Sunday, August 31/September 13, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Placing of the Sash of the Mother of God; Saints Peter and Fevronia
The Lord spoke to the Jews who came to him: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited: See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14)
In today’s Gospel, Christ summarizes you the history that is about to take place. He describes the calling of the Jewish people, how they rejected their God when he came to them; the calling of the gentiles; the destruction of Jerusalem, and finally the sobering reality that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). We’re going to see that not everybody who’s invited is going to be saved. Not everybody that says “Lord, Lord!” is going to enter in. There is hope here, and there is warning.
The king in the story, of course, is God the Father. He has laid out a royal feast. He’s brought us to share in his table, to have fellowship with him at the Mystical Supper.
After his resurrection, in John 21, Christ has a fire going, fresh bread, fish already on the grill, and he invites the apostles, “Come and dine!”
Here’s the root of every religion’s sacrificial or sacramental life: Man and his God sit down together and share a meal.
The table is spread, as Isaiah says: “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of rich things, a feast of well-aged wines well refined.”
David says, “They shall be abundantly satisfied with the abundance of thy house. Thou shalt make them to drink of the rivers of thy delight.” We have that privilege right now: Christ is talking about the church abiding in him. “My body is food, my blood is true drink, and unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no part in me… He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me.”
“See,” the king says, “I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding!” The servants went out to call those who’d been invited to the wedding, but they would not come. He’s speaking about the call to the Jews. He sent all the prophets, and they rejected them, mocked them, tortured and killed some of them. Then he sent John the Baptist, and he called the Jews to repentance, and him they respected and admired – but they rejected the Christ who sent him.
The second call: “He sent forth other servants, saying: Tell the ones I invited, behold I have prepared my dinner, my ox and my fatlings are killed, now all things are ready.” That’s the apostles.
What do you mean all things are ready? Christ has died, Christ has risen, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and sent the Holy Spirit to the Church. The lamb has been slain there’s a table of fellowship spread for you here in the Kingdom of God. Come and be satisfied, abide in Christ; come home.
But though the apostles went out after the resurrection of Christ, to call Israel to the feast for which they were made, Israel which had rejected their God in the flesh continued to reject Christ’s Church, kicking the Christians out of the synagogues.
The rest took his servants and treated them spitefully and slew them. They killed the Deacon Stephen, the first martyr of Christ; they killed James, the bishop of Jerusalem.
But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.
The Lord is speaking beforehand of the destruction that was to come, just forty years from then, when the Roman army came in 70AD and destroyed Jerusalem. Men make decisions to heal or to kill, to make peace or war, and God doesn’t often stop us from our choices. But God sets boundaries and conditions that constrain and make even our sins serve his ends. So the Roman army under Titus destroyed unbelieving Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, and destroyed the temple of God. Everything Christ talked about in this verse came to pass forty years later.
He sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is still ready! The feast is prepared but the invited guests are not coming. Go therefore into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.” Here is the call to the gentiles.
This is nothing new. Abraham was promised, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee… and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”
Israel was from the beginning called to a prophetic role to all nations: “Yea, he saith: It is too light a thing for you to be my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I shall also give you as a light to the nations, to be my salvation to the end of the earth… and kings shall come to the brightness of thy rising, and the nations to thy light.” (Is. 49 & 60)
The extension of the Gospel of Christ from the nation of Israel to all the nations is not a surprise, or an add-on to God’s plan. Christ promises, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
“‘Go therefore into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.
The wedding hall was filled with guests, both bad and good. How many here came to faith in Christ, and have ever since lived lives of glorious spotless righteousness and purity? Is the Church full of hypocrites? My God, I hope so. Because if we who profess the holy God as our Lord, yet live with unhealed passions and sins, in our little steps of halfhearted repentance, if we can’t be in the Church, accepted within the grace of the One who invited us, then there is no hope at all for us. The Church is full of hypocrites and sinners because that’s who the Church is here for. Where do you find sick people? In a hospital.
A quick side trip: In another parable, in chapter 13, a man planted a wheatfield but by night his enemy planted noxious weeds. When the grain sprouted, it was mixed with weeds. And a servant asked, “Will you have us go cut down the weeds?” but the master said, “No, lest while you gather up the weeds you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”
And Christ expands on the parable, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the weeds are the sons of the wicked one. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
We also heard “wailing and gnashing of teeth” in today’s Gospel reading, and we’ll get there in a minute. The thing here that has to both sober us and give us hope is Christ’s word: “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
John the Baptist describes Christ’s coming in the Day of the Lord, with an axe in one hand and a winnowing fan in the other, to cut down the unfruitful tree, to separate the wheat and burn the chaff: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… His winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the storehouse; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:10,12)
But today, in these days before the dread judgment seat of Christ, Isaiah says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not extinguish; in faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (42:3). Will you have us go cut down the weeds? “No, lest while you cut down the weeds you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” Some of those weeds, given time, will turn to wheat.
In another familiar parable, Christ describes the heart as good or bad soil into which the word of God falls like seeds. Some soil is hard and rocky, or full of weeds, and the grace of God begins to work but we fail to thrive, and in the end we bear no fruit. What to do if we are rocky, unfruitful soil? The prophets exhort us to “Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till He comes and rains righteousness on you” (Jer 4 & Hosea 10). The hard, stony, weed-choked soil of the heart is not incurable: By grace we can break the hard heart, soften the soil, and “prepare the way of the Lord.”
So in today’s reading, “the wedding hall was filled with guests, both bad and good.” Because none of us is yet what we will be. God has not invited us because we were good, but because He is good. There is a Judge, and it’s not us. We’re called to go out and invite “whosoever will.” For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are: that no one may boast in his presence.
The wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment.
Now there’s a custom you see in ancient accounts of kings, up into Byzantine times: Kings and wealthy persons sent gifts of rich garments. And when you went to meet the one who had sent you a rich and beautiful garment of silk, trimmed with fur or precious metals, you wore it, and in this way you honored him. You’d be a walking advertisement for the king’s generosity and wealth and good taste. It was also a passport into his presence: You were visibly marked as someone the king favors. The robe says you have his confidence and respect.
Everyone who was invited to the feast: the good and bad, the rich, poor, clean and filthy, over his own nice clothes or rags is wearing the garment he was given as a gift. All but one.
“Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?” And he was speechless.
What is the garment? It’s grace. It’s the action of the Holy Spirit.
It’s the same as the oil in the parable of the ten virgins. Five kept their lamps full of oil, and five ran out: their lamps went dark for lack of the grace of God.
Grace is our word for God in action. Grace is personal; not a commodity but the Holy Trinity, pouring out in you the eternal life of the Godhead. The effectual, divine empowerment that makes repentance effective, and puts words of comfort and encouragement in the mouths of foolish and inarticulate people.
You received grace before you came to faith – or if you didn’t, then who called you to Christ? Who drew you to the life of God in the Church and to baptism? That was grace, that was God at work.
You received grace in your baptism. When you came out of the water, the priest said, “The servant of God is clothed with the garment of righteousness, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
And the deacon prayed, “That this water may be for him a laver of regeneration unto the remission of sins, and a garment of incorruption; let us pray to the Lord. That he may preserve the garment of baptism and the earnest of the Holy Spirit, undefiled and blameless in the fearful day of Christ our God; let us pray to the Lord.”
In your baptism you did not receive a one-time, one-size-fits-all standard dose of Grace and a pat on the back. You entered into a relationship with the living God in Trinity. Remember the verse from the Paraclesis: “By the Holy Spirit the streams of life are flowing, watering all creation in a hidden manner… By the Holy Spirit, every soul is made living, is exalted, and made shining through purification, by the threefold oneness, in a hidden manner.”
Grace is the very life that flows naturally and eternally from God. Grace is the real, life-bestowing power that brings us into communion with him. Jeremiah wrote in the middle of the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning: Great is thy faithfulness!” (3:22-23) The soul who renews in herself the grace of God, through fasting, through the Eucharist, through daily offering even the simplest prayers, through acts of mercy and patience – that soul continually keeps her lamp full of the oil of the Holy Spirit. That soul clothes herself anew every morning with the resplendent garment that is the gift of grace, the gift of God the King.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. “Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?” And he was speechless.
In the Law, God commanded, “Three times in a year shall all thy men appear before the Lord thy God in the place he shall choose; at the feast of unleavened bread, and at the feast of weeks, and at the feast of tabernacles: and let no one appear before the Lord empty-handed” (Dt 16:16).
On that last day, may God have mercy on us if we appear empty of grace; without holiness; without the wedding garment that was the gift given by God to mark us as his own.
Then the king said to the servants, “Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Christ adds: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
God knows your name. He knew you before you were conceived in the womb, and called you by name before the foundation of the earth. God predestined you for union with Himself. Know this for a certainty: You have a calling on your life from the living God. There is eternal fire prepared for the devil, but not for you. You were not made for destruction.
But we know him who said “Vengeance belongs to me, I will recompense,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord shall judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. So how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation? (Heb 10:30-31; 2:3)
Many are called, but few are chosen. The Jews were invited to the feast of the Savior, but they declined. The nations are called to the feast, and many don’t respond. And here we are: called to the Lord’s Table. St Theophylact summarizes Chrysostom’s commentary, saying: “It is God’s part to call, but to become one of the chosen or not, is our part.”
Imagine dying of thirst by the side of the river of life; imagine lamps growing dark, when we are offered abundant oil. Imagine all the treasure of heaven open to pour out grace, and a rich garment freely given – and only through neglect, we arrive at the feast without it.
At the end of all things, in Revelation 19, we read: “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!”
May we preserve the garment of baptism and the grace of the Holy Spirit, undefiled and blameless in the fearful day of Christ our God. To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.