No Shirt, No Shoes, No Salvation

October 12, 2008

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 22     Matthew 22:1-14


In recounting his own spiritual journey Barack Obama describes his mother’s scepticism about religion: “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb or piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.” [The Audacity of Hope, p 203].


When I listen to Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet, I can appreciate her view. Matthew has Jesus telling about a king who prepares a lavish wedding feast for his son, but the guests don’t show up. Miffed, he sends his soldiers to kill them. He then invites the hoi poloi off the streets. However, one shows up dressed inappropriately. When challenged by the king about why, he remains silent. The king responds by having him unceremoniously tossed from the party into the outer darkness where he is expected to weep and gnash his teeth. This Matthew says is the kingdom of heaven.


In the US many restaurants have a sign on the front door: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Matthew’s parable posts a similar sign on the pearly gates: “No shirt, no shoes, no salvation.” It certainly doesn’t sound heavenly to me.


This parable an example of all that is wrong with religion. Because I can’t remember ever hearing a good sermon on it I went online to see if I had just been unlucky. After reading half a dozen more, I had to stop. I was having trouble controlling my gag-reflex. I wish I could assure you that this sermon will turn the tide, but I fear as I grow older I’m becoming more like McCain – grumpier and crankier about the institution I’ve devoted my life too. I see in this parable the seeds of my church’s demise.


But I’m using language too loosely. This parable really isn’t a parable. It is an allegory. Jesus didn’t tell allegories, but Matthew loved them. What’s the difference? For Jesus a parable is an extended metaphor. It is a short narrative usually raising a single spiritual point. It is intended to be less an answer than an intriguing glimpse of a hidden reality. His parables are often surprising and paradoxical. He tells them to break us out of our preconceived and life-sapping notions. Matthew, on the other hand, had a theological axe to grind. For him a good allegory slightly veiled was a useful rhetorical device to argue his point. An allegory uses a fictional story to represent a specific situation, with the intention of arguing a moral to the story. It is intended to tell us how to think and behave, while a parable opens up our thinking that we might creatively pursue abundant life.


Matthew’s allegory of the wedding banquet is fictionalising a real conflict going on while he is writing his Gospel. Jews who were following the radical teachings of the Nazarene were increasingly suspect by the orthodox. To their way of thinking Jesus’ followers were undermining the social structure by challenging the purity laws. They were threatening the neighbourhood by being open to receiving Gentiles. The result was the Nazarenes were being cast out of the synagogues and condemned as heretics. Matthew was one of those Nazarene’s. He responds to rejection by castigating his fellow Jews (planting the seeds of the church’s later anti-Semitism), and claiming the outcast Nazarenes are the new Israel.


In his allegory of the wedding banquet those who reject the invitation of the king are the Jews. The king, in case you missed it, is God and the bridegroom’s Jesus. The servants that he sends to convince them to come are the prophets and finally Jesus, who in an earlier allegory we heard last week is the cornerstone the builders rejected. When the king destroys the Jews he is destroying Jerusalem. The B-guest list who are subsequently invited to the feast are those the purity laws excluded, the poor. The invitation itself is God’s grace offered the undeserving, the good and the bad alike. It is less clear who is the unfortunate guest tossed for bad fashion sense. If he represents the poor, Matthew does not explain how he was supposed to get a black tie for the event. But most scholars suggest that the guest is an allegorical figure for those who after receiving God’s grace are judged as not living a life reflective of the kingdom. For Matthew it is all about being saved and there are no second chances. Those who don’t accept Jesus are killed. Those who accept him but don’t wear a cloak of righteousness are tossed into hell. Matthew was quite fond of describing Hell as involving lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He was also big on judgment.


Down through the centuries the church has shown a fondness for this allegory. God as judge and king are favoured metaphors of the divine and the church has only been too happy to serve as God’s fashion police. Matthew has been used to justify the Crusades, the Inquisition, burning heretics and, less dramatically, excommunication.


As the sermons I scanned online will attest many preachers are still fond of the allegory as well. They wax poetic about God’s grace offered to everyone, but then with relish turn their attention to those who are not convinced by their rhetoric. They pronounce judgment with as much zeal as Matthew’s King-Judge God. The only difference between Matthew and them is that the fashions have changed. The cloak of righteousness now belongs to those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They are not too concerned about what is beneath the cloak. A Sarah Palin gets to stay at the party no matter how vile and racist her campaign remarks. A Barack Obama gets tossed no matter how “Christian” he “claims” to be because he does not condemn people of other faiths or lifestyles the Palin Christians find objectionable.


Is there any wonder that Christianity is losing its appeal in developed countries? Using Jesus to bash and judge just doesn’t draw the numbers it once did.


Two years ago at the Diocesan Synod a strategic plan for growing the Anglican Church in Auckland was proposed and passed. It is a startling document that focuses on what the diocese must do to respond to the anticipated population growth in the area. It cites projections that the area will grow by 400,000 over the next 20 years.


The document reassures us that people will still need the Gospel. In words that sound more like someone whistling past the graveyard, it asserts bravely, “We should not expect its demise or failure.” The reason we should be confident is that we have various resources, property, money, experience and our traditions. Lastly, we have good intentions and are capable of being intentional. How should we be intentional? Buy land, train more clergy (yeah right, just what we need), close or merge underperforming congregations, partner with other Tikanga or denominations; coach parishes in trouble in the latest church growth methods are amongst the suggestions. If we do all that, it says without irony, we might get 1.5% or 6000 of that 400,000 who are coming to Auckland.


This pathetic goal is the fruit of Matthew’s allegory. The Gospel has gotten lost in judgment. I would have more hope for diocesan growth if at least somewhere in its 30 pages it suggested we had to rediscover the Gospel message of love and acceptance and develop ministries that offered it to all 400,000 newcomers whether or not they ever sit in an Anglican pew. I don’t base that opinion on my bleeding heart liberal views but on a statistic that is not in the report. While St Matthew’s doesn’t have the biggest budget in the diocese and comes nowhere close to having the largest Sunday attendance, no Anglican parish comes close to us in the number of weddings or, more importantly, baptisms we celebrate annually. There is only one reason. We have no preconditions to being married or baptised. All are welcome, just as all are welcome at Communion. Maybe there is something to our focus on inclusive grace rather than righteous judgment. Allegorically speaking, we seek to be one of Jesus’ parables; not one of Matthew’s allegories.


We justify our position on Jesus’ parable of the banquet that Matthew has reshaped. There are two other existing versions of the parable, one in Luke and one in the Gospel of Thomas. Theirs are quite different from Matthew’s. Less allegorical they focus on the point that the heavenly banquet table is open to all without condition.


There is also a third version no one wrote down – the one Jesus told. By comparing the three, scholars believe we can begin to uncover what might have been in Jesus’ original parable. In his there would have been no king; he’s only in Matthew’s. Those who refused to come would not have been killed. That’s only in Matthew’s. No one would’ve been tossed. Again, that unfortunate guest only goes to Matthew’s banquet. What would have remained is simply this, people are free to choose to come to the party or not, but all are invited to share in abundant life, especially those who society rejects. So, if Jesus had included in his parable the guest without black tie, he would’ve welcomed him to the banquet table, contrary to Matthew. That is a message worth proclaiming and building a church upon. Maybe even Obama’s mama might attend such a church.

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