One of the many gifts scripture gives us is the ability to stand back, thousands of years later, and learn how countless generations have known and encountered God. Even looking at the experience of more recent generations, you can see how God has been active in different people’s lives in different ways. My faith is different from even my family’s faith. My dad was raised in a different denomination, so his faith is very black and white, very action oriented. Meanwhile my mom’s faith is more spiritual and individual than mine. I have an aunt and uncle and cousins who are very active in their big city mega churches, and I have other family who are spiritual but not religious. My great Grandfather was a Lutheran pastor from the 1910’s through the 50’s here in Texas, and his experience of God in the midst of two world wars, the great depression, the post-war church booms, was drastically different than mine. I inherited many of his theology books, and when I read in those old books about the role of women or people of color in the church, I can’t help but think about how differently we have read and interpreted the same bible. How differently we have known the same God, and the same Christian church.
If all that can shift from person to person, generation to generation, imagine in the several thousand-year span that the bible comes to us from, how many different experiences of God must be within that. Scripture is a collection of generations of God’s people’s experiences with God – wrestling with God, praising God, encountering God, trying to understand God and pass on what they know to future generations so they may know God too. With that being said, people are going to experience God differently because of their circumstances. The Israelites enslaved in Egypt may have had very different understandings of God than those born during the rule of king David, in the golden ages of Israel. Likewise, the Jewish temple leaders during Jesus’ lifetime had very different experiences and understandings of God than the Gospel writer Matthew and his community of Christians just a few decades later. That doesn’t make any of their experiences more right or wrong than others, because their contexts are different, but it offers us a bigger picture of the God we all know through psalms and parables and stories that are passed down through generations.
One of the difficulties this presents is what to do with completely contradictory accounts of the same God. Our gospel text for today is a great example of this – a parable that portrays a king, who we generally assume is an allegory for God, whose character seems power hungry, cruel, petty, violent, and so inconsistent with the God we’ve come to know through Christ. This parable has been used at times to justify colonialism, violence against Jews and other non-Christians, tyranny of rulers and political leaders over their people.
And yet, we cannot write off or ignore difficult texts just because we in our modern lenses view them as problematic. In ignoring texts like today’s Gospel, we disregard ways of being Christian that we do not agree with, creating we’re in and you’re out hierarchy that so much of scripture warns us against. Or perhaps worse, only accepting parts of scripture that align with our agenda of what we want God to be or not to be. In doing these things, we lose so much of the relationship we are called to be in – the relationship God has had with his people for all time – that of knowing God’s goodness and mercy and abundance, but also of wrestling and questioning and challenging things we don’t understand, all of which bring us into deeper relationship with God. Scripture invites us into that deepened relationship by letting us encounter God in the ways that those before us have, while often using familiar images to make those lessons more tangible. In the last several weeks, it has been the image of a vineyard, but this week it is a feast with an open invitation.
Today in our lectionary texts, we encounter God through 3 different feasts. First in Isaiah, where it tells of a day when the Lord of heaven’s armies will prepare a wonderful feast for all people of the world, with choice food and drinks, where death and sorrow and animosity will be gone forever, and where all people will together praise God for his salvation. Isaiah continues on to tell about how Moab, Israel’s enemy nation, will be crushed, so even in the midst of a feast God invites all people of the world to, the presence of enemies is still acknowledged simultaneously with the hope of a future where all people can be united in rejoicing in the Lord.
In our Psalm for today, we revisit the imagery of a banquet that the Lord has prepared for us, again in the presence of our enemies. Psalm 23 is a depiction of God’s presence among us, amid images of the rod and the staff God uses to protect us and keep us in line. Psalm 23 offers hope through God’s presence and protection even in the darkest times in life.
Then we come to our Gospel text from Matthew 22, which takes a much stranger approach to the idea of invitation to the banquet. This time, it is a banquet no one seems to want to come to, where the one throwing the banquet has more at stake than the ones invited. This parable uses the familiar imagery of a wedding banquet to reveal more about the kingdom of God, which those to whom this parable was first being told must have needed to hear, even if it makes less sense to us today. So this parable is not at all peaceful like the table by the green grass and nice still waters of Psalm 23, or triumphant like the grand, heavenly banquet with the heavenly host and all the people of the world in Isaiah. But it uses that same familiar experience we can all relate to, to portray a different experience of God we may need to hear and could not have understood otherwise.
Throughout scripture, both old testament and new, feasts are one of the primary metaphors of God’s love. God’s love comes through even when it is side by side with images of fear. In Isaiah, God’s love is what defeats death and tears, in Psalm 23, God’s love protects and comforts in the valley of the shadow of death. In Matthew 22, the king’s love comes through his open invitation to all people, regardless of worthiness, to take part in the abundance of the kingdom. In all three of our readings, the details are different, but the image and the message are the same. That message remains the same from generation to generation. From ancient Israel, to the temple leaders of Jerusalem, to my great grandfather, my parents, myself, and all of you. God has prepared a great feast for us all, offering his love, his abundance, his joyful triumph, his protection from our enemies, and so much more. There’s room at the table for all of us. God has made sure of it.