Homilies by Father John Bockman

August 27/September 9, 2001
14th Sunday after Pentecost/of Matthew
(Matthew 22:1–14)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today in the life of the Church, the Savior speaks the parable of the Marriage of the King's Son. In this parable the Savior describes a situation involving persons bidden, that is, asked or invited one way or another, to attend the wedding banquet of a king's son. The situation focuses on a series of biddings or invitations, on the nature of the response to those invitations, and on the dress of one man who came. His dress becomes, as it were, a surrogate of his response which is particularly instructive for us. And finally, the parable describes the punishment meted out to those who either refused to come at all or who failed to come suitably dressed. The Savior's immediate listeners understood the cultural norm represented by this situation in the society and country in which they lived. As was to be expected of parables, however, the Savior emphasizes some striking deviations from the cultural norm which are obviously intended to arouse thoughtful repentance among His listeners.

We, of course, are outsiders to the ancient Jewish culture exemplified here, but we have no problem understanding the literal meaning of the parable. Among persons of means, ancient Jewish culture decreed that wedding guests be summoned by messengers when a wedding banquet was ready to begin. Wealthy hosts often called guests to come in several stages. In the first stage, the host would send messengers to the homes of the previously invited guests. Most if not all could be expected to come if they were able. This group of guests would be admitted to the banquet hall first and there they would feast to their fill.

But when these bidden and called guests had all feasted, the host upon assessing how much remained of the provisions provided for the feast, would often discover a remaining superabundance, and would make a decision to bid a second and perhaps even a third stage of guests to attend the banquet. The host would send messengers out again and again, sometimes finally to call those who in the normal course of events would never have been called at all. These people would come regardless of their station in life to celebrate with the host and to help consume the superabundant provisions of his table.

As outsiders to the culture we should also recognize about the parable that it exemplifies the Savior's favorite method of teaching. The Savior's listeners knew the strategy and purpose of the parabolic method, since it was a common method of teaching in ancient times. They knew, too, that if such teaching were to result in learning, the listener's participation had to be engaged. Therefore, as the Savior spoke, the listener would tend to make interpretations of the symbolism employed in the parable.

Understood literally, the king sent forth his servants to call them that had been earlier bidden to the wedding; but, surprisingly, they would not come. Thereupon the king sent out a second batch of messengers to the same persons. Some of these made light of the summons, preferring to pursue their own private business, while others seized the king's servants, and mistreated and finally slew them. The king was angry when he heard this, and he sent out his armies and destroyed the evil men and burnt up their city.

We take note of the fact that despite two separate callings all of the first-bidden declined to come, some through indifference and some through malevolence. Whether they were indifferent or whether they were bad willed, it is said that their actions had proved them unworthy of the call.

In the parable, the king, frustrated by the unwillingness of the first-bidden to come to the banquet, sends messengers a third time, this time into the highways to gather as many as they can find to take the place of the originally bidden and call them to come to the banquet.

As a reciprocal of their invitation, the culture decreed that invited guests observe the amenity of coming to the banquet dressed in wedding garments. People with means could provide their own, but, of course, in the parable, none of the first-bidden came. In the case of the many who were called to the banquet from off the highways, few poor people or casually dressed travelers could afford to purchase or prepare wedding garments to wear when summoned unexpectedly on such an occasion. Therefore the culture decreed that the host himself should have a supply of suitable garments prepared and waiting for their use. Such guests were also expected to observe the amenity of selecting from among such wedding garments upon their arrival at the banquet hall, putting them on, and actually wearing them at the feast. There was thus no excuse for anyone, even the poorest and meanest, to appear at the banquet inappropriately clad.

Despite the availability of wedding garments, when the king came in to greet his new guests he found there a man who did not have on a wedding garment. We can't know exactly why this man had declined to accept and put on one of the offered garments, but we may conclude, I think, that the man was in delusion and had yielded in some way to his passions, perhaps through pride, human respect, imprudence, habitual culpable carelessness, habitual culpable lack of discernment, or even despair. When the king, addressing him as friend, asked why he was not wearing a wedding garment, we are told that the man was speechless, that is, that he had nothing at all to say to account for his dereliction. Obviously he should have confessed his fault and begged forgiveness on the spot. But since he did not do so, without hesitation the king orders the man seized, bound hand and foot, and cast into outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It is significant in our lives that the Savior tells us that the kingdom of heaven is likened to this very context, and at the conclusion of the parable He tells us furthermore that many people are called to the banquet, but few of the called are chosen. The sequence, then, appears to be this: all men are bidden one way or another, many of them are called one way or another, but few of them are chosen to partake of God's banquet.

Who exactly are among the called, and who exactly are among the chosen?

Everyone imaginable in the context represented by the parable was actually bidden long before any messengers were sent forth to call them. Isaiah the Prophet summarized this universal bidding over all the centuries before Christ in the following words: "Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David" (Esaias 55:1–3).

Moreover, everyone imaginable in the context of Christianity has also been specifically bidden by the Savior: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28–30). And: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37–8).

While all humanity is bidden, the specific act of calling requires the mediation of God's human messengers, that is, those persons upon whom God relies, one way or another, to carry the word to those who have not yet heard it. However, we dare not assume that this is anyone else but ourselves. It would appear to be our responsibility as Christians to assume our rightful place as messengers of the Kingdom. If the faith is alive in Russia today, as it seems to be, who is it, after over seventy years of cruel atheistic Communist rule, that has carried it to the minds and hearts of the young people who are now in some numbers bowing down before the Savior? Was it some unknown elder? Was it the Russian hierarchs? Was it the Russian clergy? Was it ordinary, simple, unlettered mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, who never ceased carrying the Savior in their own hearts? There is no purpose in attempting to answer such questions. But someone, we may be sure, was involved in the call in each instance, one way or another.

Of those called, in whatever manner, we may be sure that the chosen are none other than they that through God's grace have taken the Savior's yoke upon themselves willingly, and conform themselves to His Gospel counsels all their life long.

Finally, as Orthodox Christians in the modern age I think we should find two points of the parable especially applicable to our own personal lives.

First, many of the first-bidden of the parable rejected the call because they were too involved in the pursuit of their own business, their own interests and personal affairs. It is true, they may not have been among those who abused and slew the king's messengers, but because of their pre-occupation with self they either refused or, perhaps more likely, simply neglected, to come to the banquet. In the end, therefore, they were not chosen. The simple reason was that they chose not to be chosen. Is this going to be the story of our own spiritual lives? Are we by any chance right now too busy to be saved? Let us ask ourselves in paraphrasing Isaiah the Prophet, "Why do we spend our money for that which is not the bread of life? Why do we labour for that which does not satisfy?"

Then there is the man who actually did come to the banquet from off the highway, but either refused or neglected to wear the wedding garment that was offered him. And when he was asked why, he refused or neglected to admit his fault and beg forgiveness. Is this going to be the story of our spiritual lives? Are we too proud to confess our omissions and to ask forgiveness? These are among the considerations which this parable calls upon us to make today.

Let us recognize therefore that we must begin to disentangle ourselves from the webs of those material and secular personal concerns which bind us to the world and attract us away from the Lord's banquet. Let us recognize that we must wear at all times the pure robe of the spirit which was given to us at baptism, and let us come frequently to the Lord's banquet wearing that robe undefiled. Finally, let us recognize that we carry the Savior in our hearts, not to hide Him from others, but to communicate Him to others, for we are His messengers to the modern world.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

September 3/16, 2001
15th Sunday after Pentecost/of Matthew
(Matthew 22:34–46)

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this day in the life of the Church, we observe how the Savior submits to a series of interrogations by his learned enemies, the doctors and lawyers of Jewish theology — encounters which are detailed in the twenty-second chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel. This series of interrogations takes place immediately after the speaking of the Parable of the Marriage of the King's Son, which was the subject of last Sunday's Gospel reading. In that parable, you recall, the Savior had declared that while all are bidden to the heavenly marriage feast, many are called, but few are chosen. It seems quite clear in the words of the universal invitation expressed in the 55th chapter of the Book of Isaiah that all men "who thirst after righteousness" are bidden to "come to the waters, and that they who have no money, are bidden to come, and buy, and eat; to come and buy wine and milk without money and without price."

While all are bidden to the heavenly feast, the parable suggests that each one must nevertheless be individually called at an appropriate time — summoned by messenger — and the calling of each one requires an agent from among men. Otherwise, while there is bidding, there can be no call. While Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ is that preeminent agent in this Divine calling, there are and always have been — must be, in fact — others, including, if we look at the matter carefully and objectively, ourselves in our time and place. We are appointed the Lord's messengers to those in our day who, although bidden, have not yet approached the Lord's banquet.

A short while before the Savior spoke the Parable of the Marriage of the King's Son, he had been encountered by "chief priests and the elders," the preeminent Jewish authorities who considered themselves God's representatives in the divine mission among men. Jealous and envious of the Savior, they attempted to entrap Him with a question touching His authority to do the teaching and the healing He was doing among the people. Their goal was to put an end to His credibility as a rabbi, or as we know Him to be in the figure presented to us today, the supreme agent of the Father calling all men to the heavenly banquet.

Our attention is focused upon those leading classes of Jewish theologians which believed themselves to be the chosen agents of the eternal God in Jewish society: (1) The Pharisees, i.e., the perfect, who held rigorously to the oral tradition, but were often sticklers for a mere legalistic adherence to the law; (2) the Herodians, the party supporting Herod, the Jewish sycophantic king, who hungered after Roman support and practiced Greek customs; and (3) the Sadducees, followers of Sadoc, a high priest at the time of Solomon, who denied the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body after death, and the existence of angelic spirits. Each of these groups was set upon destroying the Savior's growing standing among the people, and hoped that they could do so through asking certain difficult questions with dangerous implications.

The first two of these, the Pharisees and the Herodians, were mutually hostile groups in Jewish society, but they joined forces on this occasion in an attempt to ensnare the Savior in talk by posing a critical political dichotomy from which, they thought, the Savior's reputation must surely fall: "What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?" They that asked this question did not know, of course, that the Savior and His disciples had just a short time before handed over to Caesar's tax collectors the didrachmas of the tribute, as is reported in chapter 17 of St. Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 17:24, 25–27).

The Savior denounces the hypocrisy of the Herodians and Pharisees and thwarts their intent by pointing to the coin which they showed Him at His request, the tribute money, which bore an image of the Roman emperor Tiberias's head. The coin alone and its use by the otherwise seditious Pharisees proved that they were subjects of Rome, and must needs render (that is, give back) to Caesar the things that belonged to Caesar, as our Savior pointed out to them in those words. In the same breath the Savior demolishes the position of the irreligious Herodians by adding that all must give back to God the things that are God's as a counterbalance to Caesar's claims. We note that St. Paul expanded on this further when he says: "Render unto all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear" (Rom. 13:7).

Next came the Sadducees with a question of a social character, the gist of which was this: "If seven brothers all married, without issue, one and the same wife successively, as Moses commanded, to whom will the woman be married in the resurrection?" The actual question underlying this, and with which they hoped to embarrass the Savior, was this: "Does this not prove that Moses — who laid down this ordinance which would cause hopeless marital confusion in a next life — is it not true that Moses did not take any account whatsoever of a resurrection?" (For the Sadducees, as we have said, did not believe in the resurrection nor in angels nor in spirits.)

The Savior attacks not their words, but their purpose: "Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God." If ye had known the scriptures, He says, then ye would have known, first of all, that to God all things are possible. "But, in fact, in the resurrection they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but will be as the angels of God in heaven" — thereby correcting their errors as to both the resurrection and the existence of angels. And, He says furthermore, "Of God, the scriptures report: I am, not I was, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Indeed, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."

When the Pharisees heard that the Savior had put the Sadducees to silence with this answer, they, enemies of one another, were, it is said, gathered together. And finally, one of them, a lawyer, asked the Savior a final question, tempting Him, saying: "Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?"

Now it was among the subtle refinements of the Pharisaic theologians to divide the law of Moses into greater and lesser commandments, and to determine what precepts belonged to each class, and what was the most important one" (Thomas, Genius of the Gospel, 1873, p. 442). In this process, some, perhaps most, developed the notion that ritual was most important, while others stressed the importance of moral issues. It is remarkable that they should have expected the Savior to get embroiled in such an analysis.

The Savior's answer exposes the absurdity of this endeavor, and gives the principle into which every law, custom, and, in fact, every human act must be resolved: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

These words of the Savior come right out of Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18) which the lawyer must have known well, and illustrate once again the Savior's commitment uttered earlier in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17).

In our present condition, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we struggle to obey these two greatest commandments, we may find that we know ourselves and others only as individuals, not as new creatures who are one in Christ with the Father and the Spirit. When we allow ourselves to be governed by our nature and act in the strength of our natural qualities, we who call ourselves persons are least personal, least what we should be, least what we want to be as persons imaging God. In such a state, we are continuously tempted to set ourselves up and reinforce ourselves as individuals, as proprietors of our own nature, which we then pit against God and the nature of others, thereby confusing person and nature. In this confusion, which is proper to fallen man, and which is known as "egoism" (Lossky, Mystical Theology, 122), we sin against God and we sin against neighbor.

When we yield to the egoism of this fallen nature and shut ourselves up within the limits of our own nature, we tend to believe that we are realizing or actualizing ourselves, and that is what the modern world teaches us every waking moment. In fact, however, by yielding to our egoism we impoverish our persons.

Moreover, by allowing ourselves to get caught up in our own selfish pursuits, we decline to come to the heavenly banquet to which we are now being called. Only by renouncing ourselves, by ceasing to exist for ourselves alone, and by giving of ourselves freely to God and neighbor, will we approach the perfection of the nature common to all men and become the perfect image of God, finding thereby a place at the Lord's heavenly table.

Strengthened by consideration of the Lord's message in today's Gospel, let us renew as our primary goal in life to strive to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Father John Bockman (+ 2000)
SS. Peter and Paul Orthodox Mission
Tucson, Arizona

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