Monday, October 10, 2011

Hunger as Hope

Matthew 22:1-14

M*A*S*H is one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Though there are often some rather racy parts, the overall story lines were often pretty good lessons of the good that can still come in the midst of the tragedy and chaos of war.

There is one particular episode that occurred to me just this morning as I was still struggling with what to share with you, and I recalled a particular episode featuring the elitist Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. If you are not familiar with the character, Maj. Winchester was a snooty, though exceptional surgeon who thought himself to be above all those he worked with, but he often was faced with situations that challenged his high-brow attitude and brought him low, down with the rest of us.

In this episode set during Christmas, Maj. Winchester's family had sent to him boxes of high-dollar chocolates with which to share with the local orphans. The family tradition he was going to continue in Korea was one whose custom it was to leave the candy at the door of those less fortunate - and remain anonymous.

Maj. Winchester discovered later that the headmaster at the orphanage where he had delivered these chocolates had taken that expensive candy and sold it on the black market. When he confronted the headmaster and demanded that the candy be reacquired and given to the children as intended, the headmaster did not deny that he had sold the candy. But he also told the major that the candy brought good money on the black market and enabled him to buy enough rice and cabbage to feed the orphans for an entire month. The headmaster was humbled and apologetic for having spoiled Maj. Winchester's family tradition, but it was Maj. Winchester who had been truly humbled. He came to realize, as he stated, that "it is inappropriate to offer dessert to a child who's had no meal."

It occurred to me that the wedding robe in Jesus' parable could represent the "meal" the poor man had been lacking, for it is the lack of this robe that caused the king to put the man out from the banquet and cast him "into outer darkness". "For many are called, but few are chosen."

What makes such a contention awkward, however, is that the man is being put out of the banquet as a means of punishment; as judgment for having been found lacking in the one thing he would have needed in order to be allowed to stay. Scholars and theologians have questioned the meaning of the robe itself since the very early days of the Church. Some had suggested that the wedding robe represents the Covenant by baptism while others insisted the robe had to represent "charity", that form of love which gives of itself above and beyond one's own desires and preferences. More contemporary preachers have insisted that the robe itself, in order to make one worthy of one's presence at the banquet, must surely represent faith in Christ. That one does make sense, of course, because we cannot by any human standards or means make ourselves worthy to be in the presence of the "king". We are offered that grace, that unmerited favor, by the Lord alone.

Jesus said, "My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed" (John 6:55 NKJV), but surely there is still something that must come before this - not from the Lord's hand but from within each of us. We must have a reason to strive, to ask questions, to seek answers. We must have a reason to endure all the obstacles as well as opportunities that are put before us in this life. And we must understand that the call to come forward and embrace the Lord and His covenant is born of something deep within us that gives us a reason to answer that call, a reason to believe that call is worth answering: hope. "For many are called, but few are chosen."

How are we "chosen"? What can we do, what MUST we do so that we can even "hear", let alone "heed" that call? Very simple. We must deny ourselves "dessert" before we've had the "meal". With all respect due our vegetarian and vegan friends, we must first endure the "meat and potatoes" before we dare reach for the "fluffy cake". Surely we have discovered over time that which nourishes and strengthens our bodies ... and that which, while sweet and pleasing to the palate, adds nothing of substance to our bodies - except maybe a little more "body" than we need! Dessert only pleases the senses, but it adds nothing of lasting value to that which we truly need.

"Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day [of the Lord] come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch, therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:34-36).

Jesus does not make it easy. In Luke's gospel Jesus questions our allegiance to Him: "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord' and not do the things which I say" (6:46)? And we cannot ignore the parable of the talents (Mt 25:1-30) Jesus tells to make the point that even slaves or servants of the master, who clearly "believe" there is a master, cannot simply "sit" on or "bury" what has been entrusted to their care not for their own benefit but for the benefit of the master who will, inevitably and eventually, return and require an accounting.

So the robe cannot simply represent a vague "faith" in something or an empty proclamation in a Lord we never knew (by ignorance of scripture) nor can the robe be tied exclusively to a religious practice such as baptism or even Holy Communion, sacramental and necessary though these may be. I think maybe St. Augustine and St. Gregory were closer to the mark in suggesting the wedding robe must necessarily invest heavily in "charity", that sacrificial form of love that requires much of self but seems to offer little in the way of rewards we seem more inclined to desire.

Yet we know - or should know - by scriptural proclamation that such charity offers much. Love is all-encompassing and surpasses all else we may or may not do in this life. Love is indeed its own reward and for its own sake - and not for the sake of what we may intend to acquire for ourselves. But even love itself requires something. As demanding as love can often be, we have before us a reason to love, a reason to give of ourselves, a reason to invest in something that may or may not have an immediate return but which will benefit someone else.

We hope. We dare to hope. We have reason to hope. We follow Christ not because He leaves candy or money on the path by which to know His path. Instead He leaves bread; enough bread to sustain us but not enough by which we may overindulge. Enough bread to let us know it is good and that more is to be desired, but not so much that we stop following because we are full. Enough bread that we are satisfied but hungry enough to pursue its source. Enough bread to sustain the hope that there is more, but WE MUST PURSUE IT. We must follow His path. We must obey His Word and His teachings. We are "guaranteed" nothing so that we stop pursuing, but we are given enough that we dare to hope for more!

The path is not an easy one. Nothing worth pursuing ever is, but we continue in pursuit not because we "expect" anything to be handed to us on a silver platter but because we know the work that is to be done for Him gives others a reason to have hope. And when they hope, we hope.

The very reason why the precise meaning of the wedding robe is not readily made known by Jesus may be His reason to keep such a meaning shrouded in mystery. If He were to have stated very plainly what the robe represented, we might be inclined to say "Oh", and then remove ourselves from further inquiry. He could have chosen to make it easier for us to understand precisely what He meant - and what He means for us today - but should we not realize by now that we learn nothing until we have endured something? Do we not realize that in our own earthly goals and plans that we actively engage and pursue not because of a "guarantee" but because we can hope for something on the other end? Why would the path and the life Jesus calls us to be any different, any less engaging, any less challenging and difficult?

It is not so that our journey is made more difficult than it already is. It is so that upon the Day of the Lord, perhaps He will turn to see and count those who are following, those who are hungry and yet hopeful that He has a robe just for you ... and for me.

He does, you know. "Many are called", indeed, but perhaps those who are actually "chosen" are those who have been actively engaged in and with Him in the difficult journey we call "life". But we must follow HIM. Through Scripture. It is His revelation, it is His Word manifest in our lives today. It is our very hope, our reason to persevere, our reason to endure to the very end. Where our robe will be waiting.

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