “seats” that today are more figurative than real: seats of learning, county seats, seats of government. These all come from times when learning or government actually, physically involved a seat, someone in charge occupied an actual, special chair or throne and from there issued laws, decrees, decisions. The Greek word for “seat” is kathedras, a word that moved directly into Latin in the word we associate with “cathedral.” We usually think a cathedral is mainly a really big church, but lots of really big churches are not cathedrals. And the reason is that a cathedral is a church where a bishop occupies the seat, the cathedras of authority. When the pope speaks ex cathedra, it means he is announcing an opinion “from the throne” that carries the full authority of his office. Professors occupy the authority of their own offices by what we still refer to as a “chair” at a university. The disciples knew that Jesus was about to commence teaching them when he sat down.

At the time Matthew’s gospel was being written down, it was the Pharisees who sat upon Moses’ cathedras in the synagogues. It was really a seat, a chair from which they delivered their sermons. It was a seat of authority. But as anyone in a position of authority can tell you, the Moses seat can also be a hot seat. The difference can be seen in this way: Put yourself in a place of privilege and you put yourself on the hot seat. Put yourself in a place of service and you put yourself on the Moses seat.

Whenever a person in a position of authority sees that position as a call to service, an opportunity to be helpful and useful for the sake of others – as in the best traditions of public service – then that person occupies the contemporary equivalent of the Moses seat. It is an authority that serves not self, but others.

On the other hand, whenever a person in a position of authority sees that office as an opportunity to lord it over others, to promote their own opinions rather than seek what is best for all, to see the seat of authority as a seat of privilege, then they place themselves not on the Moses seat, but on the hot seat – they set themselves up as targets for criticism, and rightly so.

Moses was the servant who never got to the promised land, but whose selfless service made it possible for others to get there. Compare that with the service of those who work as hard as they can to use a position of authority to make certain they reach the promised land ahead of everyone else.

In the Bible, true greatness generally seems to come from a place where it is least expected, from the lowly, the poor, the meek, the youngest child of Jesse rather than his oldest, from the baby in the manger rather than Herod sitting on his cathedras.

I recall once, several years ago, when a newspaper[1] quoted an official in the US State Department who said that poor people in third world countries cannot be helped much by means of financial aid or loans, because he believed that poor people are often poor due to a native inability to do any better. This sounded ominously like things that used to be said about minority groups and women in our country not that many years ago. A biblical concept of humility flies in the face of self-importance and jingoistic attitudes about the economic conditions of others trapped in oppressive social norms.

I have a friend who once occupied a chair on the faculty of a large state university. Some of his work in agriculture was internationally known. With all the honors and awards he had received, we can be certain that he was an authority in his field. But he liked to recount the story of the day that he, brand new know-it-all professor from the big university, was called out to a local farmer’s livestock yard to offer some advice on improving the conditions there for the farmer’s pigs. Other farmers stood around the holding pen, eyeing with suspicion the professor with his clipboard and scientific instruments and his air of infallibility. Their suspicions of his imperfection were confirmed when he stepped, with his 11 inch high boots, into a pen that was 12 inches deep in manure. It was a testimony to this man’s humility that he often told this story on himself.

The calling of a professor who holds that chair at that university is one of service to agriculture, and if he forgets that, if he begins to treat his position of authority as a privilege for himself and his own prestige rather than as an opportunity to be of help to others, then he has exchanged the Moses seat for something else altogether, in this case, a manure bath.

If as we read the story from Matthew’s gospel – with its famous “do what they say but not what they do” – if we find in it an occasion to feel rather superior to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, then we have certainly missed the point. The portrait offered here of the Pharisees is a portrait of unbelief, which is a portrait that can be painted any time and any place. We need to remember that this story is not included in a Jewish book, but in the Christian New Testament, to serve not as a brick bat to throw at other people, but as a warning to all those who accept a call to service in the name of Christ. It details an attitude that it is not impossible to find in the Christian church, one that has indeed been found in the church in every age since the time of Paul. Karl Barth called it the “temptation to glorify themselves in their individuality by means of the Gospel rather than to glorify the Gospel in their individuality.”[2]

One portion of this passage about which I ponder is the brief reference to those who “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (v. 5) Really to appreciate this, it is helpful to know what a phylactery is, and why fringes were worn at all. But it’s not necessary. Anyone who has ever taken on a job or responsibility which called for a certain kind of dress or special uniform knows exactly the sort of human self-importance Jesus is referring to here. I’ll never forget the special day that I was able to put on a pulpit gown as an ordained pastor, something that is now becoming passé in many churches. Medical professionals take on special status in hospitals with white jackets or surgical scrubs, military personnel take on prestige attached to ranks worn on shoulders and arms. But we must remember how fragile all such outward marks of human importance really are.

A physician I know wanted to point this out to children in a children’s sermon once. He wore a white lab coat to the church chancel, and carried a black doctor’s bag. He asked the children if they knew what he did for a living by the sort of clothing he was wearing. They all shouted out that they could tell he was a doctor, but he said, “No, I’m a milkman!” and opened his doctor’s bag to give them cartons of chocolate milk.

No matter what they were, the Pharisees’ fringes were long and their phylacteries broad for the same reason that our automobiles are shiny and our good deeds are so often paraded around in front of others. We want to let others know how good or impressive we are, and in so doing, spoil the good that we try to do, call attention to ourselves instead of the Gospel, and so claim our faith as a call to self-importance rather than service. When Jesus says that there were folks who loved the place of honor, the best seats, don’t we have to admit that he is talking about us? Who wouldn’t want to be at the head table, why would anyone choose to have a rotten seat, when a good seat guarantees not only a good view, but the added benefit of demonstrating to others how important we are? One Bible scholar helped me keep this view in perspective when he titled his comments on our passage: “Jesus Condemns Jewish and Christian Pharisaism."[3]

A story is told about Dwight Eisenhower’s mother, who was the very essence of selfless Christian humility. It is said that during the second world war, while riding on a train, she found herself next to a very talkative passenger. Having no idea who Mrs. Eisenhower was, her seat mate took advantage of the long ride to talk endlessly about her son to one who was the mother of the Supreme Allied Commander, telling her how proud she was that he had been made a corporal. Finally, the realization came upon her that she had been dominating the conversation, and she said to Mrs. Eisenhower, “Tell me about your son.” Her entire reply was, “My son is in the army too."

Baptism has been called the ordination service that empowers all believers with the authority of the gospel. We are all called to be proclaimers of the Word of God with our words and our lives. Our faith is not a call to privilege so that we may lord it over others, but a call to service so that we may live for others, no matter who they are. I hope that the coming month of November, a month devoted to giving thanks, will provide us all with an opportunity to rededicate our lives to Jesus’ example of selfless service for others.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “Debate over capability of world’s poorest ruffles US aid issue", Christian Science Monitor.

[2] Church Dogmatics , Vol. IV, 3, p. 888.

[3] The Good News According to Matthew , Eduard Schweizer, John Knox Press, p. 427.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Main Thing

The Main Thing

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Matthew 22:34-46

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

I had a friend once who reflected that the main thing in life is keeping the main thing the main thing. Leading a discussion on this passage at a Bible study once, I started our conversation by asking a question:

“What is the main thing?”

I didn’t give the question a context, like “When it comes to college football, what is the main thing?” or “If you want to stay healthy into your old age, what is the main thing?” or “What is the main thing to know about the gospel of Matthew?” To have selected a context for a “main thing” discussion would have made responses to the broader question too easy.

Just sitting here, without benefit of any boundaries placed on our responses, what is the main thing? Now, granted, in that Bible study we were sitting in a room with a dozen or so fellow church members expecting a Bible study to happen, so that in itself gave a preconceived context to the responses I suppose. But I didn’t say anything to prejudice replies. In answer to my question, “What is the main thing?” I received these responses:

· Jesus is Lord

· For God so loved the word that he gave his only son...

· Forgiveness

· God loves you

· Faith in things unseen

· Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

· Love one another, including your enemy

· Turn the other cheek

· Life together

Some great responses, really. Then I asked, “If a person who was a total stranger to us and to our ministry were to observe us for a morning here at church, what do you think they would say by their observations among us that we believe to be the main thing here?”

· Coffee

· Music

· Community

OK, I wasn’t depressed that no one said, “brilliant sermons,” because I am a realist; and I was only just a little despondent because words like “worship” or “Bible” or “prayer” weren’t mentioned, perhaps because that group might have been in a self-critical or a little bit of a smart-aleck frame of mind. But I think the exercise could be valuable in any church at any time. It might be good for all of us to think on those two items in our own personal devotional time in the week to come. We can give the first one a little more context, if we like:

1) What is the “main thing” in my life?


2) What would an outsider, observing the worship of our church fellowship, perceive to be our “main thing?”

There is an old story about the rabbi who was approached by two men arguing over payment for a chicken. The first one said, “This man bought a chicken from me. So he should pay for that chicken, right?” The rabbi answered, “Yes, you are right, he should pay for the chicken.” The other man said, “Yes, I bought the chicken from him, but since I did pay him, I should not have to pay him again should I?” Again, the rabbi said, “You are right, you should not have to pay him again.” At this point, the rabbi’s wife, overhearing the discussion, interrupted the rabbi, “Don’t be silly, certainly both men can’t be right.” And the rabbi responded, “Ah, yes, you are also right.”

C.S. Lewis once reflected that our theological questions are often as confounding as the answers of the rabbi: “Can a person ask questions which God finds unanswerable?” Lewis asked. “Quite easily... How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical questions – are like that.”[1]

Our Bible passage, as you must be realizing by now, involved Matthew’s recollection of a time when the Pharisees asked Jesus a question about the main thing: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The main thing. Jews of the time were obliged to observe 613 laws, all of which were equally binding. This was a trick question. Choose one and you shortchange the others.

And if we’ve thought about it a bit, we might recognize that Jesus’ response begs the question, first, because he doesn’t choose from among the 613 obligatory laws, but chooses instead to recite what Jews call the shema,[2] and secondly, because he fails to single out one law from among the great commandments, and actually combines two instead: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Since Jesus connected the two disparate commands, saying the “second is like it,” it was made to sound as if the two commands are, for all practical purposes, one. Which, it turns out in Christian practice ever since, they are. Or should be anyway.

One great rule in debate, as Jesus knew instinctively, is this: If you decide to answer a question from someone trying to get the best of you in a discussion, always answer the question he should have asked rather than the one he did ask. In reply to a question about the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with two commands, a combination punch. The main thing was really two things, so inseparably bound together in his theological thinking that it would be impossible to have the one without the other. To love the Lord your God, without a commitment to love of neighbor? Impossible! To manufacture a love of neighbor without relying on the empowering love of God to carry it out? Unthinkable! Then comes some more of that biblically theological math that confounds us: “The two are one.”

To proclaim love for God while failing to seek the best for others is absurd. To attempt to love others without relying on the empowering love of God is a failed enterprise from the start. Going at either one without the other reminds me of an old Berke Breathed Bloom County comic strip in which Opus the penguin decides one day, through the strength of nothing but his own power, to give up television and become more learned. As he walked to the library he announced,

Attention, dark world of electronic gratification

I would like to announce my intellectualization!

No more tv! No boob tube-a-roo!

‘Twas turning my noodle to video goo!

Yes, there's something much better for smart chaps like me

From what I have heard, it's known as 'to read’!

Books! I'll read books! Be they large or quite dinky!

Straight from the shelves all musty and stinky!

Faulkner! O'Neill! Twain and Saul Bellow! ...

I think I'll curl up with a few of those fellows!

Yes, I'll soon be well-read! Such a fab thing to be!

I've allowed plenty of time, at least an hour . . . or three.

But, after standing, bewildered, surrounded, amid towering bookshelves reaching to the sky, closing in on him, the next frame finds Opus on the sofa, snacking in front of the TV set, a voice calling from the TV: Gilligan!

We all know what it is to begin with enthusiasm for something new, a diet, or an exercise program, or a self-improvement book, and then find ourselves a few days or weeks later, back in the old grind, nothing changed, Cheetos bags scattered around. That’s how it is when we resolve to love our neighbors as ourselves under nothing but our own power. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard versions of the ancient lapsed-church-member refrain: “Well, I don’t go to church, but I believe in God, and I pay my taxes, and I try to treat everybody fairly.” I wonder if God is flattered by our believing in him without ever speaking to him. Is that the way we would treat a relative we don’t even like very much? “Uncle Henry is a pain in the patootie, so I never speak to him, but I believe he exists, and that’s good enough for me.” I suppose Uncle Henry might be less than reassured that someone cares about him only enough to confirm that he exists.

If there is any way in which we in the mainline churches fail, it is probably in the area of our flaccid attention span concerning the biblical requirements of our faith: Sabbath observance, tithing, prayer, worship, study, commitment to the poor, these are all building blocks in the very most basic foundations of our faith, yet how often do we actually think about them? In a moral universe of self-orientation, everything – even faith – can become self-serving. Religion can devolve into narcissistic spirituality, a way to find peace…for me, a way to find fulfillment…for me, a way to discover meaning, happiness, prosperity…for me. The stewardship season – on which we have embarked in our church – provides an appropriate time to think on exactly whom and what we live for, and to reflect our answer to that question in our giving.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisee’s question is less a matter of information than of formation. What is the main thing? What is it that most forms your life and mine, the mold around which we find our living and our thinking and our being shaped? It is less a matter of knowledge than of obedience and religious practice. The main thing is not so much having the correct answer as having the right direction, the correct orientation.

Clearly, Jesus was on to something: love God, love others, it’s not two commands but one, they stand together, as they must, they are inseparable. Loving the Lord our God with heart, soul, and mind reminds us that our worship, as well as our relationships, are not matters of what we get out of either. The living of our truest faith takes place “both because of and despite the needs, strengths and frailties of the people present”[3] in community with us.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, New York: Bantam, p. 81.

[2] Deuteronomt 6:4

[3] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

State Secrets

State Secrets

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

October 16, 2011

Isaiah 45:1-7

Matthew 22:15-22

Senator Eugene McCarthy once made a rather cynical comment about his involvement in political wars over the years: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” It’s a rather jaded point of view, one I’m not sure we should accept at face value. After all, politics are important. People’s lives depend upon political decisions made every day, and sometimes people can be hurt terribly, or made wealthy overnight by a simple whisk of the legislative pen.

Twentieth century filmmaker Boris Marshalov[1] once observed, “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens – and then everybody disagrees.” Remember the story of the little boy who found his grandfather watching a political speech on television one day, and asked him, “What is he talking about, Grandpa?” To which his grandfather replied, “I don’t know, he doesn’t say.” Yet in spite of our inclination to scoff at politics and politicians – which is something of a national pastime – the Bible takes another point of view.

There is a key element in today’s reading from Isaiah’s prophecy: God’s use of human – political – means to accomplish his purposes. Now that thought, of itself, is hardly new, although some of us may be moved either to agree or disagree with it. Yet right or wrong, some people claim to have seen God’s will at work in the political arena for centuries. That view certainly isn’t abating in our time in which preachers appear in the political section as well as the religion section of news magazines.

We would do well to remember that when we begin talking about God’s use of human, political means to accomplish his purposes, we need to be awfully careful. War and civil strife are ugly enough, but probably no war is uglier than a religious war with the special kind of hatred that it can inspire: Sunni Muslims blowing up Shiite Muslims in the Middle East, a history of Protestants battling Catholics, these serve as just two reminders of that truth. Through history, the declaration that God has singled out certain political leaders for his work has been a reckless claim at best, lethal at worst. Governmental leaders with particularly ugly policies have often identified God’s will with their own political ends.

Allowing for that, one feature separates Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Persian king Cyrus from all the political claims people have made on behalf of God throughout history. It is the claim that Cyrus – non-Jew, non-Palestinian, even non-Arab – Cyrus was God’s chosen servant, even though he was unaware of it. Cyrus did not make any claim to a special calling from the God of the Jews. Isaiah went to great pains to point that out when in his prophecy God speaks to Cyrus, saying:

“I appoint you to help my servant Israel, the people I have chosen. I have given you great honor, although you do not know me.” (v.4)

Twice, in the space of two verses, God declared he had chosen Cyrus for his special assignment, although Cyrus did not know God. Cyrus is described as God’s ‘messiah’ in the Old Testament sense – that is, the anointed one. This is a startling development, since obviously, such a description of an anointed king had, for all the previous history of the Jews, been reserved exclusively for their own kings. We can read where Saul was anointed, David was anointed, Solomon, Ahab, and all the rest. But here a foreign king received a title previously reserved exclusively for the kings of Israel and Judah. This sets the Cyrus oracle apart from any claims of contemporary political figures that they represent the will of God. Cyrus was unaware of that aspect of his role, and never claimed it for himself.

In the prophet’s mind, the formula seemed to work something like this:

[1] Cyrus exists for the sake of Israel, the people of God. That is, he

was going to be the one to bring about their freedom.


[2] Israel exists for the sake of the nations:

I do this so that everyone from one end of the world to the other

may know that I am the Lord... “ (v. 6)

We may add that the Church in our time – inasmuch as it lives up to its calling to be the ‘new Israel’ – also is called to exist for the sake of the nations. God is not unconcerned with the fate of nations, with the political foibles of humanity.

What we see in Isaiah is a whole new way to view a political servant’s ‘chosenness.’ Where all the other pretenders to the throne of grace have claimed for themselves that they are God’s chosen, here we have a radical Biblical doctrine that God chooses whom God needs, regardless whether they are even aware of it, regardless whether they may have passed kingdom entrance exams. Cyrus never claimed for himself the title of “Yahweh’s anointed”. He probably would have laughed at the thought that such a tiny, insignificant group of people as the exiled Jews would have thought of him in those terms. But that would not, in Isaiah’s mind, have made him any less chosen.

Jesus taught that where love is, God is. Similarly, Isaiah might have said, “Where justice is, there God is.” Cyrus was one of the most enlightened rulers the world has ever known, certainly he was one of the most benevolent conquerors. He did not carry conquered peoples off into exile, he did not burn their crops and sow their fields with salt. Instead, he returned exiled peoples to their homelands, allowed conquered peoples to remain in their own country, and is said to have captured overripe Babylon without a struggle. He cast himself in the role not of swaggering enslaver, but of liberator. No wonder he is so well-remembered by ancient historians. The Old Testament writers had ample reason to view him in a kindly light, since he allowed the return of the Jews to their homeland. But they went a step further, calling him the Lord’s anointed. Why?

I think it is because they realized that the God of Israel was much more than a national deity. If the Lord was any God at all, he must be a God of all the world, and his interest in the affairs of humanity must extend to all the people of the earth. Any person who served to liberate people from repression, to free people from tyranny, could be an agent of their God, whether aware of it or not. The old joke in the countries under former communist domination used to be that in Western democracies with capitalist economic systems, domination of people by people prevails, while under socialism it is the other way around. A political figure, called by God, would be a leader that set at liberty those who are oppressed by any system.

If it was a startling revelation to the Jews to realize that their Lord could use a foreigner as an agent of his purposes for history, it might be startling for us. It is possible that God is freeing people by agencies other than the CIA? It is possible that people in China are more or less content under their present rulers, regardless of our opinions of them, and that to the degree that the people are more free now than they were a few decades ago, that government may have served in recent times as an agent of God, since where justice is, there God is?

All this is to say that the God who loves each and every one of us from the moment we are conceived to the day we die will necessarily be concerned about the way we organize our political lives together. The God who is Father to Jesus Christ could not be any other way. God’s concern for justice necessitates an intimate interest in our affairs of state.

Still, the gospel message for today reminds us that our ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere than with our political loyalties, important as those may be. When Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he was bound to have offended the Pharisees whom Matthew saw as the devout, self-righteous, and self-appointed keepers of the purity of the religious house of Israel, who were very much opposed to the rule and taxation of Caesar. When he said, “... and render to God the things that are God’s,” he just as surely offended the operatives of King Herod, the sold-out, Uncle Tom collaborators who were perfectly happy to see heavy taxes levied on the Jews, since they got a cut of what was taken.

We may know that God’s will for the world can be aided or frustrated by our political process. We may know that God can use the most unlikely of agents to help in the establishment of his will. But above all, no matter who the king Cyrus or King Herod of our time turns out to be, we must know that such a king may only demand a portion of our loyalty, and that our ultimate loyalty must be to the King of kings, Lord of lords, the one who requires of us only that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in his way.

[1] Known for films in the 1940s, 50s and 60s such as Sentence of Death (1948) starring James Dean, and Terror in the City (1964) starring Lee Grant.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dressed for Church

Dressed for Church

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 9, 2011

Matthew 22:1-14

There is a version of this banquet story in Luke’s gospel,[1] and it is more often read for preaching than Matthew’s edition for some reasons that become obvious if you just read them both.

• In Matthew, the king’s gracious invitation to a banquet is received by a unique method of making a response: the invited guests seized the messengers who sought their RSVP to the king’s invitation and killed them. Perhaps they didn’t like the menu – perhaps they’d already had too much rare beef!

• Luke has no killing of the messengers in his version.

• In Matthew, an enraged king sends troops upon the offending townspeople and has their city burned to the ground.

• In Luke, the offended king merely tells his messengers to go invite someone else.

• Matthew also has messengers inviting the rabble of the street to the great banquet, but unlike the story in Luke, the king in Matthew’s version seizes someone who was brought from the street into the wedding feast and dresses him down (!) for sporting improper attire.

• Luke’s main point is that the gracious invitation of God is extended to everyone, regardless of merit.

• Matthew’s point, it appears, is anybody’s guess.

So what should we do? Read only Luke’s version of Jesus’ parable and pretend that Matthew was silent on the subject? Throw away Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story? I think, if we are willing to read with imagination, we can discover additional gospel truths in the version Matthew provides us, and, in the end, there is good news.

First of all, remember parables are stories, not descriptions of historic events. This is a story meant to teach. Additionally, it is an allegory, in which the characters and situations are meant to represent things: the king is meant to be understood as a stand-in for God, the son as Jesus, the wedding banquet as the kingdom of heaven, and so forth. You can probably figure out the rest just by giving it a little thought.


Both Matthew and Luke bring us the first main point of the story. The first people invited to the banquet refused the invitation, so then the king threw open the doors and invited everyone, “both good and bad” to come in and have a seat at the table. This reminds us of something we already know about our faith, which is that God’s grace is available to all, regardless of merit, that the son in whose name the banquet is offered has come to save the whole world and everyone in it. Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself” expresses this truth about the gospel and this story:

“This is the meal pleasantly set...

this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,

It is for the wicked the same as the righteous...

I make appointments with all,

I will not have a single person slighted or left away,

The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited...

the heavy-lipped slave is invited...

the venerealee is invited,

There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”

For Luke, the story ends there. The grace of God is extended to all sinners equally, “both good and bad” have been invited. Here is how Frederick Buechner sees the scene:

“...the champagne glasses are filled, the cold pheasant is passed around, and there they sit by candlelight with their white canes and their empty sleeves, their Youngstown haircuts, their orthopedic shoes, their sleazy clothes, their aluminum walkers. A woman with a hairlip proposes a toast. An old man with the face of [King] Lear on the heath and a party hat does his best to rise to his feet. A deaf mute thinks people are starting to go home and pushes back from the table...”[2]

In other words, when it comes to inviting every sinner to the banquet, we are likely to be surprised at the cast of characters who will be there in response to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation. But Matthew takes us further into the life of the church as we know it and have experienced it. Matthew looks around his church, filled with forgiven sinners, and wonders how people, so graced and embraced by God, can then come to do the will of God so reluctantly, so grudgingly. Beyond calling people into “the banquet” – the church – as both Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of the parable do, what should happen next, how, then, shall we live? This is where the additional parts of Matthew’s version come to life.


Matthew knew how easily the free and forgiving nature of God’s grace can slide into permissiveness. Once we have received the invitation to salvation which Jesus offers, there is always a temptation to think that we have done everything we can do. Some people think that religious faith is a matter of affirming a certain set of beliefs. Matthew knows that beliefs which do not lead to changed lives are dead in the water. This is the gospel equivalent of the letter of James, which declares that faith without good works is dead faith, as good as no faith at all, or even worse.[3] At least an unrepentant sinner has his faithlessness to offer as a reason for failure to respond to the graciousness of God, he needs to offer no excuses for his bad behavior: he never claimed a religious transformation of his life in the first place. But for believers, the transforming power of the gospel should result in changed lives, or else how will the world see the good news lived out in life?

I once heard about a female seminary student who received an assignment in a theology class to write a paper on the topic of “shame.” Inexplicably, she found the paper was too difficult to write. Personal feelings were getting in the way. One of her professors, with exceptional insight, discovered in talking with her that during the year she had been working in a church with a very charismatic pastor who also abused her sexually. It was difficult for her to write objectively about a subject which was so much a part of her present experience. There isn’t much that holds any church together apart from trust, from a shared commitment to make every effort to live by what we say, to back up what we profess to believe with behavior that seeks to match. That shared trust also presumes that when our lives fall short of our faith, we will confess our shortcomings, seek forgiveness and move on. The effort to match up our lives to our calling should always move us forward. So here, in this woman’s experience, at the center of the trust which a church needs to exist, was someone who violated trust and expected permissive grace to let him off the hook.


I’m not sure that Matthew’s gospel story is declaring that that pastor will burn in hell, but I can’t believe the love of Jesus is so permissive as to say this doesn’t matter. Someone, somewhere must turn to that pastor at the banquet and say, “What? You are in here with no wedding garment of righteousness? Get out!” That charismatic pastor had mistaken Jesus’ acceptance of all people, good or bad, as also condoning all behavior.

The parable is not meant to empower us to sit in judgment on others we deem unworthy to remain at the banquet, but rather to serve as a goad to us to examine our own worthiness, or lack of it. It is not meant to depress us with a reminder that we have fallen short, a fact of which any honest person is only too well aware, but to encourage us to press forward to ever fuller acts of faithfulness. Justification (the free grace involved in being admitted to the feast) is the first step of faith, the step that God takes toward us. The next step is up to us, and it is the process of sanctification, the goal being to aim at a life which is holy as a response to the holiness which has been given us.

When we’re getting dressed for church – in the spirit of this parable – we need to do more than put on our coats and ties, our shirts and slacks, our shoes and stockings, our skirts and dresses. We also need a special wardrobe, a garment that fits us for discipleship in the kingdom, one that Paul described in Ephesians when he counseled believers to prepare a new wardrobe for kingdom living:

Put on the whole armor of that you may be able to...stand firm. Stand firm, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these take the shield of faith...Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.[4]

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Luke 14:16-24.

[2] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, p. 67.

[3] James 2:14-17.

[4] Ephesians 6:13-17.