This Sunday, we will again hear from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Since it is from chapter 25, it would be understandable if you were to conclude that it is from Isaiah himself. There is lively debate among scripture scholars, however, as to where this chapter – and, in fact, chapters 24 – 27 belong historically. Many argue that it was written in post-exilic times during the period of Persian dominance. They make this argument because this section which, in many Bibles, is given the title of the Apocalypse of Isaiah, contains hymns that testify to God’s salvific power and the belief that not only Israel, but all the nations, will witness God’s mighty deeds. The passage we will hear on Sunday is taken from a thanksgiving psalm that celebrates the victory of Yahweh as something that has already taken place. It may have been taken from an old hymn celebrating the fall of a hostile city – Babylon, some would argue – and it speaks of Jerusalem becoming, once again, the place where God will reside. Whenever it was proclaimed, it is another good example of a prophet’s hopeful proclamation at a time of oppression and despair.
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.
This mountain: Zion, symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the eschatological banquet. The imagery of a celestial banquet as a symbol of eternal happiness has pre-Israelite roots; it is found in Canaanite writings.
7 On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, The web that is woven over all nations;
veil that veils all peoples, The web that is woven over all nations: the veil and web could refer to the oppressive force of the Babylonian Empire had held over the entire region.
8 he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces; The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
he will destroy death forever: let’s turn to Gn. 3:19, where we see the sentence of death. On this mountain described in this passage from Isaiah, this sentence of death is overcome. It is certainly a bold statement which, from our Christian perspective, seems to speak of eternal life. For the Jew who heard this, however, it may have just spoken of the premature death that so many suffered from the cruel slavery the Babylonians had imposed on them.
9 On that day it will be said: “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the LORD for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”
10 For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
the hand of the LORD: this is probably a metonym, referring to God.
will rest on this mountain: the mountain is Jerusalem; God will come to reside in Jerusalem once again.
The imagery here – of God offering a banquet for his people, prepares us for the Gospel.
Matthew 22: 1 – 14
This week, we continue to hear from Matthew’s Gospel, picking up just a few verses after where we left off last week. This is another parable in which Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders. As you will read in your footnotes, this parable is probably taken from Q; (cf. Luke 14:15-24), but there are so many differences between the two that some scholars wonder if both Gospel writers used the same source. Let’s read Luke’s version first for comparison purposes. Notice that it is presented as part of a conversation Jesus is having while at dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee (cf. Lk 14:1). Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem but, unlike Matthew’s account, he has not yet entered the city. Instead, Luke has him outside of the city, taunting Herod and offering a string of parables before entering Jerusalem; that is presented in Lk 19:28ff.
On the other hand, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem (cf. Mt 21:1ff) and immediately antagonizes the Jewish leaders by cleansing the temple area and then offering the three parables, two of which we have heard over the last two Sundays. Matthew also gives this parable many allegorical traits (e.g., the burning of the city of the guests who refused the invitation – cf. Mt 22:7 as well as the mistreatment and killing of some of the servants cf. Mt. 22:6) – which corresponds to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD and the execution of early Christians. Matthew’s account also has similarities with the preceding parable of the tenants: the sending of two groups of servants (Matthew 22:3,4), the murder of the servants (Matthew 22:6) reminiscent of the killing of the prophets, the punishment of the murderers (Matthew 22:7), and the entrance of a new group into a privileged situation of which the others had proved themselves unworthy (Matthew 22:8-10), pointing to the Gentiles being accepted instead of the Jews. Again, we see an example of two Gospels using a common parable for very different purposes.
The parable ends with a section that is peculiar to Matthew (Matthew 22:11-14), which some take as a distinct parable. Matthew presents the kingdom in its double aspect, already present and something that can be entered here and now (Matthew 22:1-10), and something that will be possessed only by those present members who can stand the scrutiny of the final judgment (Matthew 22:11-14). The parable is not only a statement of God’s judgment on Israel but a warning to Matthew’s church. Let’s read it now with all of this background as our foundation.
1 Jesus again in reply spoke to them in parables, saying,
2 “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.
Wedding feast: the Old Testament’s portrayal of final salvation under the image of a banquet (Isaiah 25:6) that we saw in this Sunday’s first reading has already been taken up in Matthew 8:11.
3 He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.
invited guests…refused to come: For Jesus, this would have meant the Jews of his time; for Matthew, it speaks of all the Jewish Christians who had become careless in their celebration of the Lord’s Day; that can apply to us, too.
4 A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”‘
Servants . . . other servants: the first could refer to the prophets while the second group could be seen as the early Christian missionaries.
5 Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.
6 The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.
7 The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
burned their city: most likely a reference to the Roman’s burning of Jerusalem.
8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
9 Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
whomever you find: this underscores the universality of the Church.
10 The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.
bad and good alike: let’s look at Mt 13:47-48 for another example of this.
11 But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
A wedding garment: the repentance, change of heart and mind, – and the willingness to embrace and live according to the Gospel that Jesus preached – that is the condition for entrance into the kingdom (Matthew 3:2; 4:17) must be continued in a life of good deeds (Matthew 7:21-23). Just as a king would have wedding garments available for his guests, so they could be presentable at the wedding, so God has given us the garment of righteousness. We must put it on so we can be worthy to come to the heavenly banquet.
12 He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence.
13 Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Wailing and grinding of teeth: the Christian who lacks the wedding garment of good deeds will suffer the same fate as those Jews who have rejected Jesus (cf. footnote on Matthew 8:11-12. This is the second of four occurrences of this phrase in Matthew’s Gospel that describes final condemnation; cf. 13:42, 50; 25:51; and 25:30. It is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Lk 13:28. This sounds like an Old Testament statement but is not found there). The man accepted the invitation to salvation but did not conform his life to the Gospel. For his choices, he suffered the consequences. This passage challenges us to recognize and accept God’s call to Gospel conversion.
14 Many are invited, but few are chosen.”
During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly used the occasion of a shared meal to share not only food but his message and, ultimately, his very self. We all associate a shared meal with good times; God offers us the opportunity to share a good time with him forever in heaven but we must be prepared when he invites us, accept his invitation and be properly clothed in a right relationship with God.
Philippians 4:12 – 14, 19 – 20
We hear another section from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote this letter to the community he had founded in Philippi while he was imprisoned. Since we do not know to which imprisonment he is referring, it is difficult to date the writing accurately. Scholars suggest that Paul’s words here were occasioned by a gift that the Philippian community sent to him while he was in prison (in Ephesus in 56AD, in Caesarea in 58-60 or in Rome in 61-65).
12 I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.
13 I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.
14 Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.
15 You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, not a single church shared with me in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone.
the beginning of the gospel: it was at Philippi that Paul first preached Christ in Europe, going on from there to Thessalonica and Beroea (Acts 16:9-17:14).
16 For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once.
17 It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.
I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account: St. Paul is the first to write about stewardship – specifically, offering of our treasure – and how it leads us to salvation.
18 I have received full payment and I abound. I am very well supplied because of what I received from you through Epaphroditus, “a fragrant aroma,” an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
Aroma . . . sacrifice: Old Testament cultic language (cf. Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18,25,41; Lev 1:9,13; Ezekial 20:41) applied to the Philippians’ gift; cf. Eph 5:2; 2 Cor 2:14-16.
19 My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever: Paul reminds us that all that we do is to be for the glory of God; that’s why we were created. Our love of God and of one another glorifies God, who is love.
In the sacred texts we hear today, Isaiah and the Matthean evangelist offer their understanding of the kingdom of God — or, as Matthew preferred, the kingdom of heaven. Both of the sacred authors thought of the kingdom in terms of a banquet of rich food and choice wines, prepared by God. Whereas according to Isaiah’s imagining, all the peoples of the earth would be in attendance, Matthew tells us that the guest list evolved. After the invited guests refused to come, the servants of the king went out into the streets and gathered into the feast all they found, the bad and good alike. Recall Jesus proclaiming in the gospel we heard two weeks ago that “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31).
Through their lives and works, two famous Methodist ministers have left their own commentary on this surprising turn of events — that of God throwing open the gate to salvation to all. In his sermons, John Wesley is said to have told people that when he arrived in heaven, he would be surprised by three things. First, he would be surprised to see who was there. Second, he would be surprised by who was not, and third, he would be surprised to find himself there. Wesley readily acknowledged that God’s ways are not only surprising, but rich in mercy and love for sinners.
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army (1878), and better known as “General,” also made an interesting commentary by his mission. As you may know, Booth succeeded in establishing missions that welcomed and served the poor in 58 countries. So gracious was he to those whom society had written off as unsalvageable that he was memorialized in a poem by American poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. In “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” Lindsay wrote of the welcome Booth received from walking lepers, lurching bravoes from the ditches, vermin-eaten saints with moldy breath and unwashed legions with the ways of death. Indicating that a bass drum, banjoes, tambourines and a flute should be played to accompany the singing of his poem, Lindsay told of bull-necked convicts, big-voiced lasses, and loons with trumpets; all had been warmly welcomed into heaven by God. All were present to welcome the man who had welcomed them, tended to their needs, fed them, given them shelter and, all the while, honored and respected them.
When Lindsay’s poem was published in a religious journal by an Anglican clergyman, many were outraged; the minister who published it almost lost his editorial job. As noted in the British Weekly, “The readers of the paper did not like to think that heaven was inhabited by saved sots and converted harlots. They thought it was a respectable colony of blameless and well-to-do brethren. One of these days, they will get the surprise of their lives.”
As we pray and ponder the sacred texts this week, we may find that we too experience a certain degree of surprise when we become acutely aware of God’s limitless capacity to love and forgive. When we realize that those who are counted as the least here on earth are valued beyond measure in God’s kingdom, we might alter our perspective and soften our hearts. We should try to take on the mind of Jesus, to embrace more fully the loving forgiveness of God, to give ourselves more earnestly to the poor, the neglected, the voiceless and the unwanted.
Dorothy Day, who was completely given to God and to God’s poor, once said, “Even the lowest, most depraved, we must see Christ in them and love them to folly. When we suffer from dirt, lack of privacy, heat and cold, coarse food, let us rejoice” (quoted by James Forest in Love Is the Measure, Paulist Press, New York: 1986). Day had learned, as Paul did (second reading), to make the best of every circumstance. Surely she could also say with Paul, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).