Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 9 October 2011
Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14
The prophet Isaiah describes a glorious feast at the end of the ages, a time and space when the kingdom of God will be come in all its fullness. It is a picture of abundance, utter peace and contentment because all sorrow, including death, has been wiped away. And it is wonderfully inclusive – it is for all peoples. Religion is often accused of promising people pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, an envisioned utopian future to help its adherents ignore present harsh realities. And no doubt that is sometimes true. But these visions of a hopeful future aren’t given to God’s people as escapism. They are given as reminders of God’s ultimate will for the cosmos, as reminders of the destination so that we know the direction in which we journey now. They look forward to a time when we can look back on our present difficulties and exclaim: “Truly God was with us and brought us through.”
The psalm and the epistle both describe what it is like to live in the present reality of that future hope. In psalm 23 the worshipper experiences God as the diligent shepherd and the extravagant host. It is not that there is no danger or sorrow in his or her life – the road passes through the valley of the shadow, and the enemies are present. But the worshipper is refreshed in quiet moments, and discovers in the seasons of rest a confidence in God which nurtures faith for the dark times. Even meditatively praying this psalm can create the refreshing space where we experience the Shepherd’s care.
Paul’s confidence in God to supply all his needs is not spoken in a time of plenty. Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison. Not only would he have been physically uncomfortable, but someone as energetic for his mission as Paul was must have chafed at the restrictions of incarceration. But Paul, who had experienced many ups and downs and faced many difficulties and who knew what it meant to be in distress, had learned how to trust in the goodness of God. So firm is his hope that he can look at any present situation and say: “If God has not provided it, it means that I don’t need it.” With an attitude like that, he can live any moment to the full and make the most of every opportunity, free of the fear of lack.
Jesus told his parable to religious people who were very keen on the idea of the messianic banquet at the end of the age. They thought they were living their lives in light of that hope. But Jesus challenges that assumption. In his story those who are invited to the banquet are actually too busy with other things to be bothered with responding to the invitation. It is one of the ironies of the Kingdom that those who are most busy with ‘God-talk’ are often the ones who least want their lives to be disturbed by what God is actually doing.
I must admit that I prefer the way Luke 14 recounts this parable. In Matthew it has been interpreted and applied in a specific context so that it reads more like an allegory. Matthew recognizes how the truth of the parable played out in first century Palestine with the widespread rejection of Jesus’ message among his own people. He alludes to the harsh treatment that the prophets received and to the devastation of Jerusalem. Luke’s account preserves the open-endedness of the parable, so that those of us who have accepted Jesus’ message can still feel the full force of its challenge.