Sunday, 12 October 2014

Under the Mask: A Sermon based on Matthew 22:1-14

Weddings have the strange potential to bring out the very best and very worst in human behaviour. From time to time when I get a quiet half hour, I visit a parenting website which has a section called AIBU?, which stands for ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’ People describe a particular situation, or their view on a situation, then ask, Am I Being Unreasonable? It’s a grand old waste of half an hour so to see what passes for reasonableness these days.  One topic that comes up again and again in this ‘Am I Being Unreasonable’ section is that of family weddings. Am I being unreasonable not to go to this wedding when I haven’t been invited to the sit-down reception dinner? Am I being unreasonable to take my children to this wedding even though they haven’t been named on the invitation? Am I being unreasonable to expect my guests to RSVP in time when we are paying so much for our wedding? More than any other family occasion, as I say, weddings bring out the very best and very worst in people. I love taking weddings, getting to know the couple and sharing in their joy and excitement, and every wedding I’ve taken so far has been truly lovely, but every now and again I have picked up on an air of disgruntlement or discord between members of a wedding party which is normally very well disguised on the big day itself. Very occasionally, there can be a great contrast between the loveliness of the wedding, and the undercurrent of unresolved issues just beneath the surface.      
In our Gospel reading we’ve heard one of Jesus’ sterner parables, a wedding story that doesn’t quite end in happily ever after. If it’s not too flippant, I could just imagine this parable in the Am I Being Unreasonable section: Am I Being Unreasonable to not to turn up this wedding? I’m a bit busy that day on the farm….Am I being unreasonable to burn this city down? After all, not a single one of my guests turned up my wedding? Am I being unreasonable to invite anyone and everyone to this wedding, even though I have no idea who any of them are? Am I being unreasonable go along to this wedding wearing my jeans; I wasn’t even on the original guest list? Am I being unreasonable to throw this person out of the reception? He hadn’t even bothered to get dressed up!

This parable, like weddings themselves, is a minefield of social conventions, and it’s been a theological minefield for centuries too. This parable has been used to prop up Christian anti-semitism, to say that the Jewish people are the ones who failed to respond to God’s invitation and that Christians are those who have been invited to take the place of the Jewish people as God’s honoured guests. It won’t surprise you to hear that I see this as a gross, and dangerous misunderstanding of the parable, one that I refute very strongly.

Instead, I think it’s important that we look a bit more broadly at this parable to try and pick our own way through what’s happening and why. If we read the Gospel of Matthew, we’ll see that this is the final in a series of three parables denouncing the Pharisees, and if we read on a bit more, we’ll see that these three parables are leading up to an explosive exposé of the Pharisees. We’ll see that these Pharisees have been on Jesus’ case for some while, trying to catch him out, setting up elaborate Am I Being Unreasonable scenarios to see how he’ll react, and as Jesus continues in his ministry, the tension between him and the Pharisees mounts to the climax of chapter 23 when, over and over again in vivid metaphors, Jesus denounces the Pharisees as hypocrites who look impressively holy on the outside but whose hearts are hard and cold, who fulfil their religious duties not out of love but out of the desire to impress, to be noticed and admired.

Now these are harsh words, especially when you consider that the Pharisees were the Jewish men who performed their religious duties excellently and conscientiously. They were the one who, although they weren’t priests themselves, believed that all people are called to live as holy a life as the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. They excelled in their religious devotion. They were just the sort of people you would think God would be most proud of.

And yet the tragedy of these religious perfectionists was that in amongst all their impressive worship and service, there was one thing they hadn’t seen to, and it turns out that that one thing is, ultimately, the only thing that God wants from us. That one thing is our hearts. If you read through what Jesus says of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, you’ll see that what gets him so angry is the great contrast between who they are on the outside, and who they are on the inside.  The word ‘hypocrite’ comes from Greek drama; it literally means ‘under the mask’.

It wasn’t that God had had enough of the Jewish people and wanted to replace then with a newer model; it’s that God’s own heart is grieved when people make such an impressive show of being religious that their religion becomes a mask for them to hide behind so that the person they really are, the person under the mask, is hard, cold, and distant from him.  Hypocrites exist in all religions and, dare I say it, we are all hypocrites at times. We all put on masks that shield our true, hurting selves from the Jesus who would come to bring us healing, because, frankly, healing can hurt, as anyone who’s ever recovered from an operation might tell you.

Being un-hypocritical doesn’t mean always telling everything about yourself to everyone you meet all the time; it takes wisdom to know what to share with people, how an when we share things that are personal or difficult. But avoiding hypocrisy dos mean having somewhere in your life where the truth about who you are, and the truth as you see it from where you are standing, is told. I would suggest that Sunday mornings, our shared time of encounter with Jesus, should be a one of those places of truth-telling.  

So, to look at the parable: it’s a wedding story about a host who is both determined and lavish. He doesn’t give up when no-one turns up; he doesn’t lose heart, he keeps on searching out guests, however unsuitable those guests are. But he is also a host who wants his guests to be there body and soul, to enter into the party. In his parable, the clothes represent the attitude of the guest. As I’ve said, if you read on in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll see that Jesus has harsh words for people who look the part on the outside but whose hearts are cold, hard and distant. So the guest who is thrown out for not wearing celebration clothes - this isn’t about clothes at all, it’s about the heart.

So this is a parable with a challenge for us this morning: We might be here in body, but are we here in spirit? Do we respond to God’s gracious invitation with gratitude, or grudgingly, or not at all? Can we be like the Pharisees, be one thing on the outside and quite another on the inside? Do we hide behind a mask? Are we scared that if we let our mask slip, God won’t love us, people won’t accept us? If you read on a little further still in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll hear some beautiful words of Jesus, lamenting over those whose masks were perfect and perfectly in place: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ That same Jesus desires to gather us together as his people here in this place today. May we be willing to let him in, to let him past the masks and beyond the outward face we present to the world, and may we be willing to let him gather up all in us that is lost or hurting or needy, as we bring him our unmasked selves in the Eucharist. Amen. 

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