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“Compel Them To Come In”
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Decatur, Georgia

Lectionary Readings:
Psalm 23; Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Our Bible readings today are troubling.  Isaiah tells us of cities and palaces laid waste and ruined, the fearful “noise of aliens,” the “blasts of terrible nations,” violent “storms against the wall.”  The Psalmist recounts his walk “through the valley of the shadow of death.”  Matthew 22 describes a metaphorical royal wedding gone horribly wrong.  The host king sends out invitations to the grand nuptials, but his invited guests decline in favor of their families, farms, and businesses.  He sends out invitations again and now his annoyed guests kill his royal emissaries, leading to deadly retaliation by the angry king.  He sends out still more invitations, but still the wedding hall remains half empty, and one uninvited guest is bound and thrown out.  So the king then sends out his emissaries yet another time, now telling them – as Luke 14 puts it — go to the “streets and lanes of the city” and “the highways and the bi-ways” of the country to find the “poor and maimed, the blind and lame” and “compel them to come in.”

These are “texts of terror,” in Phyllis Trible’s apt phrase, and for many centuries the Christian Church used these texts to terrifying ends.  Fifteen hundred years ago, the greatest Church Father, St. Augustine, fatefully interpreted our Gospel passage as a license to coerce, repress, and kill God’s enemies.  The wedding feast is the Kingdom of God, Augustine said.  God’s invitations to his chosen people of Israel were repeatedly spurned.  God’s greatest emissary, his own son, was killed.  Despite repeated invitations, God’s kingdom is still not full.  Thus the church must go out and compel people to join them, if necessary by physical force.  If they refuse to join the church, if they fail to repent of their deicide, if they attack the church from without, if they spread their heresy from within, all those enemies of Christ must be bound, cast out, and if necessary killed.

It was this argument that fueled some of the ugliest chapters in our church’s history – grim tales of crusades, pogroms, and inquisitions; forced baptisms, torture, and stake-burnings; religious warfare, genocide, and decimation targeting Jews, Muslims, heretics, pagans, infidels, slaves, natives, and more.  We look with proper outrage today at Muslim extremists who behead innocent outsiders, or who stone as apostates those who dare convert from Islam to Christianity.  We properly bristle at the recent cowardly acts of anti-Semitism in our community.  But we must remember that this shameful pathos is part of our Christian history, too. The blood of many thousands is at the doors of our churches. The bludgeons of religious persecution have been used to devastating effect by Christians against each other and their neighbors.

Only in recent centuries has the Church finally come to embrace a better way of freedom, love, and peace, in imitation and application of Christ’s ministry.  That better way, we have come to realize, starts with a better interpretation of our hard Gospel passage for today.  For one thing, remember that this is a parable, not a prescription.  It’s a metaphor not a map of life.  It requires no more literal application than, say, the parable that we pluck out our eyes or cut off our members if they cause us to sin.  Parables are there to open our hearts to deeper truths, to lift our spirits to higher ends.

Notice, too, that in this parable it is only God the king who orders the armies to bind, destroy, and cast out his enemies, and then only at the beginning and the end of the story.  That matches what we know from biblical history.  In the Old Testament, God did rally the armies of ancient Israel many times against their oppressors.  And in the end times, God will again send his mighty armies of angels to destroy Satan and his minions for good.  But we are living between these violent times.  The God of the Gospels is a peaceful God, a patient God, who in the loving ministry of Jesus Christ invites us to come into his kingdom.

That fateful phrase, “compel them to come in,” is an unnecessarily harsh reading of the original Greek words in our Gospel text.  “Compel them” is how the Greek is translated in the Latin Bible that was used by Augustine and a millennium of churchmen thereafter.  But the Greek words have much softer meanings, too: “to beckon,” “to entreat,” “to persuade,” “to enable,” “to make possible,” “to draw irresistibly” as in a compelling picture.

Those softer meanings fit this parable better.  Remember the scene: the king’s splendidly-arrayed emissaries have clattered into the inner city and outer camps to find the poor, lame, blind, maimed, lepers, and other wretched souls who have been forced to live there, far away from the royal halls and fashionable sections of town. These emissaries have come to persuade these poor souls that they are worthy to sit with the king in his grand hall, that they are welcome to wear the beautiful wedding cloaks that the emissaries hold out to them.  You can just hear these poor souls saying in response: “Come on, you can’t be serious. “I’m not worthy of this.” “This must be some trick.” “Leave me alone.”  “Get away from me.”  And turn to get away.

In response comes “compulsion” but now in this softer sense.  A royal emissary would normally never touch such an unclean person, except perhaps with a rod, staff, or sword.  But now he puts a gentle hand on that poor person’s arm, and says: “No, no, wait. You are worthy.  The king wants you — even you, especially you — to come to his feast.  No matter how you look or feel, no matter where you are or where you’ve been, you are worthy to sit at the king’s table, to wear his finest royal clothes.  For you are his child.  He wants you to come home.   So come on, let’s go home.  Here, let me lead you if you can’t see.  Let me carry you if you can’t walk.”  That’s really what “compel them” means in this parable.

Once we read the parable this way, we discover that part of its point is to invite us to see ourselves on both sides of this exchange.  Yes, we are divine ambassadors extending God’s eternal invitations to all.  But we also humbled sinners hovering at times in the ghettos of brokenness and despair.  As divine ambassadors, we may well be ignored, rebuffed, persecuted, or even killed for carrying God’s word of invitation – as the blood of many Christian martyrs and missionaries can attest.  But as sinners, we will never be ignored, we will never be forgotten, no matter how far down the highways we’ve run or how deep into the shadowy bi-ways we’ve crawled.  For God’s feast table is ultimately set for us.  And he will never stop inviting us home. That’s the point of this parable. And that’s also the point of the parable of the prodigal son, whose father throws him a great feast on his return home from a runaway life of sin, excess, and debauchery on the fast highways and sultry bi-ways of life.

The final point of this parable is that God’s invitation always remains open to everyone, and everyone is given the freedom to accept that invitation, no matter how many times they have rejected it before.  Freedom is a watchword of the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular, is chock full of bracing declarations of freedom: “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” “You were called to freedom.” “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” You have all been given “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

God gives to all of his human children the freedom to choose to accept or reject his invitations.  We are not blind automatons who follow God’s law out of reflex, who show up at his table because we have no choice.  As God’s image bearers, we are created with reason, will, and conscience, and given the remarkable freedom to accept or reject even the God who made us.

God’s invitations come to us in various ways, and with various kinds of soft compulsion.  The invitations come through the glories and beauties of the creation that force our eyes upward in wonder at the Creator.  They come through the laws written on our hearts that teach and discipline us in what is right and good.  They come through the mysterious promptings of the Holy Spirit that can drive even the most hardened sinner to repent.

God’s invitation comes more fully in the ministry of Jesus on earth, and the ongoing ministry of his church.  Jesus’s first words to his would-be disciples, busy with their families, farms, and fishnets, were an invitation: “Come follow me.”  Jesus’s last words to his followers were to invite others to follow him, too: “Go, make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you … and I will be with you till the close of the age.”

The commands that we must obey and teach to others are both simple and profound.  Jesus, like Moses, commands us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  But Jesus goes further: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”   He commands us to love especially the downs and outs of society: the sick, the poor, the lonely, the imprisoned, those cowering in the lanes and the bi-ways of life. “As much as you have done it for the least of these, you have done it to me,” he says.  Jesus commands us to love even our enemies.  If they steal one of our coats, we must give them a second.  If they strike us on one cheek, we must turn to them the other cheek as well.  If they owe us anything, we must forgive them their debts. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him,” Paul adds; “if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Jesus further commands us to rise above our differences of culture, economy, gender, and more, and embrace our ultimate unity in him.  As Paul writes three times: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And Jesus commands us to be his blessed peacemakers. “Let your gentleness be known to all men,” Paul says in our Philippians passage for today.  Strive always for what is “true,” “noble,”  “just,” “pure,” and “lovely.”  And let “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

To lead the life that Jesus commanded is the first and often the most effective way of making disciples of all nations, of “compelling everyone to come in” to God’s kingdom.  We must strive, with God’s help, to make our life of faith so true, so lovely, so gentle, so peaceful, so beautiful that even the most bitter and hardened enemies of Christ will be drawn to it irresistibly.  That’s the deepest and most sublime meaning of that Greek word for “compel” – “to make irresistible” the life of faith in Christ.

That is the task of the church as well – to make our community of faith irresistible to everyone.  That comes in part through the physical and aesthetic beauties of our church: the beauties of music and song, of chanting and chorus, of icons and paintings, of liturgies and ceremonies, of stained glass windows and colorful priestly vestments. These are all spiritual hallmarks of invitation; they make the life and light of this church community so compelling, so irresistible that all will be drawn to it.

The physical beauties of the church are there to uphold and underscore its spiritual beauties – the beauties of word and sacrament, of creed and confession, of discipline and discipleship, of prayer and care, of sharing and sanctuary, of social justice and spiritual righteousness.  These are the true marks and signs of the body of Christ on earth.  These are the treasures of faith that we celebrate in our weekly worship and Eucharist.  These are the gifts of God that we share with the people of God, near and far.  These are the sublime spiritual beauties that are so utterly irresistible that all who hear, see, and feel them will be compelled to come in.

John Witte, Jr.