12 October 2014

The unconditional love of God …
a love story for the many or the few?

‘Love Story’ (1970) … how would you portray the unconditional love of God as Father?

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

12 October 2014, the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23).

Isaiah 25: 1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

When we come to reading the parables in the Gospels, it is often difficult to read them with a new pair of spectacles, with a fresh approach. We already know the ending.

We all know whose prayer is most sincere, the Pharisee or the Publican; we all know the Good Samaritan is the good neighbour; we all know what happens to the Prodigal Son, but also his waiting father and his begrudging brother.

The problem is that are we so familiar with parables that we know the ending, and we know the lessons to draw from them.

I had a cousin by marriage who in the early 1970s created sad fun for himself by walking down a cinema queue in Oxford, telling couples, pair-by-pair, as they waited for Love Story: “She dies in the end.”

But the real ending in the film comes after Jenny (Ali McGraw) dies and a grief-stricken Oliver (Ryan O’Neill) leaves the hospital to find his estranged father (Ray Milland) who has come back to apologise for how badly he treated the young couple.

Jenny has died; is he too late? No. Oliver replies with the words Jenny used so often: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

In some ways, Love Story is a clever retelling by Erich Segal of the story of the Prodigal Son. And the point of parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son is the vast immeasurable love of God as a loving father and the risks Christ takes for us individually and collectively.

This morning’s parable is also familiar. But it is more difficult, more challenging to read than the parables about the love of God and the love of neighbour.

The traditional reading of this parable makes God less like the patient father of the Prodigal Son, and more like Ray Milland’s petulant father who, instead of offering unconditional love, withdraws his love when his children do not do as he bids.

This parable tells of a king hosting a wedding banquet for his son. He invites a long list of guests, who learn to their cost that to refuse a king’s command is treasonous, to mistreat and kill his slaves is open rebellion. The king is outraged and sends his troops to put down the rebellion and to slaughter the unwilling guests – slaughtered like the oxen and calves for the banquet.

Do you see God as a capricious and demanding tyrant – waiting for you to make the religious equivalent of the social faux pas? – watching and waiting to judge your every little move? – keeping a score sheet that drives him to capricious vindictiveness? Does a loving father behave like that?

The Bible tells us constantly that God is slow to anger and rich in mercy (e.g., see Exodus 34: 6; Numbers 14: 18; II Chronicles 30: 9; Nehemiah 9: 17; Psalm 57: 10; Psalm 86: 5, 15; Psalm 103: 8; Psalm 145: 8; Joel 2: 13; Jonah 4: 2; Micah 7: 18; Romans 2: 8).

His abundant love and compassion is often a stark contrast with the experience of the oppressed people of violent kings and rulers in the past (see II Chronicles 30: 9; Nehemiah 9: 17).

On the other hand, how often have I behaved like many of the people invited to the wedding?

How often have I been invited to a book launch, a reception, or even a wedding, and ignored the RSVP request? How often have I ignored it yet turned up at the event?

And there have even been occasions when, rather than offend, I have accepted an invitation, and then not turned up at all. Thankfully no king has sent out his crack paratroopers to seek me out, burn down my city and slay me.

They say in some business circles, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And to accept an invitation to a wedding comes at a cost.

You have to buy a present, a new outfit, take a day or days off work, with a loss of earnings or holiday time – and that’s before you pay for a baby sitter and hotel room for the night. And if the couple decide to get married in Lanzarote, or in Venice … could I afford the trip even if I wanted to go?

A few Sundays ago [21 September 2014], we heard the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16). A day’s wage came after a long day’s toil and sweat for most workers … still does today and certainly did in Jesus’ day.

So, for the poor on the streets, in the alleyways, on the highways and the byways (verse 10), going to a lavish party thrown by an exceptionally rich man may not be so much a treat as a burden, with many costs and the loss of earnings.

It would be wrong to take such a refusal as a snub. And if you did turn up, at some personal cost, would you like someone there to be singled out in a way that highlights her low social status, his low-pay job, or their poor dress sense?

Certainly to go to a party under compulsion makes it no party at all.

So often, we read this parable as being a story about God and those who do not heed his call. But I have difficulties with the traditional, exclusive claims made in many interpretations of this parable, the standard storytelling of this parable. Is Christ proclaiming that God will retaliate violently when God’s messengers are attacked?

If you were to imagine yourself as one of the characters in this parable, who would you be? And would you behave that way?

Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet?

Are you an invited guest who must refuse the invitation?

Are you a potential guest who resents the compulsion or the cost?

Are you brought in from the street corners, but not prepared?

Christ’s audience would naturally associate a festive meal with the celebration of God’s people at the end of time. The wedding feast is a recurring image in the Bible of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom.

But they would also remember past and present kings – from the Pharaohs of Egypt, to despotic kings of Israel and Judah, to the violent Herods and the oppressive Caesars – whose reigns were anything but benign, but marked by violence, mass murders, unnecessary wars and military alliances that resulted in the suffering of ordinary people, in the highways and byways.

The words translated in verse 9 as “the main streets” are “the crossings of the streets” (τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν) in the original Greek – in Dublin today we might say the king is reduced to inviting even the corner boys in from the inner city.

Perhaps the many common people listening to Christ that day know they too are branded as corner boys by the ruling class. They would have feared that they too, on such an occasion, would face berating, social isolation and being thrown out.

It is just a few days before Christ himself is going to be called before the kings and rulers of the day, to be mocked and jeered, to be stripped naked, to be bound hand and foot, to be crucified outside the walls of the city, and to be cast into outer darkness, to be buried and descend to the dead.

So, in an alternative way of looking at this parable, Christ is alone when he speaks out and protests against the king’s tyranny, the tyranny of the kingdoms of this world, by refusing to wear the robe. And he ends up being rejected, being ejected, and being crucified on behalf of all who are marginalised, thrown out, expelled.

Is Christ not calling us this morning to identify with the marginalised, the oppressed, those dealt with violently, those treated harshly and cast out into the darkness because society thinks we would be better rid of them?

Who falls into that category in our society today? The homeless … the foreigners in direct provision … the unemployed or low paid … the emigrant … their children …?

Who falls into that category in the Church today? Those we pass moral judgment on because of their relationships or sexuality … the survivors of abuse … the foreigners in direct provision … the homeless … their children …?

Who falls into that category in the world today? The Kurds … the Palestinians … the residents of Gaza … the victims on all sides in Syria, Iraq, on the borders of Turkey … those demanding human rights …?

A grave in Kerameikós, Athens, where Pericles delivered his funeral oration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Let me put the Greek use of “few” and “many” by Christ in this parable in its cultural context. Pericles, in his ‘Funeral Oration’ in Athens, according to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, uses “the many,” οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), in a positive way when praising the Athenian democracy. He contrasts them with “the few” (οἱ ὀλίγοι, hoi oligoi), who abuse power and create an oligarchy, rule by the few. He advocates equal justice for the all before the law against the selfish interests of the few.

When we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, we remember that Christ is the victim, and that he said his blood is shed “for you and for many” … you being the Church, the few in this parable; but the many, οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), the masses, the multitude, the great unwashed, are called too.

Christ dies for the many, the lumpen masses, all people, and not just for the few, the oligarchs. The many are invited to this banquet this morning. And who are we to behave like a tyrannical despot and exclude them? For if we exclude them, we are in danger of excluding Christ himself.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 12 October 2014.

A sculpted grave stone in Kerameikós, in Athens where Pericles made his speech (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 22: 1-14:

1 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν εἶπεν ἐν παραβολαῖς αὐτοῖς λέγων, 2 Ὡμοιώθηἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. 3 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελον ἐλθεῖν. 4 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους λέγων, Εἴπατε τοῖς κεκλημένοις, Ἰδοὺ τὸ ἄριστόν μου ἡτοίμακα, οἱ ταῦροί μου καὶ τὰσιτιστὰ τεθυμένα, καὶ πάντα ἕτοιμα: δεῦτε εἰς τοὺς γάμους. 5 οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον, ὃς μὲν εἰς τὸν ἴδιον ἀγρόν, ὃς δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν ἐμπορίαν αὐτοῦ: 6 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ κρατήσαντες τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὕβρισαν καὶ ἀπέκτειναν. 7 ὁ δὲ βασιλεὺς ὠργίσθη, καὶ πέμψας τὰ στρατεύματα αὐτοῦ ἀπώλεσεν τοὺς φονεῖς ἐκείνους καὶ τὴν πόλιν αὐτῶν ἐνέπρησεν. 8 τότε λέγει τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, Ὁ μὲν γάμος ἕτοιμός ἐστιν, οἱ δὲ κεκλημένοι οὐκ ἦσαν ἄξιοι: 9 πορεύεσθε οὖν ἐπὶ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν, καὶ ὅσους ἐὰν εὕρητε καλέσατε εἰς τοὺς γάμους. 10 καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ δοῦλοι ἐκεῖνοι εἰς τὰς ὁδοὺς συνήγαγον πάντας οὓς εὗρον, πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς: καὶ ἐπλήσθη ὁ γάμος ἀνακειμένων.

11 εἰσελθὼν δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς θεάσασθαι τοὺς ἀνακειμένους εἶδεν ἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἐνδεδυμένον ἔνδυμα γάμου: 12 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἑταῖρε, πῶς εἰσῆλθες ὧδε μὴ ἔχων ἔνδυμα γάμου; ὁ δὲ ἐφιμώθη. 13 τότε ὁ βασιλεὺς εἶπεν τοῖς διακόνοις, Δήσαντες αὐτοῦ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας ἐκβάλετε αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων. 14 πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί.

Translation (NRSV):

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.’

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