The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet. And who doesn’t like a banquet? This theme of a divine feast is a common thread tying together the reading from Isaiah, Psalm 23, and Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel that something good lies ahead. God has something marvelous in store for them. But how can he possibly describe it? Well, it is like a great victory feast. But unlike a normal victory feast, to which only the victors are invited, everyone is invited to this feast! “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.” And let’s not forget the exceptional wine! Now, what is the great victory that is being celebrated? Just this: God has swallowed up death forever.
Psalm 23 reprises the metaphor of a banquet. Again the banquet is a victory feast. (But here, it seems that the losers are not invited.) God prepares a banquet table for us in the presence of our persecutors and tormentors. And there is so much wine being poured that the cups overflow onto the table. One thing is clear: we will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Again, in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we get the image of a banquet. Jesus, while arguing with the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem, attempts to describe the Kingdom of Heaven by using an allegory about a royal wedding banquet. The key to understanding any allegory is to know what each person, place, and thing in the story represents. In a sense, allegories are written in code. This particular allegory is quite complicated. So, let me try to decode it for you.
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” This, of course, is the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, in which he contemplates ending his life in order to escape his suffering. Only the fear of death stays his hand.
In today’s Gospel reading, St. Peter proposes another solution to the question of suffering: living in denial! When Jesus shares with his disciples that he must suffer and die at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem, Peter protests. A literal translation of what he says is “May God be merciful to you! This will never, ever happen to you!” Although couched in pious terms, Peter is advocating a form of pretense: “Let’s pretend that God never lets bad things happen to good people.” But in fact, God does not always spare good people from suffering. God has not spared the good people of Houston from suffering. God did not even spare his only Son from suffering.
Jesus offers a third approach to life’s suffering, advocating neither self-destruction nor living in denial, but faithful and purposeful endurance. Jesus’ response to Peter, literally translated, is “Keep following behind me, Satan! You are a snare for me; for you are not thinking the things of God, but the things of human beings.” Jesus recognizes the trap that Peter’s pious fiction presents. He knows what he must suffer. He knows that giving into the temptation to save himself would cost the world its salvation. The famous phrase “Get behind me, Satan!” is not the best translation. Jesus is not telling Peter the Tempter to hit the road. Jesus is telling him to be a loyal disciple and to follow Jesus’ lead.
Jesus then elaborates on what is required of those who would follow him and save their souls: they must practice self-denial and take up their cross. First, let me say what self-denial is not. It is not denying our own self-worth; we are, after all, children of God, made in God’s own image, and heirs to God’s Kingdom. So what then are we supposed to renounce? How about this! Renounce self-absorption and self-interest. Renounce false pride. Renounce the desire for wealth and power. And perhaps most difficult of all, renounce the expectation of comfort and stability in your life. For only by saying no to all these worldly desires can we unreservedly say yes to God and to God’s Kingdom.
Now a few words about taking up the cross! When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, it sounds like there is some single cross, some single source of suffering, that we are meant to endure. I would like to amend Jesus’ injunction slightly—instead of “Take up your cross,” I propose “Take up your crosses.” Yes, for some of us, there is, in fact, a single giant cross looming in our lives—a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, the loss of a loved one. But for many of us, it is more like a thousand little crosses that we are called to take up and bear. We are confronted with Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” and his “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” It’s the hip that needs replacing, the knee that can’t take your full weight, the hand that can’t grasp a coffee cup anymore. It’s realizing that you need a cane or a walker to move about safely or that you need a home companion to help you through your daily routine. It’s the bouts of depression and anxiety and loneliness that rob your life of even simple joys. These are among the countless little crosses that so often burden us. But at the same time, these are the thousand little crosses that Jesus would have us bear for his sake.
Paradoxically, in this very same Gospel, Jesus assures us that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light”! How can these scriptures be reconciled? How can these crosses be called light? Well, first let me say that nowhere in Jesus’ command to take up our crosses does it say that we have to do it alone! Remember Simon of Cyrene? Even Jesus himself needed help carrying his cross. And we are not alone! We have a somewhat tattered social safety net. We have our family and our friends. We have each other in the Church. And most importantly, we have a divine Helper in the Holy Spirit. None of these helpers should be despised! And we should never be too proud to ask for help when we need it—it is that very kind of false pride that Jesus is asking us to renounce!
So, having taken up our crosses, how then are we to get behind Jesus and follow his lead? Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us a whole laundry list of helpful hints in this regard. But I would like to focus on just one of Paul’s suggestions: “Contribute to the needs of the saints.” By this he simply means, care for fellow Christians when they are in need.
And right now in Texas, there are a lot of fellow Christians in dire need. There are a lot of fellow Christians who are stumbling under the burden of their crosses. Some people have lost their loved ones. Many more have lost their homes and all their belongings. This parish must do its part to contribute to the needs of the saints in Texas. So, I am asking you to write a generous check to the “Rector’s Discretionary Fund.” Put “hurricane relief” in the memo line, and get it to me by next Sunday. I will then send the amount collected, and just a bit more, to Episcopal Relief and Development, who will distribute the money to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Regrettably, human suffering is all too real, and so it calls for a real and appropriate response. For Christians, the response to suffering is neither to end our lives in despair, as Hamlet proposed, nor to deny the reality of suffering, which was St. Peter’s approach. Instead, we are called to shoulder our crosses and to keep trudging along behind our Lord Jesus, helping one another when the burden of those crosses becomes too much to bear alone.
There is a Chinese proverb: “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a human being in a period of chaos.” Well, folks, like it or not, we are human beings in a period of chaos. Two weeks ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a right-wing rally. American Nazis marched in the streets carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” These “very fine people,” as the President called them, wish to rid the country of anyone who is not a white heterosexual of pure European descent. As you know, a woman was murdered by one of those American Nazis, and many other innocent people were injured.
Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is one of a very few feasts that are of such importance that they take precedence over a Sunday. In the appointed readings, we hear about two epiphanies. First, we hear about a very early epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, you might say. Then we hear St. Peter’s brief recollection of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Finally, we hear a somewhat fuller account of the Transfiguration excerpted from Luke’s Gospel.
In that account, Jesus is transfigured on the top of Mount Tabor in the presence of the three disciples who formed his inner circle: Peter, John, and James. And these select few are granted a vision of the Uncreated Light of God, a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden glory. We are told that his face, and even his clothing, emitted a dazzling light, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. The three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah, with Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. Their appearance confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Holy Scripture. He is, in fact, the Light of the World.
Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.
Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
Last Sunday, I visited my mother in Salinas, and I got the chance to spend some time with the children of my niece and of my two nephews. Sometimes, the little kiddies played nicely together, and sometimes, they did not. (I’ll spare you the sordid details!) Well, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the unresponsive leaders of Israel to squabbling little children who won’t play nicely together. Some want to play the “wedding game” and dance to the piping of a flute; others want to play the “funeral game” and wail. The result of their squabbling is that they don’t play any game at all!
John the Baptist came to call the people to fast and repent, and the elite of Israel were largely disapproving. They didn’t like that game! And they accused John of being crazy. Jesus came to call the people to rejoice at the wedding banquet of the Messiah. But many refused to RSVP to the party. They didn’t like that game any more than the first! And they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. The moral of the story is that sometimes you just can’t win.