Niedner on Matthew 22

Excerpt from Frederick A Niedner’s booklet of homiletic reflections called “Proclaiming the Cruciform Eschaton,” from the Institute of Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University, April 1998. ©Frederick Niedner, 1998; used with permission.


Pentecost 21 (Proper 23), Year A
10 Oct 1999 -13 Oct 2002 – 9 Oct 2005
Isaiah 25:(1-5) 6-9; Philippians 4:1-9;
with Psalm 23; Matthew 22:1-14

The banquet scene in Isaiah 25 stands out in the lectionary as a favorite depiction of consummation. It appears as the First lesson for The Resurrection of Our Lord in Year B, Easier Evening in all three years, and All Saints, Year B. It also joins another favorite consummation scene, the parable of the wedding feast, during Pentecost of Year A. This last juxtaposition of texts offers a most fruitful combination for demonstrating a cruciform method of working with eschatological texts.

 

Bride and Groom from the Dungpit

Sermons and homilies, like the biblical texts they treat, have contexts, and understanding contexts is often critical. In the context of the church’s lectionary, the gospel lessons for each of the previous three weeks have been parables about working in vineyards. The first tells of a landowner who hired laborers for his vineyard at different hours of the day, and then paid everyone the same day’s wage (Matt. 20:1-16). The folks who had worked all day begrudged the generosity of the landowner who paid them the same as those who worked only an hour. The economy of God’s vineyard differs remarkably from our own, Jesus says. Next comes the father who asked his two sons to work in the family vineyard (Matt. 21:2-32). The first said he wouldn’t, then changed his mind and went, while the second did the reverse. Jesus likens the recalcitrant but repentant son to the tax collectors and prostitutes who enter the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus addresses this parable (Cf. Matt. 21:23). Finally, we hear of the owner who lets his vineyard out to tenants, but then finds them stubbornly unwilling to share the produce (Matt. 21:33-44). The tenants abuse and even kill those the owner sends to collect fruit, including the owner’s son. In Matthew’s version of this parable, the owner slays the original tenants and lets the vineyard out to others willing to give him fruit.

God’s vineyard has not been a happy place, and we can only wonder what kind of wine might come from grapes grown amidst such bitterness. Perhaps we will find out today, for finally, after all that vineyard labor, we have a banquet on a mountain in Isaiah, and a wedding feast in Matthew. At last we get to drink the wine and taste the grapes. Today we hear great promises about feasting and celebrating, about a Sabbath when we lay down our tools, weapons, books and keyboards so that we might rejoice that God has fallen in love with us, and we with God, and God has taken us to be God’s own. Hear again Isaiah’s vision:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:6-9)

How we long for such a vision to come to pass in this world of starving children, brutal massacres, and endless sorrow. We, too, have waited, and we are ready to rejoice. Except that Isaiah continues:

But the Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit. Though they spread out their hands in the midst of it, as swimmers spread out their hands to swim, their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands. (Isaiah 25:10-11)

The context of the feast is critical. Up here on the mountain we rejoice and feast, never again to weep. But the Moabites, our enemies, find themselves in the toilet where they will swim forever. Perhaps they will hear our music and laughter as they flail about in the stench of our urine. Those wretched swimmers are very much a part of the complete vision we witness in Isaiah’s oracle.

At this point the grapes no longer seem so sweet. I lose my taste for the wine, because I’ve already participated in too many parties like that, where we rejoiced, but somebody else was in the toilet, because we defeated them, or excluded them, or forgot them, or because they finally got what we know they deserve. Most of the world’s celebrations carry on in such contexts. No one remembers the runner-up, and conquerors, not the vanquished, get to write history and bury the losers in shame. All around us, just out of sight, are Moabites mired in defeat, just as in Isaiah’s vision.

I can’t believe or accept this as an adequate vision for the ultimate celebration in the presence of the God who made all people and who loves and saves us. As a Christian I must always find a place for Christ in the context of the celebrations and feasts we envision. More specifically, I must locate the crucified Christ, and not some other messiah, in the picture, for the one whom Christians celebrate as Victor refused the demonic temptation to take up arms and use violence as away to make peace (Matt. 4:1-11). In so doing he renounced every victory celebration at which people dance on the corpses of their enemies.

Strangely enough, the only place I find for the crucified Christ in Isaiah’s vision is down in the dung-pit, desperately swimming in the toilet with the Moabites. He really belongs there anyway, crucifixion or no crucifixion, because, as we know, his great, great, great, great, whatever grandmother was one of them. Ruth was her name. Matthew made sure we would remember Jesus’ Moabite blood because he names Ruth in Jesus’ genealogy. So, if we put Jesus up on the mountain in that vision of Isaiah we could never get all tears stopped, because some of Jesus’ own people would be down there in the toilet. How could he rejoice?

Actually, anyone we put down there would result in the same scene. Consider Jesus’ family in Matthew’s genealogy (Matt. 1). There we see Rahab, a Canaanite whore, and Solomon, the son of David by the wife of Uriah, with his thousand wives. We see Menassah, the king who banned the worship of the LORD in Israel and burned his own sons in sacrifice to other gods. Sorting out who ought to be in the dung-heap and who should be on the mountain gets confusing after a while, but I think somewhere in all these unsavory stories we can find the clue which explains why the wedding feast in our gospel lesson fell apart.

The invited guests make lame excuses when the king’s servants call them in for the banquet he has set for his son’s wedding. Traditionally, Christians have read this parable as a story about the Jews’ rejection of Jesus. Jesus, too, invited his contemporaries to join in God’s great party, and in his behavior he modeled a vision for that banquet. Soon enough no one wanted a share in the celebration he promised. That was partly because he befriended harlots, rejects, sinners, and gentiles — maybe even some Moabites, for all we know. And partly it was because Jesus had no vision of the hated Romans swimming in the toilet. Anyone could see that Jesus’ understanding of messianic politics had serious flaws. Didn’t he get it about “the shoot that shall come from the stump of Jesse,” and how that one would lead his people “so they shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west, and together plunder the peoples of the east?” (Isaiah 11:1, 14)

No, the messianic banquet Jesus promised was nothing most folks hoped for, so they politely excused themselves. Well, that’s not quite how this rendition goes. First they killed Jesus. They bound him, stripped him of his clothes and cast him on the dung-heap, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then they went back to waiting for the party they expected when the Romans were finally in the toilet. They might have waited a long time, except that the king in Matthew’s version of the parable became so enraged at this turn of events that he sent troops to destroy the murderers and burned their city.

Meanwhile, the hot-tempered king has other servants round up street people to come into the banquet hall. Soon that turns sour, too, because of some guy in the wrong clothes. The harsh, angry king berates the man, has him bound hand and foot and thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. At this point we find ourselves back again in Isaiah’s vision. Some folks party while others languish in the toilet. Once more we can only wonder how the wine tasted to the king and his motley assortment of guests. Grapes from a troubled vineyard now serve as toasts for a party that seems to lack any hint of rejoicing. Is this feast doomed?

Perhaps, unless we can place the crucified Christ in this parable also. In the traditional reading, which sees this parable as an allegory about the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for the rejection of Jesus, the crucified Christ would appear among the servants whom the invited guests abused and killed. Oddly enough, given what finally happened to Jesus, the treatment he received makes him most like the man at the end of the parable, the one thrown out. In another way, however, the Christ remains absent from the story because this parable lacks its two most important characters, namely, the bride and the groom. Enter, then, the crucified and risen Christ as the groom. And the bride? That’s you, and me — all of us.

So, here we are, the bride of Christ, complete with our Moabite blood, our history of whoring and adultery, our warts and foibles and all our bad habits, including our quickness to righteously consign others to the dung-pit. At last, our wedding picture is complete. We have a bride and groom. Now for the feast. On the menu we find rich food, filled with marrow, and well-aged wines, strained clear of all that bitterness from the vineyard. Before we have anything, however, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that at least for now, either the banquet hall or the dung-pit will be empty, because as soon as we decide someone should be out, inevitably that’s where the crucified Christ ends up. Which probably means that for now the party remains down here in the toilet, amongst us sinners, all of whom deserve one way or another to be in the dung-pit.

But the good news is that if we can recognize where we are, the party can begin, in part because we’ve finally learned we have no place else to throw anybody. This is it folks, and it’s the toilet. You can’t get farther out than this. So let the party begin. Well, actually we’ll begin in a little while, with bread and wine in which we taste not only grapes from the vineyard, but the body and blood of the crucified Christ who was thrown out of the party and into this dung-pit we’re in right now. He is here — to claim his bride.

This is a wedding feast, which means that this afternoon and tonight you will walk with him and you will lie with him. You may feel his breath upon your skin, and you will know deep in your soul that he loves you as much as he loves himself. He is yours and you are his, to have and to hold, to comfort you, honor you, and keep you in sickness and in health, and be faithful to you, and death cannot part you.

Remember that a few minutes from now when you join your right hands and repeat the words of the peace. This is a wedding. And one day, when we we’ll have long since forgotten any vision of one group in celebration and the other in the toilet, we will stand together on the holy mountain. And the shroud will be lifted from all peoples. God will wipe the tears from every face, and death will be no more. The grapes will be so sweet, and the wine will be so fine.

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