Tricky Jesus 7 - Speechless and Not Recognised
When we had our 'pot luck free for all' service here on Labour Weekend, Mark raised an interesting question about 'who's in?'...that is 'who are my brothers and sisters, who are my spiritual kin?' Is it based on believing the same things, acknowledging a common heavenly Father...does the other person's spiritual state as a religious person or not a religious person have any bearing on whether they are my 'brother' in a biblical sense? And Janet offered the possibility that rather than being a question of shared belief – or unbelief – it might be a case of all people (maybe all created life) carrying or being 'sparks of God', and that it's this spark that is our commonality. This felt like a very large topic that we didn't embark on further at the time. The reason I bring it up again today is that I felt that the parables I planned to talk on this week have some bearing on this question of 'who is in' and 'who gets to be in and stay in and on what basis?'
The main thing I want to offer into that conversation by way of these parables is the possibility that, in the spiritual life, there is no hurdle to being 'in' – everyone's invited, the doors are wide open. We are all, already, acceptable...we all, already, bear the image of God and carry the flame of God within us. So in that sense everyone is my brother, everyone is my sister. All of us mixed bags of good and bad, glorious and stupid – and all of us equally invited to the party at God's house whether we believe certain things or not. But. In this life, we can forget who we are. We can reject whose we are. The spark can burn dim and go out. It is always our choice to refuse the terms of being a human-in-God, the life of trust that is relationship with the Divine Sustainer. We can routinely ignore the sacred, or minimise our openness to it. And at some point in life the forgetting, the rejecting and refusing, render us speechless and unrecognisable. The truth about us gets lost in the lies we live. And it is very hard to come in from that cold. It is possible to deny our own soul long enough that we don't know what it looks like any more, we can't speak from within it, and nobody else can see or hear it either.
Here's the first parable: (Matt 22: 2-14)
'The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son's wedding.
He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants with the words, "Tell those who have been invited: Look, my banquet is all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding." But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business,
and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town.
Then he said to his servants, "The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the main crossroads and invite everyone you can find to come to the wedding."
So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, "How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?" And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth." For many are invited but not all are chosen.'
Can I ask you to, for at least one week, shelve your reaction to the hostility and punitive behaviour of the king in this story. In next week's sermon I plan to muse on hell and judgement in the teaching of Jesus and I hope to offer some ways to get to grips with these vengeful images of God. In the meantime, if you would be willing with me just to focus on the nature of the invitation, and this odd scenario of the man without a wedding garment. To me, the key sentence in the story is this: So these servants went out onto the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike.
The invitation to the wedding party is thrown open to everyone and anyone and there is no moral distinction made between them. Bad and good, reputable and disreputable, successful and marginal – all are mixing together at the wedding banquet. The wedding hall is filled with guests and when the king comes he doesn't start dividing them up on the basis of what they believe or whether they're righteous or not. He invited them to his party and they're there, warts and all. He only notices one character – the one without a wedding garment. Which, this parable being allegorical in nature, immediately causes us to ask 'what does the wedding garment represent?' That is, what is Jesus saying is the only unacceptable lack when it comes to staying welcome at the party to which we've been invited? Notice that it's about staying welcome, not being welcome in the first place. Everyone was welcomed in, including this one man who ended up being excluded. But for some reason to do with not wearing a tie or a suit or a jewelled robe or whatever signifies 'wedding clothes', he's out on his ear.
Those people who have studied the historical and social context of Jesus' day suggest that not everyone would have wedding clothes to wear to a big event, but that the person throwing the party would provide people with a garment that showed that they were part of the festivities. In the context of this parable, where people have just been hauled in off the streets to the king's son's wedding, it's even more likely that Jesus is positing a 'wedding garment' as something that was given to people at the door, rather than worn to the event from home. Different traditions and interpreters have wildly different views on what the wedding garment represents in this parable. As you might expect.
Catholic interpreters tend to see it as love and good works. So – entrance to the party is your baptism into the church and your faith. But dressing for the occasion is about keeping on with compassion and charity. Faith without works is dead. Protestant interpreters tend to see the wedding garment as Jesus' righteousness... the transaction whereby we have no merit on our own, but when God looks at us God sees instead the sacrifice of Jesus, and we go on being acceptable insofar as we are one of those for whom Jesus' blood has availed.
Based on my reading of the rest of Jesus' teaching, I don't find either of these to be all that satisfactory. They both feel more like the products of church theology than the kind of wisdom for transformed living that Jesus offers in the gospels. The way I interpret the wedding garment – and I have a debt here to Robert Farrar Capon – is that it is the faith that stays open to relationship with God. It is the choice to go on living as though it were true that God loves us and accepts us regardless of what we have done or not done, instead of giving in to the deception that it's down to us to fend for ourselves and earn everything good that comes to us. All of us without exception are 'in' with God. God is for us, and is continually presenting us with the gift of our lives – day by day giving us our life and nudging and calling to us and coming to meet us. There is no requirement to 'opt in' – this is already our reality if we choose to accept it. There's no threshold to cross. Like the prodigal son, we were born into our inheritance. But, like him, we can and we do, all of us, opt out. And it doesn't make a difference if we're Christians or not, whether we're in the church or not. Our formation as humans in this flawed world, and the ways we hurt and distract ourselves and others, make it feel easier to opt out of faith than to stay with what is ours.
We each of us have a story to tell about ourselves and who we are. For some that's a hard, sad story about being a victim, having suffered, being wounded by life, feeling unworthy, guilty or bad. For others the story is mostly positive – a story about what we have achieved or contributed, a story about feeling confident and worthwhile. Most of us a probably a mixture of both. These stories are what we live out of, and they determine how we react to the things that happen to us, and how we behave toward others. But regardless of the goodness or badness of our story about ourselves, God has a story about us that is more beautiful and more liberating than any we could tell from within our own heads. To live in faith – to wear a wedding garment – is to choose to accept and live from within the story God gives us, rather than the one we have become conditioned to tell about ourselves. To refuse the wedding garment is to refuse to trust God's version of who we are – and by extensions, what the world is and who others are too.
Unfortunately, each day that goes past that we go on doggedly repeating attitudes and behaviours that belong to the wrong story, each decision that we make out of fear rather than faith, each reaction that we allow to be dictated to us by habit rather than by the story of the love of God – each of these moments is a decision to 'opt out'. To take off the wedding garment of invitation that God has extended to us and to say, in effect, 'I'll wear my own clothes, thanks – I don't want the ones that you're holding out to me.' The sad thing is that the wedding garment is not alien clothing, but is in fact the outfit that was designed for us at the beginning. It's what we look like when we're most ourselves. But so many of us choose to wrap tightly around us the rags that we've been given by our parents, friends, bad theology with a distorted view of God, and so on – clothes that are often ill-fitting, or fraying at the seams. Change is frightening and we prefer to keep the negative habits that we're familiar with than to dress in something that feels funny, no matter that it was given us at the door of a king's banquet.
A striking feature of this parable to me is the response the man-in-his-own-clothes gives to the king when asked about not wearing the wedding garment. He is silent, or as it reads in other translations, 'speechless.' My feeling, when I ponder this parable, is that this is the saddest part. It seems to me that if he had been able to say anything, anything at all, in response to his host, there would still have been signs of life, of relationship. Arguing, explaining, questioning and naming our doubts are still acts of faith. His silence suggests that he is so estranged from both the original invitation to the banquet and the ongoing choosing to be there, that he simply can't answer the question 'how did you get to be in here without your wedding garment?' He can't remember. Having nothing to say is sometimes a sign of humble trust. But at other times it's a sign of great lostness. In this case I think it's the latter.
Most religious traditions draw to some extent on the motif of being 'awake.' The idea being that a lot of the time we live in a kind of sleepwalk, not fully present to ourselves or the world around us. Going through the motions of life rather than consciously choosing and receiving each moment with gratitude. We may all be sparks of God, but many of us need to be fanned into flame or we sputter and die. Here's another parable that looks at how 'letting our light go out', which is associated with sleepiness, is another kind of opting out of the life of faith.
'Then the kingdom of Heaven will be like this: Ten wedding attendants took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones, though they took their lamps, took no oil with them, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, "Look! The bridegroom! Go out and meet him." Then all those wedding attendants woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, "Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out." But they replied, "There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves." They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other attendants arrived later. "Lord, Lord," they said, "open the door for us."
Again, I'm not going to dwell on the apocalyptic resonances of this parable – that's for next week if there's time after we've done hell and judgement (!) Here what I want to notice is that all ten of the women (you might know them as the wise and foolish bridesmaids or virgins, rather than 'wedding attendants') had an invitation to the party, and a role to play at it. So again – everyone's in at the beginning. And all ten of them fell asleep when the bridegroom was a long time coming. Falling asleep was not the problem in itself. Therefore our tendency to fail to be as 'awake' as we could be isn't the real issue. That in itself won't bar us from the party. The only difference between the five wise and the five foolish ones was in their ability to wake up and light up when they heard the herald. Which was to do with having spare oil. When I read this I immediately think that the wise bridesmaids were selfish and unkind in their refusal to share their oil - surely they should be the ones locked out at the end? But if 'oil' in this story has something to do with the inner resources to light the lamp of faith and see their way to the bridegroom, then in fact it's more the case that oil is simply unshare-able. All they could have done is what they did - suggest to the others where to find more for themselves.
This parable is a lot less allegorical than the previous one, by which I mean it's not so clear that the elements of the story 'stand for', or 'represent' things. So it may not be a helpful question to ask 'what is the oil?', in the same way that we asked 'what is the wedding garment?' But at the same time I don't think that this parable is just a cautionary tale about lack of planning or foresight – that would make it a very bad fit with other parts of the gospel narrative such as the bit where the disciples fret that they haven't brought bread and Jesus says to them 'do you really think that's what I'm about...don't you remember the feeding of the five thousand? You don't have to obsessively worry about providing for yourselves.' So I don't think the moral of the story is 'if you're going camping take batteries for your torch.' The lamp and the oil must to some extent point to inner realities rather than just practical ones.
To me, the ending statement of the bridegroom is key - 'I don't know you.' But these are his wedding attendants. How can it be true he doesn't know them? Is his 'I don't know you' a form of slap-down, of cold rejection? Or is he saying that he doesn't recognise them any more? Just as the king couldn't identify the man without the wedding garment as a true guest of his banquet, the five bridesmaids who ran out of oil and were not able to personally be present at the arrival of the bridegroom, had ceased to be wedding attendants. In having to go away in search of oil they somehow let go of their invitation. So again, as with the wedding garment, to me having a flask of oil has to do with those habits that remind us who we are, and let us access who we are and live truthfully out of who we are as spiritual beings. The things we build into our life and inner landscape that connect us with our true selves and with God, that light us up, that bring us alive, that wake us out of our sleep. The oil is anything that enables us to be responsive to the unexpected and sudden nudge of God after a long period of quiet. What is it for you? How do you stay yourself, and hold on to your identity as a child of God, and live with the daily expectation that Christ is coming to meet you?
This is a confronting parable for me. I feel as though I often lose myself...in tiredness, busyness, negativity or stress, and so I become estranged from the invitation to welcome Christ into my daily world. God could turn up like the visitors to Abraham's tent and I'd barely look up from my schedule, let alone be present enough to offer hospitality and hear a promise. I feel like I've dreamed the panic of those those five foolish bridesmaids who see their lamps going out and know that while they're searching for oil they're missing out on their homecoming, locked out of the feast with the one whose presence they had planned to celebrate.
Does there come a time where we become so alienated from faith, so lost to ourselves, so unrecogniseable and so speechless in the presence of our Beloved, that all that is left to us is the little mouse-wheel rut of repetition that we have chosen? Do we become the dwarves in Narnia's 'Last Battle' who still think they're in a stinking shed even when they're surrounded by paradise? These parables do seem to suggest that at some stage the door closes. Our repeated choice to opt out from that which was freely ours to enjoy becomes our only reality.
However, I am not without hope, for myself, for anyone no matter how warped and disfigured they have become. Being lost and left outside seems like a terrible fate, partly because we load onto it ideas about punishment that aren't in the text, and partly because we're so hardwired to belong and to be loved that to be excluded is a definition of hell for many of us. But the text never indicates that outer darkness is forever – there is no concept of an 'afterlife' in these parables. And we also know that the king's son, the bridegroom, is the kind of shepherd that leaves the 99 on the hillside to go in search of the one who is lost. While everyone else is at the banquet having a party, this faithful lover continues to seek us out, to stand at our door and knock. Surely the one who created the human heart can find a way to open it. So even as we might be cautioned and sobered by the note of warning in these parables, let's also respond in confidence that our God is always calling us back to our senses, with a wedding garment in one hand and a flask of oil in the other. We just need to open our hands to receive.