If you’d prefer to watch and/or listen rather than read, here is a video version of Rev. Miranda’s sermon from Sunday, October 11!
Before we receive today’s Gospel lesson, I’d like to remind us how this works. We have the story of Jesus’ life and teachings in four versions, the Gospels. Each have their own slant; how they understand the Gospel depends on their experiences and hopes. The Gospel text assigned for today is kind of an intense illustration of that tendency.
It’s one of many stories and teachings of Jesus that appears in both Matthew and Luke. Most scholars believe that both these Gospel writers used a now-lost collection of Jesus’ teachings as one of their sources – in addition to the earliest Gospel, Mark, and other possible sources.
When Matthew or Luke use one of the teachings from that lost document in their Gospels, they may put it in different places in their narrative, and sometimes they also tweak it so that Jesus’ words fit that context. Let’s look at today’s parable, the Parable of the Banquet, in Matthew and Luke.
READ the Gospel parable in both versions:
So, Matthew’s version is a lot scarier, right?
An obvious next question might be, Which version is closer to what Jesus actually said? I believe Luke’s version is closer to Jesus’ words. Partly because Luke’s version has a lot in common with, for example, the parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids, and other teachings about the urgency of responding to God’s call. The message is simple, really: When God calls you – invites you – be ready! Show up! Don’t get distracted or put it off.
I think it’s really interesting that in these stories, God’s invitation is to a party! That’s worthy of its own sermon sometime…
But the clearer case for Luke’s version being closer to Jesus’ words is that Matthew’s version is so clearly Matthew’s version. There are lots of places where Matthew is different from parallel texts in the other Gospels because Matthew adds violence and judgment. Luke’s Jesus is often inviting in those at the margins, the crippled, the blind, and the lame; Matthew’s Jesus is often consigning people to the outermost darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Why is Matthew like that? The Gospel of Matthew was written after the Jewish revolt and destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in AD 70. Luke and John were almost certainly written after 70, as well, but Matthew seems to really carry the emotional and psychological scars of that terrible time. Think of him like a 9/11 survivor, whose PSTD and grief sometimes manifest as deep bitterness and rage.
Matthew blames the religious leaders in Jerusalem, in part, for bringing down destruction upon the great city by not being truly faithful to their call as leaders of God’s people. Luke has Jesus tell this story at a dinner party. Matthew has Jesus tell it while he’s at the Great Temple. It immediately follows another parable about a landowner who builds a vineyard, then leaves it in the hands of tenants. The tenants are greedy; they don’t want to give the landowner his share of the money at harvest time. So when the landowner sends servants to collect the money, they beat them up and send them away.
It seems pretty clear that in that parable, the tenants represent religious leaders who get more invested in status, wealth and power than in actually leading on God’s behalf. That parable is very similar in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And for that matter, it has some close parallels in the prophetic books of the Old Testament – In which a vineyard is often a symbol for God’s people… and religious leaders are often accused of hypocrisy and faithlessness.
So Matthew takes today’s parable, about somebody desperately trying to find enough guests for his dinner party, and places it in that same scene. And he makes it a parable about God’s vengeance on the Temple leadership for conspiring to kill Jesus. Matthew says, Jesus was your invitation to God’s banquet, and you not only refused to show up – you KILLED the messenger. And the King was so angry at your negligence that he destroyed your city. Everything we lost… it’s your fault.
I want to take a sharp right turn here and talk briefly about our Exodus lesson this morning. First, let me say that this story gets redeemed, just a few chapters later. The golden calf is in Exodus 32. In Exodus 35, Moses calls the people to bring offerings to create a sort of holy tent – a place for people to honor God and make sacrifices, as beautiful and elaborate as possible for a people traveling through the wilderness. And just as the people gave their gold earrings to Aaron to make the calf, the people give their jewelry to make the golden ornaments for the tent of meeting.
I love that the text stresses that they made these gifts with stirred hearts and willing spirits… I preached this text when we were starting our capital campaign! Right now I just want to note that the people were hungry to give their gifts, and their hearts, to something. Aaron’s calf project filled a void. But when a better, more real option came along – they were ready.
I think the thread that connects these texts – the golden calf and Matthew’s version of the banquet parable – is the question of what kind of god we want. And especially what kind of god we want when we are under stress.
The Israelites were hungry and thirsty, hot, tired, anxious. Sure, God had miraculously freed them from slavery in Egypt, but maybe slavery wasn’t so bad; at least we had food. Sure, God has promised that we will have a homeland of our own some day, where we can live as God’s people, but all I see right now is rocks.
Moses is up on a mountaintop talking to God, receiving the Ten Commandments, but the people want a god that THEY can see and touch and approach. A nice golden statue, like the ones they used to see in Egypt; those were so classy! A nice small god, a god they could take with them wherever they went, instead of a God who tells them where to go. A god who will make manageable demands, and won’t get murderously angry at them for being impatient and bored and scared.
I mean… God is not winning any Parent of the Year awards, in these wilderness stories. You can’t really blame the Israelites for considering an alternative.
God is big and demanding and kind of scary. Even the things God does that help the Israelites – the plagues in Egypt, splitting the Red Sea, guiding them with a pillar of fire – are terrifying. And God’s insistence that they can and WILL become God’s chosen nation, prospering in their own land and following God’s ways, is asking a lot of them. That golden calf made from their own earrings… that might be a god they can handle.
And then there’s Matthew. Angry, grief-stricken Matthew, who needs the Gospel story of God’s redemptive love for humanity to include violent judgment upon his enemies, please.
Matthew wants a god who hates the same people he does. Matthew wants a god who either welcomes you to the party or throws you weeping into the outermost darkness. A god who’s keeping a list of who made the great city BURN… and will make THEM burn.
The idea of a God who yearns for the redemption of the whole world, who in Jesus Christ seeks to reconcile all humanity to Godself and one another…. That might not be exactly the God Matthew wants. And we can understand that, kindly. But we don’t have to go there with him.
Beloved friends: We are people of faith under stress. Walking through a wilderness, hungry, restless, anxious. Watching many things we loved and trusted burn. What god do we want? What god do we need?
We, too, might want a small, safe god we can understand and control. A god who will smite our enemies for us if we email him a list. A pocket-sized god who is just there for comfort and reassurance, instead of a god whose purposes are beyond our comprehension. A god who offers pardon without renewal, solace without strength. A god we can use like a vending machine, insert a prayer and receive a blessing, instead of a god who is working inexorably for the greater good in ways often too subtle and slow for us to perceive.
What god do we NEED? … A God who can hold us as we rage and grieve, who can handle our anger and anguish. A God who travels with us even on the hardest parts of the journey, and will be with us as we rebuild – or build anew – when eventually, inevitably, we arrive, somewhere … A God who can heal, transform, and redeem both us AND those we see as enemies. A God whose intentions for us are more beautiful and more demanding than anything we would ever choose for ourselves.
May we seek and follow that God, rather than any small god of our own devising. Amen.