Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (proper 23): October 9, 2005.

Author:Hilfiger, Gary
Position:Preaching Helps

Isaiah 25:1-9

Psalm 23

Philippians 4:1-9

Matthew 22:1-14

First Reading

An atmosphere of war and fear is the background to everything in Isaiah. Assyrian domination runs from 745 to 627 B.C.E. with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and nibbling at the South. With the death of Ashurbanipal, Egypt (627-605 B.C.E.) became the dominant power. Following the battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.E.) a terrible chaos ensued ("the shroud that is cast over all peoples" (25:7) with the Babylonians becoming preeminent.

In this atmosphere Isaiah balances judgment with hope. We might ask whether judgment ("the LORD is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate," 24:1) is better than despair. In the first case God is still in charge, while in the second no one is. Moving from chapter 24 into 25 we note the break from objective language to personal speech, "I will exalt you." In the midst of the turmoil I may still pray to and praise the LORD.

The hope offered here in 25:8, "The LORD will swallow up death forever," is unusual in Isaiah (see also 26:19). We could spend considerable time debating the differences between these two claims, death swallowed up versus resurrection of the dead. We might round it out with 38:18, "death cannot praise you," from Hezekiah's prayer for an extension of his life. Each relates to a different form of hope, and each stands out like a sore thumb.

Matthew also speaks of a new hope for all humanity. In 22:10 the slaves of the king brought to the banquet "both good and bad." The Greek word poneros is uniquely translated "bad." Everywhere else in Matthew (14 times) it is translated "evil." In fact, this is the only time in the NT that it is translated "bad." A close parallel is in 5:45 "ponerous kai agathous" translated as "evil and good."

In its translation the NRSV follows the KJV. I remain puzzled by the choice. The problem may lie in the concluding proverb, "Many are called but few are chosen." To strike a parallel the translators may have chosen "bad" as less inclusive than evil, although the enclitic particle te most likely means the inclusion of both groups representing the whole world. The proverb itself does not accurately sum up the parable, since, it would seem, all are invited and few are cast out. Or should we read the "many" to be those brought into the banquet and who enjoy the favor of the king? This would be consistent with 8:11-12, "many will come from east and west ... while the heirs of the kingdom will...

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