An invitation to the kingdom

Pentecost 17

Matthew 22:1-14

Marian Free 

In the name of God, who calls us and calls us. Amen.

 

Last week, we considered the problem that the early church had in accommodating those who were not Jews into the Jewish faith – or at least into that part of Judaism that accepted Jesus as the anointed one, the one sent by God. At the time that Paul was writing his epistles, this was a burning issue for believers. The Jewish nation, had over centuries, developed rituals, behaviours and patterns of belief that set them apart as a distinct community. We saw that this was especially important for a nation of people who often found themselves in a minority and who had endured exile and centuries of foreign rule. Paul’s letters give us some insight into how difficult it was to find a way to include non-Jews into what had been in many ways a closed society.

The gospels were written some twenty to forty years after the letters of Paul. Much had happened in that time. In the year seventy, the Romans brutally crushed a revolt by the Jews, destroying Jerusalem in the process. This led to the further dispersion of Jews throughout the Empire and, as best we can tell, to a more rigid adherence to the law. In the absence of the Temple, the law became one of the defining characteristics of Judaism. At the same time, the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple seems to have been a defining moment in Jewish/Christian relations. Those who believed in Jesus had refused to join with the Jews in the revolt against Roman rule. This caused an irreconcilable rift that led to the exclusion of Christians from the synagogue and from the Jewish source of their faith.

In the letters of Paul, a major issue is the inclusion (or not) of the Gentiles. In the gospels an overwhelming concern is the failure of the Jews to believe in Jesus. The problem was this – if Jesus was the culmination of all that at the Jews had been promised and all that they had hoped for, why was it that so many refused to believe in him? This is the question that is played out in the three parables that Matthew has placed together in chapters 21 and 22. In response to a challenge to his authority, Jesus asks the leaders of the Jews a question about John the Baptist that they are unable to answer. This leads Jesus to tell three parables that exposes the failure of official Judaism to understand who he is and what he is here for. These parables also make it clear that it is in fact the Jewish failure to believe that has led to the inclusion of the Gentiles.

The first of the three parables is the parable of the two sons. In this parable a father asks his sons in turn to go into the vineyard to work. The first son says that he will not go, but changes his mind and goes anyway. The second son says that he will go but does not go In the second parable we have a barely veiled account of the death of the prophets and of Jesus. A landowner plants a vineyard and lets it out to tenants. When the harvest is due, the landowner sends two successive groups of slaves, both of whom are beaten and sent away without being given what their master is due. Finally the landowner sends his own son, expecting that he will receive the respect that is his due and that the tenants will pay the rent to him. His confidence is misplaced, the tenants take him and kill him thinking that if they kill the son and heir that the vineyard will be theirs.

In the first parable we are meant to assume that the son who said he would not go represents the Gentiles (those who didn’t believe in Yahweh but who do what God requires). The son who says he will go and does not represents the Jews who claim to believe, but who do not accept Jesus as the anointed one sent by God. The second parable presents a much more vivid description of the rejection of Jesus. It points out that the tenants who rejected the son (the Jewish leaders) will lose their place and another group of tenants (the Gentiles) will take charge of the vineyar

The third parable is that which we have heard this morning. A king gives a banquet for his son’s wedding but, at the appointed time, the invited guests (the Jewish people) refuse to come. In his anger the king destroys their city and invites all and sundry (the Gentiles) to come.

These three parables all illustrate the point that those to whom Jesus was sent rejected him and refused God’s invitation to be part of something new. As a consequence, God unexpectedly extended the invitation to a much broader and more diverse group of people. Through these parables, Matthew radically redefines the notion of who is chosen and who is not. The Israelites, the descendants of Abraham were so convinced that they were God’s chosen people and so keen to protect their position that they rejected anything – including Jesus – that threatened this sense of identity or that de-stablised their concept of reality. Their very attempt to hold on to their place before God led to their failure to see that God was doing something new. They saw no need to work in the vineyard when asked, to pay rent to the landowner or to respond to the invitation. As far as they were concerned their place was assured.

Through the parables (and through other means) Jesus makes it clear that their birthright alone is not enough to maintain their place as members of God’s chosen. In fact, their failure to respond led God to invite others – the son who did what the father asked, the new tenants of the vineyard, and those who were gathered in from the highways and the by-ways – these are invited to become members of the new people of God.

What is clear is that the Israelites no longer had the sole claim and right to be God’s chosen people, anyone who does what God requires, accepts Jesus as one sent from God and responds to God’s call can in this new way of seeing things be considered among God’s chosen. “Many are called but few are chosen.” This apparently exclusive statement in fact points in the opposite direction. Those who can be counted among the chosen “few” are no longer only those who are descended from Abraham and who keep the law, but all those who accept God’s invitation to belong – Jew AND Gentile.

Contrary to what we might think, these parables are not an attack on Judaism or Jews per se. They do not provide us with an excuse to denigrate or vilify our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith. In their context, they are a means to help the early church come to terms with the fact that the faith from which they emerged was no longer the faith in which they found their home and to explain why those to whom Jesus was sent did not accept and follow.

Jesus’ death and resurrection flung wide the doors to salvation such that any who believe – Jew or Gentile might go through.

The parables give us an insight into the historical context of the gospel but they also provide a caution against the sort of self satisfaction and complacency that allows us to believe that we have a monopoly on salvation and that by virtue of faith or some other criterion others are excluded. We are challenged to accept the fact that it is sometimes the most surprising of people who will respond to God’s invitation and that if we are not careful we will be left behind.

 

 

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: