Matthew 22:1-14 (NIV)
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
I’ve been looking forward to this year for some time now. Year after year I endure the banter of my friends who profess allegiance to the football team from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Every year I hear how great the Hokies are, and I must confess, after almost a decade of living in Virginia, I still don’t know what a Hokie is. Say what you will about a buckeye — it is a nut, a tree, or a delightful chocolate and peanut butter treat — but at least we know what it is.
Finally, in my 9th year of ministry at Staunton Mennonite Church, my alma matter, the Buckeyes of the Ohio State University are scheduled to play the Hokies of Virginia Tech on September 6th. The Buckeyes come into the season ranked number 5 in the nation, with the expectation of winning yet another Big Ten Championship and contend for another national championship. But it wasn’t meant to be. Unfortunately the starting quarterback for Ohio State has to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery after reinjuring his throwing arm in a practice this week.
But know this: if the Buckeyes do win with their backup quarterback, you all will be hearing about it.
Do you know how to keep a Hokie out of your back yard? Put up goal posts.
I can joke with you Hokie fans and I know I will hear something in return. This is a part of our relationship. There is give and there is take; action and reaction. We don’t need to have this written down and explained to us. We understand our relationship because we are living it.
I am down to three more sermons before I take my sabbatical leave, so what I really want to do during this time is talk about some of the things that I am finding interesting in the Christian faith these days. Today I want to focus on my current way of understanding the pull between law and grace. And like our football banter, I think the best way to understand it all comes down to relationships.
For some reason I tend to have a lot of friends who are lawyers, former lawyers, and even two law professors. One of the law professors had the opportunity to preach in his congregation a few years back and he was struggling with what he wanted to preach on. But when he came to the Sermon on the Mount, his eyes lit up. He said, “I can preach on this! This is law!”
He was used to the format that he was seeing in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. Do this, don’t do that. If you do this, this will be the result. If you don’t do that, this will be the result. Etc., etc.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him – I also didn’t want him embarrassing me because he is smarter than I am – but what we find in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, and in the rest of the New Testament is not law.
We in the United States tend to think in legal terms. What do I have to do, what can’t I do, and what are the consequences of doing it anyway. We form contracts, which are legally binding agreements. When you buy a car or a home, you better come with your hands stretched, warmed up, and prepared to sign about a dozen documents. These legal contracts state that money, work, or possessions will be exchanged. Failure to do so will bring you under penalty of the law.
In the Bible, we don’t see contracts being signed and used. Instead, the normal paradigm is the covenant. Where a contract is about the exchange of money, work, or possessions, a covenant is a commitment from one person to another. Even the legal metaphors in the Bible are often used to explain a covenant type of system.
Most of the agreements that we find in the Bible are found in covenantal form. There are between 5 and 8 covenants in the Bible, depending on how you number them. Some covenants are considered repeats of earlier covenants. Often we find a familiar formula in these Biblical covenants where two people, or a person and God, come to an agreement. There are covenants between God and Abraham, God and Noah, David and Jonathan, and so on.
The one covenant that still seems to survive today that we are all familiar with is marriage. Two people stand before a congregation and a clergy person recites vows that are repeated. Do you take him to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, as long as you both shall live? A sign of this covenant is often exchanged. In our culture it is usually a ring.
In a wedding ceremony, you pledge to be faithful, to love, honor, and sometimes obey one another. This isn’t a contract. It is a covenant. It is a relatively recent thing that we have made marriage into a legally binding contract with our marriage licenses.
The major difference that I find between contracts and covenants is the level of interest in the other person involved. I’m obviously painting with broad strokes here, and this doesn’t apply in all situations. But remember the last time you purchased a car, especially if it was from some large car dealership and not a friend or family member. When you purchased that car, were you worried about the dealership getting a good deal for the car? If you are a better person than I am, perhaps you did. But I wanted to get that car for the least amount of money possible! I wasn’t worried if Charlie Obaugh was getting the bad end of the deal. I wanted to keep as much money in my pocket as possible. I’ll nickel and dime the dealership, because I know they are doing the same to me. That is a part of our contract/law system here in the west.
Now imagine you were to buy that car from your best friend. There are still some covenantal aspects involved here because it is relational, not just a legal transaction. If I bought a car from a friend, I would want to make sure that he got a decent amount for the car. I know that his daughter needs braces, or that he lost his job recently. If I find a gold ring in the glove compartment, I’m going to take it to him and give it back. If I purchased that car from a dealer I would be on my way to the pawn shop or wrapping that thing up for my wife’s birthday.
Let’s take this analogy one step further. Imagine I buy the car from my best friend and the next day the head gasket on the engine blows. My friend is probably going to feel bad about it and offer to splint the cost, or contribute in some way. At a dealership, they will tell me “All sales are final,” or maybe, if it is something that they are legally bound to fix, maybe they will help out. In the legal world we need warranties and legally binding contracts. In the covenantal world, we have relationships.
My friend knows that money is important, but ultimately maintaining our relationship is more important. A big car dealership isn’t interested in being my friend. They are interested in a financial transaction. And even when the reach out and try to help by fixing that problem after the sale, chances are that it still isn’t about the relationship. It is about having you come back to buy another car in a few years. It is still about the transaction.
The scripture reading for today is just one of many that use the metaphor of our relationship to Jesus being like a marriage covenant. All the way through Revelation we find these celebrations, the marriage supper of the Lamb, meant to mark our new covenant with God.
Our relationship to Jesus was viewed as a covenant for the first 1500 years or so. Of course there were others who helped lead us away from this understanding, but the reformer John Calvin probably had the greatest influence in leading us toward a legal paradigm for relating to Jesus. Calvin was a brilliant individual; he wrote huge volumes of theological reflections. And many denominations still draw heavily from his works, for better or worse.
Before he became a theologian, Calvin was a lawyer. He studied law at some of the finest universities. Perhaps, like my law professor friend who read the Sermon on the Mount and saw law, his law training caused him to read the scriptures as a legal transaction instead of a covenant.
As a result of Calvin’s legal reading of the Gospels and his immense impact on the church and her doctrines today, we often view Christianity through the lens of a legal contract rather than a relational covenant.
Let me give you a few examples. We often hear questions in the church about salvation, grace, and forgiveness. We often hold salvation by works and salvation by grace as two opposing theories. Are we forgiven because of our deeds? Does following Jesus lead to our forgiveness or is it simply a gift from God?
Of course everyone will say that grace is a gift from God, not by works, lest no man shall boast. Anyone who claims that grace is by any other means is considered a heretic! But then we go and talk about all sorts of rules, teachings, and laws that a Christian must follow.
We learn this from the apostle Paul, who was the first to really articulate a theory of salvation by grace through faith. At times Paul preaches directly against the law, like in Galatians 2:15-16: “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
Paul is sometimes called an antinomist, which means he was against the law. Here he says that no one is justified by the law, they never were and never will be. Justification, forgiveness, and grace have always been about putting faith in God, and that at times meant putting your faith in the systems that God had put in place for a period of time, such as during the period of animal sacrifices in the temple. But even then, grace came through faith in God.
But this same Paul who says that the law and good works are not the way to grace and salvation is also the same Paul who writes list after list of vices, things that we should avoid. Sexual immorality, greed, lust, deceit, and slander are all to be avoided. So if we as Christians seem to be a little confused about this question of whether salvation is by grace, works, or some kind of combination of the two, we come by it honestly. We come by through Paul.
I simply want to say that the question that we are asking when we consider whether salvation is by works or by grace would not have made sense to Paul. We are thinking about this from a 21st century western perspective that focuses on the legal transaction, the contract method of dealing with one another. If this was a car dealership, we would be asking what we could get to sweeten the deal. I’ll buy the car, but I want you to throw in the floor mats, free oil change, an occasional opportunity to be greedy, and to be able to have the occasional affair. We want to know just how much we can get away with before the deal falls through.
I told this story several years ago, but it seems appropriate to repeat it today as we enter the first full week of classes. My very first year of college in my very first class I had an experience that still boggles my mind. There was a young man named Brad who sat right in front of me in Anatomy and Physiology who made his intentions very clear from the first day of class.
We went through the normal routine, the teacher handed out the syllabus, explained the grading system, the tests, midterm, and final. This generally results in what we call “syllabus shock,” and perhaps I can attribute Brad’s question to syllabus shock. Anyhow, after the professor explained the syllabus, he asked the standard question, “Are there any questions.”
Brad raised his hand and asked, “What’s the bare minimum that I need to do to get an ‘A’ in this class?”
Brad was working from a contract paradigm. How much work do I need to put in in exchange for you to give me this grade? It was an exchange of goods, and I bet that if the professor had been willing to sign a contract that day that Brad would have done it.
But in a covenant paradigm the focus isn’t on exchange of money, work or possessions. The focus is on relationships.
Apply this contract approach to a marriage and see how well it goes. I’ve done a few weddings in my days, and I’ve done plenty of premarital counseling as well. I’ve never heard a man ask his future wife, “What’s the bare minimum I need to put into this marriage to keep us together?” Or even worse, “How much can I do and get away with? What can I do before you would actually leave me? Can I sit around the house while you cook, clean, and care for the children? Can I call you demeaning names and make fun of you with my friends? How close can I come to having an affair before you leave?”
If you start a marriage off by asking what the bare minimum is that you need to put in for this marriage to work, I can guarantee you that the marriage isn’t going to work. The reason is that you are approaching a covenant like a contract. “How much can I get away with before the contract is rendered null and void?” does not make sense in a covenantal situation.
The main paradigm of Paul’s day was not of a legal contract, but of a relational covenant. If we think of grace and faith as being a part of the covenant between us and God, the question of whether salvation is a matter of grace or works doesn’t even make sense.
Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians that everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial (chaps 6 and 10). It isn’t like if you tell one lie or steal one thing or have one lustful thought that you will be thrown in hell for all of eternity because you broke the contract! But this isn’t a license to just go crazy with these sinful acts. The Corinthians did have more of a contract mentality, being thoroughly Greek and Roman in their thinking. They heard Paul’s teaching on grace and took it as a license to sin.
But we are in a marriage, a marriage with the triune God. A covenant where God says I will be your God and you will be my people. And in this marriage it simply does not make sense to even ask the question, “How much can I do against your will and still be under your love, grace, and mercy.” Any marriage like that is really no marriage at all. It is a legal contract.
Covenants are based on relationships and a commitment of self. At our baptism, we vow to put no other god before our God, to love, honor, and obey him as long as we both shall live. And here is a wonderful benefit: we both will live together for eternity.