What place vengeance?

15 October 2017
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23A (RCL)

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

For all his effort to find a way for Gentiles to live by the spirit of the law as they join the Christian community, and his assurance that the spirit of the law will stand unaltered, Matthew has a harsh attitude toward his fellow religionists, the Jews. This parable, read as an allegory, clearly suggests that the destruction of Jerusalem was due to the failure of the Jews (those first invited, a word very similar in Greek to “chosen” or “elect”) to come to the wedding feast of the Son. In line with the parable of the vineyard, we might call this Matthew’s sour grapes.

And the episode of the man without the wedding garment suggests that Matthew wants to draw the boundaries of his community as tightly as the elect had drawn theirs. Given the persecution Matthew’s community might have experienced, this closing of the boundaries might seem almost excusable, except for the centerpiece of the Gospel, the reign of Jesus from the cross. In the death of Jesus, at least as Paul portrays it, Jesus accepts into the divine self all the vengeful violence human beings can do to one another and puts it to death. Matthew is much more of a supersessionist than is Paul.

In last week’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul said that if anyone had reason to boast in the flesh (the arena in which distinctions are drawn), he had more: a Hebrew born of Hebrews, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, as to the law of Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But all of that he counted as worthless compared to the righteousness of Christ, in which Jew and Greek eat together. For Paul, the Christian Church does not supersede Israel, but is grafted onto it. The proper attitude to unreformed Israel is grief, not anger.

Israel, of course, had toyed with vengeance in the Psalms and the prophets of restoration. Ultimately, however, the prophets began to reflect on Israel’s suffering as somehow redemptive for the world. The Christians picked up this theme (the suffering servant of Isaiah), and applied it to Jesus, none more thoroughly than Matthew. Yet, here, he seems to slip back into vengeance.

The passage from Exodus might be a helpful contrast to Matthew. Israel makes a golden calf (two actually, in the story of Jereboam’s rebellion), and God intends to destroy them for their faithlessness, but for Moses’ intercession. If Christians, following in Israel’s vocation, are to be the high priestly caste for the world, then our vocation is to intercede for those who otherwise might be liable to God’s wrath, or indeed for all the suffering. Christ has already accepted into the divine self all the vengeful violence humans can do to one another, so we are called to extend that peace of God to all. Hard to remember under wrongful persecution, but all the more important when we see others so suffering.

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