Readings: Isaiah 25:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14, True Christianity #371
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Photo by Rachel Claire: https://www.pexels.com/photo/banquet-table-with-candles-and-plates-4992827/
We heard two weeks ago about a God who is constantly reaching out to us. Divine Love cannot do anything else. So, it is not a surprise to hear this week that God is constantly inviting us to a banquet, as we heard in Isaiah, constantly calling for our presence, for the presence of all people. This invitation comes to us in many different ways and surely we are incredibly blessed that God loves us all so deeply. And if last week was about God’s invitation, then this week centers our response. For the story of God’s great love is only half the story. Is this love of God’s requited? What does it mean to reciprocate God’s love? What does God require of us?
We enter into the text today in the same place we have been for several weeks. Jesus is occupying the temple, and the chief priests and Pharisees are trying to discredit him. Jesus does not back down however, and levels increasingly pointed criticism of the priest’s conduct with a series of parables, of which this one is the culmination. We see from the language used, the phrase “Jesus spoke to them again,” that the narrative tension is continuing to mount, and thus everything in the parable is heightened as well. There are some familiar aspects, certainly, like the form of a wedding banquet but as is usual for a parable, there are out-of-the-ordinary and disproportionate aspects. This time armies are marching and cities are burned, while supposedly dinner is still on the table, and a man is thrown into the outer darkness for not having the right clothes. We are again uncomfortable, which is good, because now we are listening.
It was the custom in that time for invitations to an event to be issued in a two-fold way. The first invitation was issued in advance, and a general day given, to which people would indicate their acceptance. Then, on the day itself, when the food and the household had been prepared, then people would be notified that it was time to attend. It is actually this second invitation that we are witnessing in the text. So, it is not just a situation of people not being free to attend. Rather, these are people who had already agreed to attend, and who were now refusing to come. We don’t need to understand much of ancient custom to relate…this is socially unacceptable in any time. It is an upsetting upheaval of the guest/host relationship. In Matthew’s particular context, writing as he is to a primarily Jewish audience, the first half of the invitation would have been understood as Israel’s original covenant with the Lord, and the second invitation, the reminder, would have been understood as Jesus and his subsequent Christian missionaries.
Swedenborg talks to us about what this invitation means in a more personal way, how the invitation plays out in our spiritual psychology. The two-fold invitation can also be a picture of how the Lord invites us to engage with the spiritual life; how divine truth presents itself to us, and how we are invited by the Lord to interact with it. The first invitation is to our intellect, our thinking mind. We are presented with true ideas to which we might feel positively disposed. Yes, we say to ourselves, these things are true, and I assent to them, in a general way. Such as, God is love, or God loves all people and wants them to thrive, or God intends all people to heaven, or it matters to our spiritual state how we live our life. These things are universally and generally true; we believe them. This is like agreeing to come to the banquet when the invitation is still aways off. The second invitation, however, is to our will. Now the invitation is not somewhere off in the far off future, the invitation is now, today, asking us to attend when we said that we would. This invitation is asking us to take the generally true ideas that we have assented to, and to actually live them, to actually act as if they are true.
And what the people in the text did, well, isn’t that often the same thing that what we do? We make excuses. The text says “they paid no attention and went off — one to his field and another to his business.” There is a story similar to this one in the book of Luke, in which the invited make even more detailed excuses. In that version, The first says, I have bought a field and I must go see it, the second says I have bought some oxen that I must go see, and the third says I have married a wife, so I cannot come. At least they sound somewhat apologetic.
Honestly, these excuses sound fairly reasonable, as I am sure all our our own justifications sound to ourselves. But the excuses prevent them from attending the banquet; prevent them from seeing their promises through. We RSVP’d to God’s invitation. Now we should come. But, as I said, this second invitation is to our will. What if we don’t *want* to come? What if we are afraid to? The demands of divine truth, the demands of attending the banquet that we said we would attend - this can be scary. Actually living according the truths that we have assented to in our intellect means that we might have to sacrifice something, something of our own making, our own wants and desires. And it means we might have to spend something, something of our own time, focus, energy. The people in the text don’t want to leave their own pursuits, didn’t want to leave their own priorities and goals…their field, their business, their oxen, their wife. And it is okay to have things of our own that we care about. Our sense of self, our sense that we can build and create and sustain things on our own is an important gift from the Lord. Without it, reciprocation of the Lord’s love would not be possible. But sometimes we can become too enamored with our own sense of accomplishment. Like the screens we are surrounded with these days, it can be hard to tear ourselves away from our incessant drive to accumulate, either goods or social currency. This is understandable - in this culture our sense of self-worth is closely tied to our performance and our accomplishments. Yet, in the midst of this reality, God calls us to a banquet, calls us to a magnificent meal that, as we hear in Isaiah text, is set in the midst of chaos, set in the midst of our troubles, our shame, our challenges, our distractions. How audacious. How inconvenient. How divinely patient and loving.
This tension of whether or not to attend this banquet, whether or not to follow-through, whether or not to show up and how to show up, is continued in the depiction of the guest without the wedding garment. On the face of it, this man is treated terribly unfairly. How could someone invited on the spur of the moment, someone without means, be expected to have the proper clothing? Why does the host not understand this? It seems really harsh. There are several ways to try to understand what the gospel writer is getting at here. In early Christian thought, the new identity of conversion was often pictured as putting on a new set of clothes. It is a powerful image. In addition, some scholars believe there is evidence that a wealthy host in antiquity might have had a store of clothing that that he would provide to guests, that the guest is therefore deliberately choosing not to take advantage of the host’s hospitality and is therefore communicating disrespect. While there isn’t full agreement on this point, what is clear is that in that ancient setting, the proper *exchange* of hospitality was extremely important. There is still a sense that those showing up would have a certain obligation to the host, even if they didn’t expect that they would be attending. We can argue about whether the expectations of the host were reasonable, but at least in the allegorical sense that Jesus has been presenting so far, we begin to understand that while God extends the invitation far and wide, to all people, our response to the invitation is also important. We shouldn’t excuse ourselves from attending the party, and neither should we should we show up without the intent to be a good guest, as far as we possibly can.
Because, the Lord is interested in a *reciprocal* relationship with us. Imagine that, we are so important to God that our response not only matters, but is integral to the quality of our relationship with God. As we heard in the reading for today, the Lord is seeking a partnership with us, a conjunction that involves engagement, that involves giving and receiving, that involves awareness of where we stand, and a willingness to listen and learn.
What an amazing honor this is, it really seems incredible, even more incredible that this invitation should be offered to every single living being. Really accepting the invitation though, means more than being a body in the room. This is a wedding banquet. In the Swedenborgian sense, a marriage represents union many different levels, and ultimately it represents the heavenly marriage, which is the marriage of love and wisdom within God. To show up to a wedding banquet means to show up and be ready to celebrate this union of love and wisdom and to work to effect their conjunction in our lives and in the world. For what is love, but the soul of what is wise, and what is wisdom but the understanding of how to effectively, consistently and bravely love? When we show up to the banquet ready commit ourselves to the beauty and the usefulness of the heavenly marriage, we must show up clothed in the readiness to explore the elusive balance of this principle. We must show up clothed in awareness, humility, courage, and in a willingness to ground our truths in real life.
Because it is surely not *easy* to love wisely, as we are finding in these turbulent times. We lean too far into the pursuit of wisdom and it becomes an excuse for judgment, coldness and self-satisfaction. We lean too far into the pursuit of love and it becomes an mechanism by which we indulge our own neediness and prop up our own lack of self-worth. Wisdom gives form to love, and love gives life to wisdom, and they cannot exist one without the other.
So showing up to the banquet of the heavenly marriage requires something of us. It means working to be conjoined with the Lord. It means taking the things we may believe in our intellect, and putting them into practice, it means showing up clothed in an awareness of how much work that is going to be, and also how important it is! But it also means a celebration of a God that is constantly inviting, constantly laying out a banquet for all people, a God dedicated to enacting the marriage of love and wisdom for the purpose of creating blessedness, happiness, fullness, peace and joy, through providence and through us.
So let us clothe ourselves in our wedding garments everyday. Let us be dressed and ready in heart and mind, to attend the banquet of the Lord. Amen.
1 LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago. 2 You have made the city a heap of rubble, the fortified town a ruin, the strangers’ stronghold a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. 3 Therefore strong peoples will honor you; cities of ruthless nations will revere you. 4 You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a
shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall 5 and like the heat of the desert. You silence the uproar of strangers; as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is stilled. 6 On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. 9 In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
True Christianity #371
Our partnership with the Lord is reciprocal: the Lord is in us and we are in the Lord…
…Because the partnership is reciprocal, it obviously follows that we have to unite ourselves to the Lord so that the Lord will unite himself to us. Otherwise there will be a parting and a separation rather than a partnership - not on the Lord's initiative but on our own.
…It is a mutual partnership that is brought about by cooperation rather than action and reaction. The Lord acts. We receive the Lord's action. We then function as if we were on our own. In fact, we function on our own from the Lord…since the Lord continually keeps us in free choice…The Lord gives us this freedom so that we can forge a reciprocal partnership and be granted life and eternal blessedness as a result - something that would be impossible without a reciprocal partnership.