October 9 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Pentecost 16
Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-12
Theme: R.S.V.P. In other words, it's all about our response to the King's invitation – better known as God's grace.
Introduction. In the broader picture the gospel narrative today is, and in recent weeks has been, about authority and our willingness or otherwise to accept it. Related to that is the ongoing question of identity. The teachers of the law and the elders questioned Jesus' authority: now we have invited guests throwing their invitations back in a denial of the King's authority over them. Who is this king that expects them to drop everything and attend his son's wedding feast? The passage from Isaiah is set in the context of rebellious enemy states having been brought into submission, and now being open to God's gracious invitation to become one with his people. All nations are under God's authority. In the epistle, St Paul writes as one having authority to a local church in which personal agendas are damaging the community's witness. Their response will depend, in part, on who they think he is: an Apostle or an interfering busybody? Does he have the authority to tell them what to do?
Background. We might think about our own Royal Wedding, which all seems so long ago now, but, in fact, it was at the end of April. The invitations to that event were greatly sought after, we were assured! It is unlikely that any fortunate recipient made light of it; even less likely that anyone declined it on the ground of having better things to do with his/her time!
We might also see some connections between a more recent event, one much closer to home. The kingdom of heaven, we might say, is like "Party Central" or "God's Fanzone", open to everybody who wants to turn up: however, patrons who are inappropriately dressed (not wearing official sponsor's products) will be ejected.
There's also the lovely (but rather provocative) story about the Vicar who started missing the odd Sunday morning service. When Vestry finally challenged him about this he produced a series of explanations: he missed one Sunday because a friend he hadn't seen in years turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep so he stayed home to spend time with him; another, because it started to rain rather heavily and the church always felt so cold in bad weather; a third because it was such a lovely day he took the opportunity to play a round of golf; and the fourth, because his wife was away visiting her sister, so he needed to look after the children. After hearing all this and deliberating for some time, Vestry resolved to warn him that if he continued to behave like the parishioners they would have no alternative but to ask the Bishop to dismiss him.
Isaiah. One of the key ideas running through the whole Book of Isaiah is the universal reach of God's salvation. Until his time, the prevailing view was that different nations had different gods: Yahweh was the God of Israel but had no "jurisdiction" outside her borders. Then sometime around the 8th to 7th centuries B.C. a change of thinking developed. As the idea of monotheism took hold, it became clear that Yahweh could not be limited by national boundaries. He was still the God of Israel, irrevocably bound to Israel by the Abrahamic Covenant, etc, but through Israel he would bring salvation to all nations. In this passage we see evidence of this shift. Isaiah begins in the first person singular: "you are my God; I will exalt you". Then he speaks of God overcoming "foreigners", "strong peoples", and "ruthless nations", representative of the traditional view that everyone else was Israel's enemy and therefore an enemy of Yahweh. But then (v.6) comes a wonderful invitation addressed to "all peoples", "all nations", and "all faces". By verse 8, God's people are "from all the earth".
Taking It Personally.
· Do you prefer small gatherings of people you know or large crowds of all sorts? When you receive an invitation to a social function how concerned are you about who else may have been invited?
· On Christmas Day, would you prefer to have dinner at home with family and friends, or join in a community "open-to-all" type celebration?
· Do you agree with Isaiah that God has done "marvellous things"? Such as what?
· Having pondered those marvellous things, spend some time in prayer extolling him and praising his name.
Philippians. St Paul is clearly writing to a real congregation of real people! Even among those who ministered alongside Paul a personal dispute has arisen. Paul does not ignore it or try to make light of it: he acknowledges it and names the participants. Nor does he take sides. Instead, he urges them to settle their differences, and the rest of the congregation to help them reconcile. They should all focus their attention, their energies and their hearts on God, in worship and prayer, and fill their minds with all that is good and positive. That is the way to establish and experience the perfect peace of God.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you at ease and at peace with each of the other members of your local church, or are there "issues" needing to be addressed?
· How might other members of the congregation help in promoting any necessary reconciliation?
· Is your gentleness evident to all?
· Are you anxious or worried about anything?
· Are you presently experiencing the peace of God that passes all understanding?
· Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking negatively?
· Review the last week. To what extent have you succeeded in putting into practice the things that you have learned from St Paul's writings?
Matthew. We continue Jesus' teaching in Holy Week, only days (and perhaps only hours) from his capture and crucifixion. Although introduced as a "kingdom parable" this one is very much a "judgment parable". There is an uncompromising division between those who receive salvation (or, more accurately, those who accept it) and those who do not. Some of the language is harsh, even brutal. And the plot verges on melodrama in places: burning a whole city does seem something of an over-reaction to what was, at worst, a social snub. But the central message is clear: God's invitation is open to all, but each must actually accept it. A reply is required.
The image of the wedding feast is common, reaching its climax in the wedding feast of the Lamb. We're in eschatological territory here. As in the Parable of the Vineyard, the treatment meted out to the King's servants equates to the treatment of Israel's prophets over the centuries. Those who received their invitations did not just politely decline them; they made light of them, preferred to pursue their own agendas. This was a terrible insult to the dignity and authority of the King.
The new batch of "guests" was a very mixed bag. It included "the good and the bad", dealing a grievous blow to all those who believe that entry into heaven depends on the quality of our behaviour. Two difficulties with this story have baffled commentators for years. The first concerns the "man there who was not wearing wedding clothes". As he had been rounded up off the street it's hard to see how he (or any of the others) could be. Among many possible explanations perhaps the strongest two are these:
· The literal approach. It has been suggested that the custom for such weddings was for the host (the King) to provide wedding garments for the guests as they arrived. Perhaps this guy had refused to "dress up like a penguin" - that is, his attitude was hostile.
· The metaphorical approach. To enter into God's presence we must "put on Christ". This guy tried to enter as himself rather than "in Christ".
Taking It Personally.
· Recall the last time you received a social invitation. Did you accept it gladly, accept it reluctantly out of social convention, decline it on 'diplomatic' grounds, or simply decline it? How did you feel about the invitation and your response to it?
· Recall the royal wedding in April (William and Catherine), and the speculation beforehand about who was on the guest list. How would you feel if a recipient of such an invitation had made light of it, perhaps by trying to sell it on TradeMe, or joking about it on YouTube?
· Ponder the tough language in verses 7 and 13 – remember this is Jesus speaking). How do you feel about it?
· Can you recall a social occasion at which you felt inappropriately dressed? How did you feel about it?
· Does it matter what you wear to church? Is it a sign of respect to God, or are you more concerned about what others may think of you?