Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth: Is this the Gospel of Christ? – Matthew 22:1-14

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Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said,  “The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’  But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. Then the ruler said to the workers, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but the guests I invited don’t deserve the honour. Go out to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find.’  The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike, until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. ‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’   “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14

Is this the Gospel of Christ? In Lutheran, Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and other mainline denominations this text will be read and in those congregations the preacher will conclude the reading with a proclamation declaring that this is, “The Gospel of Christ!” or “The Gospel of the Lord!” to which the people will declare “Praise to you O Christ!” But I ask you: “Is this the Gospel of Christ?” “Wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Is this the Gospel of Christ?

I must confess that when I realized that this text is the one assigned for this, the very Sunday when we are about to begin our “visioning process,” my heart sank. This gospel reading comes around every three years and I’ve always managed to be on vacation when that happens, so I’ve never actually had to preach this particular gospel text.  I was sorely tempted to change our gospel reading to something more in keeping with the task that lies before us this afternoon. This text is hardly conducive to creating a new 21st century vision of what our church might become.  “Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many are called but few are chosen.”

Throw him out into the darkness for the crime of being badly dressed? What kind of vision is this for us, here, today? Are we not a progressive congregation? Do we not pride ourselves on being an inclusive community?  “Many are called but few are chosen.” Is this the “Gospel of Christ?” “Praise to you O Christ!” I don’t think so.

Sure, we could make a joke or two about the irony of embarking on a vision quest in a time and place where it seems as if no matter what the church tries, no matter how many invitations we send out, people just aren’t interested in attending the parties the church throws.  Ha, Ha, Ha, “Many are called but few show up!” I know many a pastor and lots of church leaders who despair because it feels like the church has been cast out into the darkest reaches of the modern zeitgeist and despite our wailing and gnashing of teeth, no matter how many are called, only a few show up, let alone are chosen!  So, in all seriousness, I ask you, “Is this the Gospel of Christ?”  How can this be the Gospel of Christ?

The truth is, this particular judgmental, exclusionary, text has been used for generations to justify all sorts of atrocities. The Church has been enabled by texts such as these to point judgmental fingers at the Jews for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Church has been enabled by text such as these to launch Crusades against Muslims because after all “Many are called and but few are chosen!” The Church continues to be enabled by texts such as these to point judgmental fingers at our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and cast them out and there continues to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Sadly, there are still far too many churches and members of churches who consider themselves to be the chosen few and are all too willing to close their ears to the wailing and the gnashing of teeth because they believe that this is the Gospel of Christ: judgement and exclusion.

Look at the story that has been presented to us as “gospel.” A king sends out slaves to invite people to a wedding feast.  Obviously, the king is God, and generations were taught that the wedding feast was the marriage of Christ to the Church. But the invited guests refused to come! So, the king sends out other workers to describe the luxurious feast that awaits. But the invited guests aren’t interested; some of them seize the King’s messengers and kill them.     Generations have been taught by the church that these messengers were prophets sent to the Jewish people. The king, who is God in this story, becomes furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. Many’s a pogrom, not to mention a crusade or two, has been launched using such rhetoric as this! Still more workers are sent out into the streets and they collect everyone they met, good and bad alike until the King’s hall was filled with guests.  But the King/God, is not impressed when the King notices one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. When the guest refuses to explain himself, the King/God commands that he be bound hand and foot and thrown out into the darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Ha, Ha! Many are called, but few are chosen.

Obviously, we are the chosen few. Obviously, those ones, those people, the ones out there wailing and gnashing their teeth, they are not among the chosen.  If this is the Gospel of Christ, then I’ll be damned. If this is the Gospel of Christ, it is not a gospel worth proclaiming!  If this is the Gospel of Christ, count me out.

 I spent a good deal of time this week, explore the many, many, sermons that have been written about this particular gospel reading. A good many preachers wrapped themselves up in all sorts of theological knots trying to explain this one. But try as most of them did to proclaim this as gospel, as good news, most of them rang hollow, bereft of any good news and certainly incapable of rendering any sort of inclusive vision for the future.Only one or two of the talented preachers that I consulted had the courage to declare what we all were taught in seminary.  The truth that I and most of my sisters and brothers who attended seminary in the past 50 years or so learned is that in all likelihood this is not the Gospel of Christ because despite what the anonymous, gospel-story-teller that we call Matthew would have us believe, Jesus of Nazareth never actually told this particular parable.

Oh, Jesus may have told a similar parable, we can find evidence of a similar parable in a story told by the anonymous, gospel-story-teller we call Matthew and something like it in the sayings of the anonymous, gospel-story-teller that we call Thomas, but as for this particular story…  …well according to what the best scholars of our day tells us, Jesus simply didn’t tell this story.  This is a story told by the anonymous, gospel-story-teller that we call Matthew told about what was going on in Palestine at the end of the first century, some 50 or 60 years after the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. This story reflects the tensions between the early followers of Jesus and their Jewish neighbours after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.  This story is a far cry from the one told by the anonymous gospel-story-teller we call Luke, also wrote after the destruction of the Temple, but who lived in a different community with different tensions.

 According to this story a landowner has trouble getting guests to come to the party, so he bypasses the chosen ones, and reaches out to the poor and the outcast and brings them into the party.  In the Gospel of Thomas, which didn’t make it into the Church’s canon, and so we have to go outside of the Bible to read, about similar party, where the man throwing the party also has to go out and bring in the poor and the outcasts. Scholars surmise that Jesus probably told a story about a man having difficulty getting guests to come to his party. Surely, we can relate to this. But are we to proclaim a gospel of inclusion or of exclusion?

Do we have the courage to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds as we endeavor to love our neighbours as we love ourselves?Do we have the courage to engage our minds? I hope so. Sure, it’s more difficult to engage the scriptures like this. Using scripture to interpret scripture is not easy. Jesus got himself killed because he had the audacity to interpret scripture using scripture. The religious and political authorities don’t take kindly to people figuring things out for themselves, even if they do use love as their guide. Good order, rules and regulations, authority, following the rules, doing things the way we have always done things well, the words darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, come to mind when I survey the abuses of religious institutions. Judgement and Exclusion or Inclusive Grace these are choices that have been agonized over by generations.  LOVING God with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds as we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, opens us to the pain and suffering of those who sit in darkness wailing and gnashing their teeth. It is not the most attractive party, but it is the party that we have been invited to attend. We can ignore what’s happening in the darkness and close our ears to the wailing. Or we can have the courage to see beyond the safety of rules and regulations, beyond the comfort of traditions, to think for ourselves beyond the confines of the way we’ve always done things.     

Thinking, imagining, dreaming, visioning beyond the confines of the stories we have always been told, will certainly change the tenor and the texture of the party. But then we strive to follow the One who came that we might have life, and live it abundantly.  Now that’s an invitation to a party that I don’t want to miss.

Each one of us has been invited to be LOVE in the world! We have been chosen to extend the invitation so that everyone is included in the LOVE that we call God. This dear sisters and brothers, is the Gospel of Christ! Praise to you O Christ, Creator and Spirit, ONE!     

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