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Sunday, October 12, 2008

"It's a parable, stupid."

Matthew 22:1-14
Pentecost XXII – October 12, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Several years ago, I had the privilege of spending two days listening to Dominick Crossen, one of the scholars of the ‘Jesus Seminar’. He’s a wee imp of a man with a proper Irish twinkle in his eye and a brogue that could charm the honey from a bee. So, when he gave his one-sentence summation of the gospels, everyone in the room sat at rapt attention and, I dare say, not many of us forgot his words.

He was describing the moment of insight he had in reading a particular gospel text which simply didn’t make sense to him. Finally, he realized the dynamic and, hitting himself on the noggin said aloud to himself: “It’s a parable, stupid.”

By that he meant that the primary method of the teaching of Jesus is the parable. It is fair to surmise that most of what is reported that Jesus said was spoken in the context of sermons he was preaching on the Hebrew Scripture. It is not difficult then, he said, to understand that the gospels are sermons the apostles gave on the sermons of Jesus. And, being good disciples, they told parables of his parables.

This explains why the parable of the Wedding Banquet is told so differently in Matthew than in Luke. In both parables, the Master of the Banquet is very angry when those he invited do not come, but in Luke’s version (14:15-24), the Master is still angry, but there are excusable absences and a kinder, gentler end result. Matthew pulls no punches, even confronting one who actually showed up but did so in the improper robe, casting him into (gasp!) “the outer darkness.”

One of my colleagues, Frank Logue, had an interesting take on this gospel. Indeed, like a good disciple, Frank tells a parable or allegory of his own. “In fact,” says Frank, “if the parable (were) a football game, at least one referee would throw his yellow flag high in the air. He wouldn't be calling "failure to wear proper equipment" on the man tossed out of the banquet. Any fair referee would spread his arms wide to signal "unsportsmanlike conduct (on the part of the King)."

“The parable would come to a halt and the referees would confer, talking about how the guest discovered out of uniform was bound hand and foot and cast into darkness. The king is in clear violation of the rules of sportsmanship.”

Now, baseball is my game, but even I understand the football analogy. Even so, Frank admits, “sports analogies miss the mark. In sports, you have to earn your place on the team by your own merit. To enter the Kingdom (sic) of Heaven, you just have to receive the gift freely offered and then live into the life to which God has called us.”

I know. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case on hearing this gospel, does it? Makes me want to call a time out or check the action again on instant replay. I couldn’t have just read what I just read, could I? Can’t be. It just doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it?

This is where it is important to remember what Dominick Crossen says, “It’s a parable, stupid!’ It’s Matthew’s parable on a parable that Jesus taught. Matthew has a particular audience in mind and a specific message he wants to preach which is decidedly different from Luke’s audience and message.

Matthew’s message was probably harsh to those who first heard it. Even so, is especially severe to modern day ears after the financial week from hell. Many of us feel very much like the guest who showed up on Wall Street wearing the wrong suit and tie and got cast into the outer darkness of financial chaos.

It’s hard, in these times of financial chaos and in the last laps of the political Presidential race, to hear a positive message anywhere. Someone is a liar or a terrorist, an inexperienced know-nothing, or someone who’s over-the-hill and out of touch. Anxieties are high everywhere, some even rolling over into angry threats of violence.

It’s easy, in these times of uncertainty and anxiety, to ‘look for a sign’ and read too much into these parables – to try to pin too much down too specifically on a particular group or person, or – God forbid for Episcopalians! – take it too literally. Anxious ears can hear a gospel snippet like, “many are called but few are chosen,” as a gospel-mandated, predetermined elect who will be saved – and we will know them by their bank accounts.

Into the midst of this gospel and these harsh times come two very different images, images of Jesus which have given Christians throughout the ages hope and comfort in times of trouble. “The Lord is my shepherd,” sings the psalmist, “I shall not want. . . . He restoreth my soul. My cup runneth over. . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me . . . ” This is about the bounty of God in the midst of scarcity – about the light of God in a time of Christ.

And then there are the words of St. Paul written to the church in Philippi from the bleak darkness of his prison cell in Rome because he has learned that a dispute has broken out between two of the women, Evodia and Syntyche who were distinguished members of the community of faith.

Anxieties are high. Anger marks their disputes. So, now, listen to Paul’s words: I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:2-8)

How remarkable, right? There he is, in the midst of his own hopeless situation, giving hope to others! What makes the difference? Well, the easy answer is that Paul is not preaching, so he doesn’t have to use a parable, stupid! The deeper answer is that Paul obviously has great affection for the people of Philippi. Because he loves them, he encourages them to overcome their disputes and anger and anxiety and stay centered and focused in their faith.

I believe that if Jesus came into this church this morning, he’d have a similar message for us. He’d tell us that everybody – absolutely everybody – is invited to the Heavenly Banquet. Those here in their proper Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and those out on the highways and the hedges, somewhere working for their Lord. He’d tell us to be gentle with each other for God is as near to us as our next breath. He’d probably tell us not to focus on the meaning of the parable from Matthew (“It’s a parable, stupid!”), but to consider the worth we give to our worship. That is the root of the word ‘worship’ – worth-ship. How does what you say you believe in your life on Sunday find reflection in your life, Monday through Saturday? Indeed, how is the worth you ascribe to God in the midst of a crisis on Wednesday find value and meaning and worth in the effort you make to come to church on Sunday?

Finally, if Jesus were preaching this morning, I’m certain he would have us focus not so much on the outer darkness, but instead on the light that makes it possible to see that it is dark. Author Wendell Berry begins his novel, Remembering, with these words, “It is dark. He does not know where he is. And then he sees pale light from the street soaking in above the drawn drapes. It is not a light to see by but only makes the darkness visible.”

At times, God’s presence may only provide enough light to make the darkness visible. Fear has wrapped itself around our hearts and minds and there’s only enough light to see the darkness. The light of God’s presence is with us, even through the darkest of nights. And God walks with us until the morning light breaks and leads us to a place where no one is afraid or anxious. Because whether we feel it or not, everywhere and all around us are the everlasting arms of a shepherding God.

So, it is good, as you go into your week, to consider the parable within these words of St. Paul: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

And let the church say, ‘Amen.”

1 comment:

FranIAm said...

You did this beautifully - I only wish that I had heard it and experienced your preaching rather than just reading, but I will take the read.

Thank you.