Sermon - Ordinary 28 Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index
Inclusive and exclusive?
We might often wonder whether Christians commenting on current events, attitudes and life styles, could possibly hold the same beliefs. Sometimes, even when we speak directly of the faith we hold in common it seems doubtful that we do in fact believe the same things even about quite basic beliefs. One Christian's belief in the nature of God will sometimes appear quite different from what another Christian sincerely believes God is like; and this today is nowhere more clearly apparent than when it comes to questions of permissiveness and discipline. Does God accept anybody and everyone regardless of what they have done, where they have from, or what they are like, even without regard to how they behave now? How far does that acceptance go? Is it all the way, unconditionally, into the Kingdom of Heaven?
How much do we think God will tolerate? Is God a strict taskmaster with many rules for us to follow and high standards to impose, or does God allow us plenty of room to live our own kind of life. Is God ready to judge and to impose strict punishments when we step out of line, or is he a little bit more broadminded than that? Such a question seems in some ways to be especially troublesome and typical in Western society at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in which freedom to choose for oneself in all sorts of ways is so highly valued. Indeed we could say that questions concerning the value of personal freedom and responsibility are more pervasive in the world today than ever before and no longer restricted to peculiarly Western concerns, for there is a world wide movement towards democracy with its many forms of personal freedom and away from obedience to external, hierarchical and arbitrary forms of authority. When it is put that way with reference to democracy, it is a modern question, but the different kinds of underlying beliefs people have about the nature of God are by no means new or recent.
The basic question of whether it is in the nature of God to condemn and exclude people who do not do the right thing and conform to expectation, or whether everyone is to be included regardless, was a question and a point of struggle from the very beginning of the Christian fellowship. And there is no point in saying, let's go to scripture and resolve these conflicts. We should certainly test what we believe by reference Scripture and especially to the New Testament and what Jesus taught? But it is not a simple question with the answer plainly written down. The trouble is that it was a point of conflict between different witnesses to the Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ. Different gospel writers report what Jesus did and said with different emphases. Sometimes it appears that they were recalling things in different ways to meet the needs of the different audiences for whom they were writing, and sometimes, if you read between the lines, knowing about the controversies in which they were engaged, you might even see that they were making points in opposition to other witnesses in the way they told a story. So it sometimes helps to compare the different accounts of what looks like the same event or the same parable in different gospels. One clear example of differences of this kind is in the different versions of the parable of wedding guests that are found in Matthew and Luke. The big difference is that Matthew adds the part, not found in Luke, about a guest who came without a wedding robe and was thrown out:
In contrast Luke, omitted this ending and began his account with a comment on a preceding saying of Jesus about inviting poor when you give a party:
Matthew left out the reference to anyone or everyone being blessed in the comment of one who was listening to Jesus. We might recall that it was Luke gave us the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and in various ways tended to emphasize the inclusion of Gentiles, sinners or strangers, although right here Luke does tell the story of the wedding guests who were invited and made excuses and missed out on the feast while anyone and everyone who could be found in the streets and lanes was brought in - so the originally invited guests missed out on the King's banquet, and that is a condemnation of the Jewish authorities who would not accept the invitation of the Son of God, the Messiah, the King who would welcome the strangers. So there is a correction to the universalism of the initial comment from the audience about everyone being blessed who will come and eat bread in the kingdom of God.
Here we begin to see the point of the debate. Those originally invited missed out, and unexpected guests were welcome, but, Matthew seems to say, they still have to behave themselves, show respect and take part in the proper way. Luke doesn't seem to know of Jesus saying anything like that, or if he did he know he did not think it important to pass it on to the people for whom he was writing.
It is perfectly possible to proclaim the gospel to different people in different ways. Did not Paul say,
So you might say that Matthew was, in Paul's terms, being a Jew to the Jews, in order to win Jews, and Luke was being a Greek to the Greeks so that he might win "those outside the law". There had been a great dispute in the early church about whether Gentile or Greek Christians should be expected to adopt Jewish practices. Some said, certainly all may come, including those outside the old Israel who were not keepers of the law of God, but, it was argued, they should then conform to the law of God once they were admitted. Other said no, not to those distinctively Jewish ways which marked them out as a separate people, that is not necessary, they said: we don't all have to speak the same, and eat the same kind of food or wear the same clothes. Peter and Paul had a great argument about this, and a conference was held in Jerusalem to resolve the differences between Jewish and Gentile or Greek speaking believers in Christ. Indeed it was Luke, when writing the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, who reported the outcome of the debate as favourable to the Gentile Christians and he tended in his presentation of the Gospel to present Christ and his teaching in a manner likely to appeal more to Gentiles than to Jews. Matthew on the other hand appealed to Jewish Christians, even reporting Jesus as saying that not the slightest detail would be disappear from the law in the Old Testament:
It was a big question. Some might say all you needed was the basic general law of love God and love your neighbour. Others while agreeing that the law of God could be summed up like that would say it is not enough, an that more specific guidance and on the will of God was needed. In that way Matthew and Luke had different ideas of what the Gospel was about, or they selected different aspects of it for different audiences. If they selected different aspects to appeal to different people, it appears that like Paul they became all things to all people, that they might by all means save some. What do you think of that? Do you praise their flexibility? Or do you say they must have had genuine differences, and I think, given what we know of Paul and of Luke's association with him, and their conflicts with the Jews, it is very likely that they saw things quite differently as many Christians from different backgrounds do today. They might still have presented their knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus, consistently with their own beliefs and quite conscientiously, in such a way as to make sense to different people. So where does that leave us? Can we choose what suits us in our understanding of the Gospel, according to whether we prefer the more demanding Matthew or the more liberal Luke, and prefer what makes sense to us or to others in our situation.
One thing is clear: there is only one Christ; and there is the one Spirit who witnesses to him in every age and situation. The solution must be one which embraces the whole Gospel. There is a necessary unity to the truth about God. Believers might at times see things from different points of view, but it is the same reality of God in Christ that they seek to understand, to love and to share. [There is no place in Christian life and witness for modern relativism or postmodern cynicism that would have us avoid all talk of any reality beyond our different perceptions, but we are reminded from human experience as well as from Scripture of the need for humility in our limited understandings.] We are not at liberty to say we follow one presentation of the Gospel rather than another. In our reference to Scripture, all four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament are part of the witness of the apostles that Christians accept. Paul who allowed for different witnesses to appeal to different people nevertheless called upon the followers of Jesus to recognize that their debts to different teachers did not justify separation or different identities and allegiances:
So what are we to make of Matthew's second part of the parable, and that terrible warning: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth - the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness...'. Have many of us not been all too ready to dismiss such talk? Don't we, the majority of Western Christians today, prefer to speak of the hope of heaven rather than any judgment or threat of punishment, although some do say otherwise and prefer a more punitive understanding of nature of God. Are we to take seriously the threat of anyone being thrown out? And all because he did not come in the right clothes - as if was it just that - and what did a wedding robe mean to those who heard the story? The missing wedding robe is probably a newly washed garment. People might be called indiscriminately to come from the streets and byways in their old filthy clothes, but they are expected to change, or allow themselves to be changed (see Zecharia 3:3-5). In Christian symbolism they are changed by being washed clean as in baptism and thus appear before the Lord in clothes washed white:
Again, our modern thought rebels at the idea of anything being washed white in blood. We need to set that aside to get the meaning: blood is the sign of life, the blood of the Lamb is the life of Christ, the one whose life was sacrificed so that others may live and appear before the throne of grace. They did not appear before God in the great celebration of the kingdom unchanged, or changed only by their own efforts, but by the merits of our sacrificed Saviour. Seen in this way it is quite consistent with the teaching of the apostles generally and with what we know of Jesus from scripture as a whole for Matthew to tell the story in a way which pointed out the need for people called without distinction into the kingdom nevertheless to be prepared to change.
Sadly, it seems that many are not prepared to change, and might even insist upon being accepted just as they are without any intention of allowing the Holy Spirit to bring their minds into conformity with the mind of Christ and so to allow themselves to appear changed, purified and redeemed, in the universal company of worshippers before the King of Kings. So there is the danger that we can allow ourselves to be excluded by not availing ourselves of the gift of a new robe for the wedding feast of the Lamb of God - it is the king himself who provides the robe (Revelation 19:7-9). So, sadly, many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14) through failure to accept the gift. Matthew is saying in the name of Christ to us today, do not think that just because you have been invited without regard to who your are, or how you have lived in the past or where you came from, that you can go on living as a disciple of Christ in the same of old way. It is not a bad word to put along side the inclusiveness of Luke's version and the warning they both kept against the old authorities; and note that it is not really about keeping the old Jewish law in every detail (it was the original friends of the king, the keepers of the law, who were the first excluded). It is certainly not about conforming to customary ways ways of appearing at public functions, but about the need to change, and that change is brought about by Christ himself if only we will allow it to happen.
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