God’s generosity, our generosity: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year A

October 9, 2011

On the surface, the parables we heard this morning seem quite familiar to us. Hearing a story about a king throwing a wedding banquet may conjure up for us memories of the royal wedding last spring. All the more so, because one of the chief fascinations with that event was the suspense about the wedding dress and what all of the guests would be wearing. In contemporary culture, weddings are one of those few occasions we have when people get dressed up in their finest and expect a really good party.

That familiarity is actually quite deceiving, for in fact, nobody in this parable acts as we might expect them. The king throws a wedding banquet. First, he announces the coming event, then he sends invitations. But no one comes. Now, I suppose we can accept the plausibility of the story to this point, although already it’s something of a stretch of the imagination to think someone would turn down an invitation from the king. From here on out, however, things get somewhat out of hand. In response to the snub from all of the invitees, the king does two things. First, he kills them. Second, he fills his banquet hall with anyone—whoever his troops or servants can find on the streets, no matter how they are dressed or what they look like, no matter who they are. Some wedding reception, huh?

Now, to make sense of this parable we first need to remind ourselves of the context in which Matthew places it. As was the case in the gospel for the last couple of weeks, and indeed will be true for most of the rest of the lectionary year, we are reading from those chapters in Matthew that tell the story of Jesus’ ministry in the last week of his life, between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the last supper. Much of the teaching takes place in the temple, in the days after Jesus drove out the moneychangers. And much of it consists of encounters between Jesus and the religious leadership of the temple—the Chief Priests and Elders. Jesus has directly challenged these authorities and continues to challenge them by gathering an audience and speaking in the holy precincts.

So that’s the immediate context—the ratcheting up of conflict and tension between Jesus and the temple leadership. But there’s another context to keep in mind. This parable, the story of the king and the wedding banquet, draws on rich and pervasive imagery in the Jewish tradition. The wedding banquet with its themes of joy, celebration, even excess, was well established as a symbol of God’s goodness and beneficence, of the great hope that awaited humans in the consummation of God’s reign. In fact, the coming of the Messiah was often interpreted in these terms. The new age that would be introduced by God’s intervention in history was described as a banquet, to use Isaiah’s language:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The parable draws on this rich imagery but Jesus transforms into something quite different. Instead of invited and expected guests reveling, the invitees refuse to come and instead the tables are filled with anyone and everyone. It is a wedding banquet where the guests are not friends and family, nor business associates, nor even, as in the case of a royal wedding, of the aristocracy gathered from the four corners of the earth. Those guests, the desired guests rebuff the invitation, stay home. The banquet hall is filled with people who may not even want to be there.

It’s October, so we are entering stewardship season, and this parable gives us a great deal on which to reflect in this season. The reason the banquet was such a powerful image evocative of messianic hope for ancient Jews was that it pictured a God whose generosity is without limit. To imagine a rich feast, a table groaning under the weight of all the food on offer, with ample beverages, and a welcome to all who might come, is as appealing to us as it was to Jews in the biblical period who struggled to make ends meet and to have enough food to eat.

To hope for God’s generosity is not only something to anticipate in an age or a life to come, it is a reality that we see around us everyday. The image of the messianic banquet where the food is plentiful and the wine flows unceasingly should suggest to us that God’s generosity surrounds us now; that our lives, our world, are owed to God’s generosity.

These aren’t just platitudes that we clergy bring out when we need to preach about stewardship; the generosity of God is at the heart of the biblical understanding of God’s nature. Everything we know about God, indeed the first thing we learn about God in the first verses of Genesis, underscore and describe God’s great generosity. The act of creation itself is evidence of that generosity—evidence of a God so loving and creative that burst forth from God self to create this universe and us in it. Created in the image of God, knowing and seeing God’s love and generosity in ourselves and in the world around us, how can we not respond with love and generosity ourselves?

That’s one reason the image of the messianic banquet is so evocative and powerful. To be invited to sit at God’s table and share the bounty of God’s love calls to us to be grateful, to rest and enjoy the lavish feast. But we cannot sit by ourselves and enjoy this hearty meal in solitude. Just as God extends the invitation to us, it is natural for us to extend the invitation to others.

There’s another image that comes to mind for me as I hear this parable and ponder its meaning, another image that makes me uncomfortable. As many of you know, there have been several dramatic changes in homeless services in Madison in the last few months, and other changes are in the offing. Several of the locations where homeless people go, especially on the weekends, especially on Sunday are no longer available. For one, the Salvation Army is no longer picking up guests from our shelter on Sunday mornings to take them to breakfast and service. That stopped at the end of August. The Capitol basement remains off-limits and the group that has provided lunch there for the last several years is still not sure whether they will be allowed to return. Finally, the Central Library will soon close for renovations.

All this means that there has been a dramatic increase on the number of people on the streets, especially on Sundays. While there have always been a few people sitting on the steps of Grace when I arrive on Sunday mornings, in recent weeks, that number has increased, from two or three or four to ten or fifteen. Walking past them to enter the church can be something of a nuisance or annoyance and I usually ask them to leave the steps fifteen minutes or so before our early service begins, to make sure those coming to service have easy access. But I do it with a little guilt and a heavy heart. On a pleasant day, it’s easy enough for them to find another spot to sit, but what happens when it’s raining or this winter in the cold?

To be sure, if you follow the local news at all, you will be familiar both with the looming crisis and that a wide variety of groups, including downtown businesses, churches, and homeless service providers, have come together to develop workable solutions. I can tell you that several things are in the works, and other options are under discussion.

In the parable, when the desired guests refused to come, the king sent his servants out and had them collect from the streets and byways enough guests to fill the banquet hall. Good and bad were invited; there was no discrimination between those who deserved to be there and those who didn’t.

The challenge of the banquet, the challenge of this banquet, our Eucharistic feast, is to invite all to share, not just those who deserve an invitation, but to invite all to come and dine, to share in God’s generosity and bounteous love, and to generously give to God, and to others, as God has given so generously to us.

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