©Rev’d Richard Browning
Exodus 32:1-14 and Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Referendum and Australia says no.
Gaza and the bloody conflict, Israel and Hamas
What are we doing here?
(There are so many other places to be right now!)
And the Cup of Life is literally on the table.
With this cup the death and resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed.
And with the cup, life is on offer.
And here we are, in our bodies, invited to come forward and drink from this cup.
And here, with our bodies we say yes.
Yes to life.
Yes to a love this is freely and abundantly given.
Yes to grace whose forgiveness makes us whole again.
Yes to the dignity of our humanity.
Yes to the dignity of others.
The next Question
So we say yes to life. Of course. How can we not! But how do we choose it? What do we do to participate in life in all its fullness?
I am going to give you my answer, and then with the use of today’s parable show you how I got there.
How do we choose life? By engaging with and pursuing this question: how do I be a neighbour to others?
This question is not ‘who is my neighbour?’ but how do we be one?!
As we have learnt, there is no immunity for some. It has to be immunity for all.
You can’t have security for some unless there is security for all.
You can’t have flourishing for some unless there is flourishing for all.
You can. But it requires the use of walls and brute force.
The Parable part I
Let’s look at the parable. We know that parables are not dogma hidden in story. They are creative provocations demanding the hearer work things out. They are not allegories. Today’s parable is not an allegory, but due to the remarkable parallels with current events, I need to be clear about what I am saying and what I am not saying.
(Edward Luce’s article is helpful and these comments are drawn from his.[i])
It is not a contradiction to say two things.
What Hamas did one week ago today plumbed new depths of bestial cruelty.
And also, considering the abhorrent conditions Palestinians have lived under for decades, a quote from JFK applies: unless peaceful protest and revolution is made possible, violent revolution is inevitable.
Looking in on Gaza, it is apparent, there are two kinds of citizens, one can vote, the other, not. One has free access to water, the other, not. One has access to electricity, education, movement, the other not.
Another way of saying this is, how do we be a neighbour to Israeli? How do we be neighbour to Palestinian?
The Parable part II
Back to the parable. A helpful question to bring to the parable is: what movement or character in the story best reflects the nature of God and the character of Jesus? This is a helpful question in any context.
In asking this question, there is a significant caution, made obvious in the first reading from Exodus. Humans, and it seems, particularly religious humans, are well disposed to self-deception. The people of God have just made a remarkable journey out of slavery into freedom; their feet have barely dried passing through the waters, God has been powerfully present in the cloud by day and the fire by night; the agent of the liberation, Moses, is up on the smoking shaking mountain in conversation with the Lord God and in this moment the people are impatient, wait for it, a God just like the other gods, one you can touch and see. So Aaron obliges, collects the gold and beats and moulds an image of a cow, and boom, the glory of God is exchanged for a beast who has a mouth but cannot speak, ears that cannot hear and feet that cannot move. Right there the people suspend their belief, ignore the hammer prints and finger marks that cover the golden beast that was until moments before, decorating their very bodies and bow down to this new and apparent source of their liberation, “Behold the God who has brought us out of slavery”.
Clue I & II
In light of our capacity for self-deception, there are at least two major clues to help us find the movement or character most akin to the character of Jesus.
The first clue is the cross. And here at St Andrew’s, just for extra measure there is a whopping big figure cast upon it. If we are looking into the heart of violence and wondering where to find Christ, see clearly Christ is not the perpetrator of violence, but its victim.
The second clue is the Cup of Life. This cup carries the wine of the new Covenant, the outpouring of God’s unbreakable bond where not even death can separate us from God’s love.
When we come forward with our bodies and take the Cup saying ‘yes’ to life, we come face to face with our own proclivity for violence and receive in return the life-blood of God’s steadfast love. There is no violence in God. Period.
So in light of all this, who in the parable most reflects the character of Christ?
It is not the murderous King nor his missing son come groom.
It is not the pre-occupied guests, and certainly not the murderous guests.
The character most like Christ is the unrobed guest, the subject of a ruler’s ire, silent as a lamb and the victim of state sponsored extinction.
So what of the king?
It is most likely that when Jesus spoke this parable, his hearers pictured a king in the vein of Herod. Not just because Herod Antipas removed the head of John the Baptist and put it on a plate, nor because he was hunting for Jesus’ death and when told of it Jesus replied with “tell that fox I will stay my course” and looking over Jerusalem, weeping, described himself as a hen longing to shelter her brood under her wings (Luke 13.32fl). However, it is equally likely that the Herod in the minds of his hearers is not Antipas, but his father, Herod the Great. Back in chapter 2 of Matthew’s Gospel we find this Herod courting the wise from the east who bear gifts of gold, frankinsence and myrrh, but not for Herod. When these magi did not return as guests as he invited, he responded with irrational vengeance and slaughtered every two year old boy and younger in the region of Bethlehem, an event known to us as the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Parable part III
(This phrase from Matthew 11.12 is the perfect introduction to the parable: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”[ii])
We arrive then at a reading of this parable.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. He knows death is coming. It is his course. He teaches subversively with a parable, using as a backdrop a despotic ruler seeking validation from his subjects. When invited to the King’s public display of power, those same subjects do as we would and resist using the best excuses they can find. But some are culpably opportunistic and protest with murder. The King’s response is brutal, collective punishment is meted out with fire and a whole city is destroyed.
Citizens are then harried into the banquet, good and bad, no matter, coerced to complete the ruse of dignified rule. So what would you do?
This is where Jesus brings us. And how does the Christ character respond?
Not by quietly joining the banquet and letting things slide for a moment. There is no delighting in a feast while others nearby starve. There is no celebration when a city of people need to be buried.
Nor does the Christ figure respond by protesting in a way that triggers the usual violence, issuing collective punishment and the suffering of innocents.
The Christ figure exposes this ruler’s illegitimacy and takes upon himself the inevitable retribution without passing it on. The Christ figure stands in silent solidarity as a neighbour and resists by conspicuously failing to wear the appointed robe.
So come once more to the Cup of Life.
Human devotion to violence has been met by the outpouring of God’s life-blood and substance of grace.
So we say yes to life;
We say yes to being a neighbour – always a neighbour.
Yes to reconciliation.
Yes to the continued work of listening in circle with First Nation’s peoples and working for Makarrata.
Yes to standing in solidarity with the earth, land, water and sky.
Yes to being a neighbour to Palestinian and Israeli, to any and to all.
Yes to standing with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry in our midst and beyond.
The Cup of Life is on offer.
Come. Receive what Christ offers.
Be filled with the substance that transforms our own
turning us away from our violent inclinations
towards one another as a neighbour filled with grace.
Go with a yes to life and a life spent in neighbourly love that sets others free.
[ii] This essay by Marty Aiken is brilliant: “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet”