Ridiculous Tragedy at Table, Sermon for 28th Ordinary, Year A , Pentecost +17, Oct. 9, 2011, Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

First, the texts:

Exodus 32:1-14 

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him,

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“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Matthew 22:1-14  

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

Ridiculous Tragedy at Table

In  my adult Sunday School class we were discussing which book of the bible to study after we finish Jonah.  I mentioned that there was some fun

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humor in the book of Esther, and  that was all I had to say – everyone wants a good laugh, so we agreed, Esther it will be.

That is not the only place where there is humor in the bible.  Humor is a useful tool in a writer’s hands.  If you can get someone to laugh, or at least make a wry grin, their defenses lower.  The subject of the bible is so important, so serious, that sometimes, in order to get past people’s defenses, the writers reach for the humor tool and use it to full effect.

Writers, or storytellers will use all kinds of techniques to get their point across: exaggeration for effect is one that Jesus used millions of times (that was an exaggeration).  Shocking people with bizarre plot twists is another tool he uses.

In both of the texts we read today, incredibly important messages are given; so important that humor, exaggeration, and shocking plots are used to get past our defenses.  Let us look into these texts.

The Golden Calf and the Grumpy God

The first is the famous “Golden Calf” incident.  Maybe it would be better to call the part that we read “the story of Moses and the Grumpy God.”  God just seems like a grumpy older person here.

The setting is Sinai: God has just liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  They miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and came to Mt. Sinai.  Moses goes up on the mountain to get the Ten Commandments, but he stays too long.  People down below have no idea if he will ever come down.

They get antsy; they need help.  They go to Aaron and tell him to make them a god to worship, he asks for their gold earrings, melts them down and makes a calf, announcing to everyone that this is the god that brought them out of Egypt; time to get the party started, which they do.

Moses meanwhile has no idea, but God sees it all and tells on them to Moses. Listen to how he describes it, shifting all of the blame onto Moses:

7   “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;”

I can just hear Moses: “Excuse me; whose people?  Who brought them out of Egypt?”  It’s like when the father says to his wife; “those unruly children of yours need some discipline!”  Whose children?

On God not getting what he wants

By this time, God can just predict what is going to happen: he is going to tell Moses that he intends to bring down wrath and judgment on the people, and then Moses is going to beg and plead, and then God will back down and change his mind and be merciful, but he doesn’t’ want all that to happen this time, so before Moses can even say a word of objection, God says,

10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.

It just seems grumpy to say “let me alone” when the guy has not even started.

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But anyway, after telling Moses to let him alone, Moses does just exactly what God was trying to prevent: he starts pleading with God – notice now Moses gives the people back to God and puts the responsibility for leading them out of Egypt back on God’s shoulders:

11 “But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” 

And, again, just what God was hoping to stop from happening, happens.  He relents.

14  “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” 

“It just came out that way, dude!”

You cannot help but smile as you read this.  It gets even better.  We didn’t read that far, but in a little bit, Moses will go down the mountain, see what is happening, and confront Aaron about it.  Aaron says to him,

24  “I said to [the people], ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 

I can just hear Moses: “Out came this calf?  What kind of fool do you take me for?”

Questions after laughing

The humor is clear, and we smile, but there is a serious question here.  How is it that so quickly after such great mercy was extended do the people abandon faith?

As a matter of fact, why do people still do that to this day?  As a matter of fact, why do I do that?  Why, after receiving such blessings from God, am I so quick to deny him by living in ways contrary to his will?

Why, after being blessed with so many gifts from God, am I so selfish?  Why after I have been so freely forgiven do I hold grudges and nurse anger in my heart?  Maybe this funny little story is actually a tragedy – maybe it’s my tragedy story.  Defenses are down; I’m listening.

Jesus’ Story Tools

Well Jesus also tells a story that doesn’t put God in such a great light.  He uses bizarre plot twists and the humor of the ridiculous as well as gross exaggeration to make a point that needs to get through.

He tells of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  In those days, wedding banquets lasted for several days.  You had to slaughter animals enough to feed everybody, so you had to know how many were going to come.  It took a lot of preparation.   The host would always send out two rounds of invitations: invitation round A asking who is coming, and then invitation round B saying, OK, it’s all prepared, come now.

So in Jesus’ story, the king asks all the right people to come, and it’s ridiculous: nobody wants to go to the king’s feast.  This would never happen in real life as everybody hearing this parable knew.  For one thing, everybody wants a feast, especially a king’s feast, and second, even if you had just turned into a tea-totaling vegetarian, you would never turn down an invitation from a king, if you wanted to keep body and soul together.

The King of Rage

But it gets even more ridiculous; these invited people go so far as to kill the servants bringing the invitations.  Now, if Moses could picture God as grumpy, Jesus can picture him as a rage-aholic.  He’s definitely got anger-management issues.

7 “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

So to go from ridiculous to absurd, with the city in ruins, the king sends out more servants to bring in people from the places where the paved streets turn into donkey-track dirt roads, and bring in everybody they can find, good, bad, it makes no difference.  So they do.  One assumes that when they burned the whole city they must have had the foresight to spared the palace, so that’s where the banquet will be held.

These people who never got picked for Red Rover, never get rushed for the fraternity or sorority, never get invited anywhere, suddenly find themselves as guests of the king at a banquet.

Minor Mistake: Wrong Clothes

If that is not unbelievable enough, the next part goes even further.   The king looks around at all these accidental guests, and notices one with no wedding garment.  The king confronts the poor soul who five minutes ago was out working in the field expecting to be eating stale bread for supper, and the king says to him:

12 ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?

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Matthew tells us that the man is speechless; well of course he is. What’s he going to say?  He’s thinking “I never get invited to wedding banquets and I had no idea I was going to be invited today, and why didn’t the door man tell me there was a dress code anyway?”  But you just cannot back-talk to a king.

So now, the king who started his day by burning down the city he governs has this poor man thrown out – not just out of the banquet, but out of land of the living, into:

“outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Crime and Punishment

The cause of the punishment is minuscule, probably accidental, and the severity of the punishment is draconian and brutal.

All of this Monty-Python stye absurdity is meant to put us off guard and lower our defenses so that when the punch line comes, it will penetrate our hearts, and here it is:

14  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Called but not chosen?  I can just see the head-scratching going on among Jesus’ audience as they try to grasp this.  They are thinking, “Wait a minute; are we not the chosen people?  Doesn’t it say in the bible that God chose us, the descendants of Abraham, to be his treasured possession?”

Can you get un-chosen?

And then, as the point sinks in, they being to ask themselves, “How could we ever get from chosen to un-chosen?”

“OK,” the audience is thinking, “so the story is a little crazy, and maybe the poor man without the proper garment had his excuses, but nevertheless, the point is, he should have been dressed properly. It would have been dishonoring to show up at a wedding banquet in work clothes.  Does dishonoring God get you un-chosen?

Indeed; sitting at the great banquet at the end of time, Messiah’s banquet of rich food and aged wines, as the prophet Isaiah pictured it,  is not a privilege without obligations.

God is honored by obedience and dishonored by disobedience.  If Moral monotheism means anything it means that God cares about what humans do.  He cares when we suffer, he cares when we, who have been so blessed, neglect the suffering around us.

Taking this parable one step further: it may seem like a relatively light matter to have neglected the wedding garment, but perhaps what seems light and negligible to us is seen as far more important to the King who cares.

Maybe nobody around us considers it a big deal, maybe the general consensus of our culture in our time is that “it’s just the way things are sometimes.”

But what matters, is what the King thinks matters.  Perhaps it is not a matter of indifference to him that some are hungry, or thirsty, or naked or in prison, while others have more than they will ever need.

If it does matter to the King at the end of time, then urgent action is required.  The  punishment given to the man who was dishonorably dressed may have been described by means of gross exaggeration for effect, but that does not eliminate the core truth.

Kingdom Rules

Those who are called to the banquet show that they are indeed chosen by the way they honor the King.  The king is honored by living faithfully to the rules of his kingdom.

In this kingdom, the rules are:

  • blessed are the poor in spirit;
  • blessed are the meek;
  • blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • blessed are the merciful,
  • blessed are the pure in heart;
  • blessed are the peace makers;
  • blessed are those who are persecuted by the followers of the general consensus who do not consider kingdom-righteousness any big deal.

They are called and chosen to the banquet of the King who cares.  The others may have a problem.

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