THE WEDDING INVITATION
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Nicole and I once received a wedding invitation from a cousin. We would have liked to go to the wedding, but it was in a different city and it wasn’t the easiest thing. One of the things spelled out in the invitation was a dress code. The bride was a bit of a celebrity – there would be press coverage and so on. The dress code stated black tie. Black tie doesn’t happen to be one of the things I can do without a rental. It was a bit of a barrier to us going, and in the end, we didn’t go.
Throughout these weeks we’re considering the question “What is this?” What kind of Messiah is this Jesus? What does it mean to follow such a Messiah? Last week we looked at Jesus’ appearing and baptism. Since then he has started his ministry, announcing the Kingdom of God, calling for repentance. Calling for people to follow him. Healing. Forgiving. Jesus has started to stir up controversy. “What right does he have to forgive sins?” is the question of the scribes, the religious leaders.
In the middle of this, we have this story of the calling of Matthew, and this question about fasting. The questions revolve around two things – who is Jesus eating with and what is (or is not) being eaten. Let us look at our text this morning and hear what God has to say to our hearts. Let us pray.
In typical Mark fashion, two verses to describe the call of Levi. “Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alpheus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” There’s much conjecture about what kind of tax collector Matthew was, did he work directly for the Romans or for Herod Antipas who ruled the region? There is talk in the commentaries about how he was truly turning his back on his vocation for this new calling, as there would no returning it to once he left it.
This is what we do know from Mark. Levi was a tax collector. A collaborator with occupying Roman forces. Usually, one who sought monetary gain on the backs of their Jewish compatriots. An outcast. An outsider. Jesus is crossing boundaries. Levi is not someone with whom you would sit down and have a meal. It would make you impure. The shame of being a tax collector spread even to the tax collector’s family. They were not welcome anywhere.
Matthew answers the call. What happens next? They have a party.
Because the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who threw a banquet. There is no dress code at this banquet. All we need to attend is to know our need for God. All we need to attend is to be hungry, to be thirsty. The call had been issued by the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before. It went like this – “Ho, Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” It was never going to be about attaining some sort of purity before we could sit down with Jesus. It was simply going to be about recognizing our need for him. Recognizing our need for forgiveness, for healing. The forgiveness is freely offered. One writer puts it like this – “Mark presents the call of Levi as an act of forgiveness and a crossing of the boundaries that separate the sinner from God.”
So far so good right? As I said though, Jesus had been causing some controversy. If anyone thought that his calling of and sitting down with Levi was bad, it’s about to get a lot worse! Jesus crossed a boundary with one outsider, and all of a sudden there are a whole bunch of them. “And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him.”
To sit down (literally recline on one elbow as that’s how they ate) to a meal in the 1st century was to accept one another. It was to recognize kinship. It was to identify with one another. Jesus is identifying himself with sinners. We talked about this last week. Jesus is fully identifying himself with us, those in need of forgiveness and healing. All we need to do is recognize our need for forgiveness and healing. Someone has described the attitude around such a meal in Jesus’ time like this – “To be invited to a meal is an honour; to dine with someone is to embrace the familiarity of kinship.” This is the issue with the scribes of the Pharisees at this point. They don’t make their objections known to Jesus, but they make it known to his followers (kind of like don’t tell the pastor but tell a deacon I suppose). “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners.” This is not idle curiosity or even good-willed curiosity as in “Oh that’s new, I wonder why he’s doing that?!” It’s an attitude that says that we have no need of such a Messiah. It’s a righteous attitude – and I say that with a lot of irony, just as I believe Jesus is saying “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Those who believe that that they fully understand what is involved with a right relationship with God are not those who are going to know their need for a Messiah. They are not going to know their need for healing because they think they have it all figured out already.
At heart, this banquet is all about forgiveness. It’s all about healing. The two are very much intertwined in the Gospel of Mark. Note how Jesus answers a question about eating with an answer about healing. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Some think Jesus was actually referring to the scribes of the Pharisees as righteous here but I can’t see it, seeing as they didn’t see what God was doing in front of them. I have come to heal, to forgive. I have come to sit down and eat with you. The meal becomes a demonstration of forgiveness. A meal that is open to all. Forgiveness that is open to all. Sitting down to a meal becomes a demonstration of healing. Sitting down to a meal can be healing! There’s a reason, I think that our words for hospitality and hospital come from the same root – the Latin hospes which means guest and at the same time it means host. The meal becomes a demonstration of God’s forgiveness.
What do we do with this? What kind of Messiah is this and are we prepared to take up the call to follow such a Messiah? There is a clash of worldviews going on in this story. It’s about how a righteous society is formed. Someone has described it like this – “Does one uphold the highest standards of fidelity to God through disassociation from their dilution…” In other words, is loyalty to God best demonstrated by us keeping our distance from those considered tax collectors and sinners, or “…does one transform corruption through engagement with its practitioners?”
I think it’s clear what side Jesus comes down on here.
The question is, who is considered outcasts today? It’s not so much about ritual religious purity anymore, is it? It’s more about socio-economic differences. The poor. The homeless. The mentally ill. The addict. The undocumented immigrant. The refugee. The lonely. The alienated. We might cause a lot of controversy ourselves. I know we did in the neighbourhood and in our church when we started out OOTC ministry. How can you be sitting down with those people?
How can we not?
How can we not when the meal itself becomes a demonstration of the forgiveness that is freely offered in the Kingdom of God? What does this mean to those we invite to sit down and share a meal with us, whether it’s here in church, at our homes, going out? We’ve been sitting down to a meal with some kids from Horizons on a Thursday night, getting to know them. One of them is a young lady from Pakistan who came to Canada with her husband. He was abusive. She left. She ended up on the street, alone. Far from family and anything familiar. She’s been housed now and is working. The staff member at Horizons with whom we arrange this kind of thing was telling me how good it was for her to have something like this to do, something like this to go to. To play volleyball and to share a meal. There’s something more going on than simply sharing a meal though. I believe this. There’s healing going on when God’s forgiveness is being demonstrated and lived.
Because God is always doing something new. This is God’s thing. We’ve been thankful to be seeing this very evidently lately. We’re thankful to have been able to send a team to Northern Quebec and see God doing something new there.
Which is why the disciples are eating. They’re having a party that’s like a wedding party. God is doing something new in the person of Jesus. The question comes “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answers the question with a question – “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” It’s thought that John’s disciples fasted for the sake of repentance. Judaism had one fast day per year, the Day of Atonement. Pharisees tended to fast two days each week – Monday and Thursday. Something new is breaking in with Jesus. Something that cannot be constrained by older religious forms. The Kingdom of God is beyond them. The bridegroom is here and it’s a banquet! It’s a reminder that part of the list of the fruit of the Spirit is joy. God is doing something new! You don’t use new cloth to patch up an old cloak – it’ll ruin it the first time you try to wash it. You don’t put new wine in old wineskins – the fermentation of the new wine will burst the skins. Look to the new! New wine into fresh wineskins! Let’s go!
Hang on though. Don’t forget the old either. There’s a paradox here. You won’t be surprised by that if you’ve been around Blythwood for any length of time, we’re often going on about the paradoxes. New skins for new wine yes. This parable that Jesus is talking about is also concerned with preserving old things – preserving old garments and preserving old wineskins. They can be useful. The time is coming when the bridegroom is taken away from them. Jesus is speaking about his death here. The time would come when we would be awaiting the return of the bridegroom, as we live in the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God.
In so living we need to be able to discern when the new is appropriate and when the old is appropriate. What does doing church look like in the city of Toronto in 2018? Quite different than it looked like 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago no? How is God calling us to take the message of the good news of Christ out from this place in new ways? At the same time old ways need to be incorporated, the same way the early church incorporated things like weekly worship together, psalms, fasting, into their following of Christ. We gather together to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We may practice elements like fasting or solitude. We ask God to help us by his Spirit to discern, to be able to read the signs of the times and know who God calls us to be and how he calls us to take part in his Kingdom work.
Which is about who we eat with, what we eat, and what we don’t eat. It’s like being in a hospital. Things are tough in the hospital. We’re surrounded by a lot of suffering in the hospital. We’re also surrounded by the one who brings healing. Sometimes it’s like a wedding party that we don’t need to wear black tie to. It’s come as you are. Let us accept the invitation and keep on inviting others. May God make these truths ever more clear to us all.