Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Concept of "Gift" in the Parable of the Wedding Feast

Here are some quotes from Milbank, and then I will relate them to the passage.
All quotes come from Being Reconciled.

"Creation and grace are gifts; Incarnation is the supreme gift; the Fall, evil, and
violence are the refusal of gift; atonement is the renewed and hyperbolic gift that
is for-giveness; the supreme name of the Holy Spirit is donum (according to Augustine); the Church is the community that is given to humanity and is constituted through the harmonious blending of diverse gifts (according to the Apostle Paul)" (ix).
"For theology there are no 'givens', only 'gifts'... in Creation there are only givens in so far as they are also gifts... something can only be at all as a gift, and furthermore never ceases to be constantly given; in this case the act of giving is never something that reverts to the past tense" (xi).
"Gift is an exchange as well as an offering without return, since it is asymmetrical reciprocity and non-identical repetition. Because gift is gift-exchange, participation of the created gifts in the divine giver is also participation in a Trinitarian God" (xi).
I love the statement that in theology there are no givens, only gifts. In the foundationalist world, we are constantly trying to reduce preaching and discipleship down to givens in an attempt to secure ourselves a place at the King's table, by our own merit. What does it mean to accept that everything is gift.

If we trace Milbank's appropriation of Augustine, we see the following idea about the Trinity. The Father is the lover, the Son is His Beloved, and the Spirit is the ecstatic love between the Father who eternally begats the Son and the Son who is eternally begotten. Out of this love, Creation unfolds and continues to unfold. It is not a static process that took place in 7 days 4,403 years ago, but is an eternal, continual procession ex nihilo. Thus, everything with God comes as gift, even the Son who is the supreme gift.

Milbank makes an important addition that for a gift to have meaning, it must be involved in gift-exchange. Thus, gifts must be produced, given, and exchanged in order to be constituted as a gift. Of course, this is not bound by the logic of scarcity that rests at the core of capitalism, but is instead bound up in the superabundant grace of the Triune economy. This also brings us into the idea of participation. As creatures, we are gifts, not completed, self-positing selves as modernity would lead us to believe. Thus, we only have meaning and being, by participating in the exchange of the Triune God. Our participation is doxological, we receive God's gift, we respond by worshiping Him, and then we exchange this gracious gift by freely offering ourselves as gift to the world. Again, we move beyond the premodern metaphysics of substance because nothing exists prior to God's gifting. We also move beyond modernity's foundationalism, to the kind of interconnected web of relationships brought forward by postmodern theology. This web, however, is not interminable or without a telos- it is instead bound up in the Triune economy of superabundant grace.

For the holiness tradition, this is incredibly important because of our tendency to believe that holiness is completed by a distinctive second work of grace (entire sanctification/Christian perfection). What Milbank makes clear, is that nothing is given, but instead everything is gifted. Thus, our holiness is ours only as we continue to receive it, give praise for it, continue to participate in it, and share it with others.

In this parable, the idea of "gift" is present in the king's invitation. He prepares a wedding feast in celebration of his son's wedding (The Wedding Banquet of the Lamb, Rev. 19?/Isaiah 25?). He calls those who received an invitation to come to his feast, the fatted calf and oxen are ready. It is time for the party to begin. However, they refuse. In response, he destroys them (another issue for tomorrow). In further response, he broadens his response to invite everyone- both the good and the bad. He fills the wedding hall to overflowing. You can imagine how raucous this party becomes. There is no mention of earned invitations, only that he sought for his banquet hall to be filled.

Here is the scandal of Milbank's idea that is somewhat unsettling. If everything is gift and nothing is given, then anyone can come to eschatological feast of the Lamb. Indeed, everyone has already been included. This conception almost smacks of universalism, and it is universal election.

This leads us into some interesting observations. First, the context of the parable places us in the midst of a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees and Temple Authorities, who are questioning Jesus' authority in the Temple. By what source does he draw his authority? Jesus tells several parables that are best described as judgment parables. Indeed, we often miss the radical nature of what Jesus is doing. In Matt. 21, we describe Jesus' actions as "cleansing" the Temple. A close reading reveals that Jesus did not come to reform the Temple or to cleanse it, but to judge it. Later, he will say that in three days he will raise the temple up in his body. The Parable of the 2 Sons and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants reflect judgment being brought upon the temple authorities for refusing to believe in Jesus. This parable is a parable of the Kingdom and of judgment.

Clearly, this parable condemns initially those who refuse to come to the wedding and later the one who is not wearing a wedding garment. Here is where the idea of a theology of gift becomes even more radical. The king invites even the wicked to the feast. The only ones judged in the passage are those who refuse the king's gifts, the ones who reject his hospitality. Thus, it is not by merit that we remain at the feast, but by accepting the invitation (receiving the gift) and by putting on the wedding garment (continuing to participate in reception of the gift and in exchanging the gift).

I believe this leads to two future lines of discussion
  • The idea of evil as the privation of good (refusal to receive the gift properly)
  • The idea of doxological selfhood (putting on the wedding garment)
What are your ideas? Is this a fair reading of Milbank and Matt 22:1-14? What else jumps out at you?

Grace and Peace,


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