Today in the Spirit: Proper 23A

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In Year A, Proper 23 takes us to the third in that series of parables in Matthew delivered by Jesus to the chief priests and the Pharisees in Jerusalem. The Parable of the Wedding Feast, focused on the invitation to and rejection by a first set of privileged guests, highlights the condemnation that results from squandering the wonderful opportunity the coming of the kingdom of heaven affords in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Since Matthew has already registered the offense taken by the religious leaders specifically after the first two parables (see 21:45-46), it is likely this parable is delivered with the whole people of Israel in mind. Matthew’s version of this parable is distinct from Luke’s in many ways (see Luke 14:16-24), the biggest being the addition of an encounter between the king hosting the banquet and a guest who has managed to crash the party without a wedding garment (11-13).

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The assigned OT reading from Isaiah 25:1-9 makes an obvious connection to Matthew’s parable with a prophetic vision of the LORD of hosts making for all peoples a feast of rich food and wine on Mount Zion. The church is assigned Psalm 23 here for the third time in Year A (Lent 4A and Easter 4A earlier), this time with our meditation turned to the final verses beginning with, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows (5).

While the last in the series of NT readings appointed from Philippians may make no intentional connection to the theme like the other readings do, hearing Philippians 4:4-13 we can imagine ourselves among those who have recently arrived at the great wedding banquet of the Father God and crying out, Rejoice in the Lord always. The assigned Collect this week is one among many petitioning God to hear and respond to “the devout prayers of your Church.” 

The Collect

O God, our refuge and strength, true source of all godliness: Graciously hear the devout prayers of your Church, and grant that those things which we ask faithfully, we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

You Have Been…You Will Make (Isaiah 25:1-9)

For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
    a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
    a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat;
for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, 

    like heat in a dry place.
You subdue the noise of the foreigners;
    as heat by the shade of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is put down.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.

And he will swallow up on this mountain
    the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations (4-7).

The prophet has received from YHWH a vision of the devastation of all the earth and the reign of the LORD of hosts on Mount Zion. This leads to a song of praise, probably from Isaiah, that could be titled “On this Mountain.” In connection with our Gospel reading for the Sunday, he sings: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.

Devotionally, one thing we need to observe in this song is the confidence arising in the future based on the experience of God’s deliverance in the present. So: For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress (2, maybe referring to a deliverance from Moab) leads to the expansive promise, He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken (8).

As Christians, we can look at the coming of Jesus and the cross as something of a fulfillment of the vision of the feast. Friends, it is indeed a start, but hardly the height of our revelry. That is yet to come. We are intended, like Isaiah in this passage, to allow the deliverance of Jesus’ death and resurrection to work in us a hunger for more, much more, from our God. Here in a letter from C.S. Lewis about the right attitude for celebrating Easter, we grasp the concept:

Away with tears and fears and troubles! United in wedlock with the eternal Godhead Itself, our nature ascends into the Heaven of Heavens, so it would be impious to call ourselves “miserable.” On the contrary, man is a creature who angels—were they capable of envy—would envy. Let us lift up our hearts!

Today, Holy Spirit, work in my heart what we see evident in the prophet Isaiah here and many saints in Scripture. Grateful to you for what you have done in union with the Father and the Son, give me a taste for the banquet to come.

Surely Goodness and Mercy Shall Follow Me All the Days of My Life (Psalm 23)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.

    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

It is the promise of a table where there is anointing with oil and a cup overflowing that connects this psalm with our Gospel reading this week. Where the image of feasting in the house of the LORD has a feeling of final destination, the other places “David” imagines, though more like rest stops along the pilgrim’s highway to the temple, are equally desirable–the green pastures and the still waters and the paths of righteousness.  

Sometimes I just want to get to my destination without stopping to appreciate the gifts God has placed on the paths to get there. There are points in this mortal life where the sights and sounds (and silences) we must not pass by too quickly. Even the painful poke of the Shepherd’s staff keeping me on the right road or the horrific fright of his fending off my enemies with his rod merit our appreciation. In this regard, we must not miss Paul’s exhortation in the Epistle reading: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6). Here is the reflection of a saint who has learned to envision God not only at the destination but at every point along the way.

Holy Spirit, I wait for my arrival at the heavenly banquet. But today, with your help, I will enjoy the many waystations of grace you have provided for me as I travel. Thank you for the fellowship of family and friends and the saints of the church. Thank you for the good work you have given me to do to collaborate in your cause. Thank you for your word which keeps the path in view for me, and for the Holy Communion providing both sustenance on the journey and a foretaste of the final feast.

Guard Your Hearts and Your Minds (Philippians 4:4-13)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4-7).

I find two references to the phrase guard your heart(s) in Scripture. The only other besides  Paul’s here is in Proverbs 4:23, Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. The Scriptures carry a mixed bag of references as to whether or not it is God or us responsible for keeping watch over our heart, the Hebraic way of labeling that internal seat of thought, emotion, and will in all human beings. See on one hand Psalm 141:3-4, a prayer that God would do the guarding for us, and on the other Luke 12:1,15, where we are responsible for vigilance. 

There is no real contradiction in the biblical messaging. We don’t have to choose between one side of the coin or the other–both God and we are involved. In fact, the paradox is better illustrated not by a static coin but a coin flip in the air: The head and the tail still exist but in motion become invisible in a beautiful rotating stream. You can’t explain it, nor can you take your eyes off it.

Today, Holy Spirit, guard our hearts and our minds in the church, and make us fit to guard them, through the gift of rejoicing in Christ Jesus and the peace of God beyond understanding that comes with it.  

The King Came to Look at the Guests (Matthew 22:1-14)

[Jesus to the religious leaders in Jerusalem]: “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (11-14).

In response to the parables of Jesus there are many places where the audience is meant to say, for instance, “A Samaritan would never act like this” or “a father would never do that.” And these are the places where we need to pay the most attention. “What king,” we might insist at the end of the Parable of the Feast, “would ever be searching among the guests at his feast who is wearing a wedding garment or not?” No earthly king, perhaps–but Jesus, the master storyteller, would put before us a striking image of final judgment. The king himself is front and center. The I myself language in Ezekiel 34 helps us see the hands-on activity of the LORD God in both his saving work and final judgment: For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out (11); and later, Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep (20).

Devotionally, we can take heart from knowing that both the invitation to enter God’s kingdom and the condemnation leading to exclusion from it is in the best possible hands. Whether you believe the wedding garment in the parable is meant to be the king’s own gift (like Christ’s righteousness) or every invitee’s own clothes (like personal faith in Christ), the expectation that everyone should have the garment is equally reasonable. And in either case, the king’s judgment against the man for not having the correct garment is fairly meted out. It is for us to make sure our ticket to remain at the feast is in hand; and, once that is secured, to do everything possible to make sure others know that they must be prepared for our God and King at judgment.

Today, in the Spirit, thankful for our own faith in Christ we carry with us always, Lord Jesus, show me where I might encourage others to put their faith in Christ alone while there is time to prepare for the feast. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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