Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 I like to have a good time just as much as the next person, and while I may not be the biggest “party animal” I enjoy a good celebration. It probably all started with birthday parties. Like many kids, when I was growing up I got excited every year about my birthday. Sometimes we’d go to a pizza parlor, or I’d invite friends to the water slides, or we’d have a sleepover. One year when I was in 6th or 7th grade my mother even shocked me by sending a singing telegram to my school. It was a pretty lady dressed up as SuperGirl and I was completely embarrassed. My face turned bright red, just as bright as my red, curly childhood hair (but it was still pretty cool to be the center of attention in Jr. High).
And these days even though my celebrations look a bit different, I still enjoy a good party. It’s one of the reasons I was so excited recently when A.J. (one of the coolest kids ever!) invited me to his 10th Birthday Party at Lazer Zone. Now I happened to be the only adult on the invitation list - so you can decide what that means for yourself - but A.J. thought I was at least enough fun to join him and his friends for an afternoon of Lazer Tag, pizza, and ice cream cake. I hadn’t eaten that much sugar in ages. Not only that, but were running around having so much fun that I had to take a shower before I came back to the office - and it was a blast.
Our religious tradition has a long history of parties. Now, that’s not what they’ve always been called. We have writings about “feasts” and “festivals” and “special days”. But if you’re paying attention to some of those “rules and regulations” in Hebrew Scripture, sometimes you realize that you’re basically reading a lot of guidelines for ancient, religious parties. There’s a pretty long list: the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost), the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah), and the Feast of Purim.
As much as anything, Hebrew Scripture defines the people of Israel as a people who found their their identity and their meaning, who conducted their worship, with elaborate religious parties. These were parties with a point. And here it is: almost every single one of these festivals was a response to God. It wasn’t about their feelings or about having a good religious experience. It’s how they responded to who God was, and what God had already done for them. Sure, there were also agricultural reasons for many of these festivals - harvest and such - but that just meant there were different layers of meaning.
The interesting thing is that whether we take an agricultural or a religious perspective on these festivals, they weren’t so much trying to convince God to do something for them - here and now. They were remembering and celebrating something God had already done: deliverance from slavery (Passover & Unleavened Bread), giving the Ten Commandments and the Law at Mt. Sinai (Pentecost), provision during their wilderness wanderings (Feast of Booths), restoration and purification of the Temple (Hanukkah), deliverance from genocide (Purim in the book of Esther).
And if that’s the case, if this was a “party people”, well then when we see a Gospel reading like today (Matt. 11.16-19, 25-30) we might wonder why people were accusing Jesus of “eating and drinking” (11.19) because it’s really just a way of saying that he was feasting - as opposed to John the Baptist who lived out in the wilderness and came “neither eating nor drinking” (11.19). John wasn’t a party-goer; Jesus was. So maybe it’s easy to think that these accusers of Jesus were just uptight, acting like party-poopers. Or (shockingly) we might consider the alternative that Jesus was a bit too excessive in his partying. But if we go down either of those roads, if that’s where we start investigating, then we just get into all those dead-end conversations about how much fun Christians are supposed to have. And that’s just not the point. As Christians we are a feasting, festival people; we’re a party people.
So here’s the rub. The people accusing Jesus, those Scribes and Pharisees, well it’s not like they never partied. When Luke’s Gospel describes these accusations against Jesus - that he was “eating and drinking... a glutton and a drunkard” (cf, Luke 7.33-35); when Luke does it he follows the accusations with a story. It’s a story about a Pharisee who invites Jesus to his home for one of his own parties (Luke 7.36-50).
And we learn something about that Pharisee and about why those Pharisees were partying to begin with. We find out it was a party about them. They were celebrating themselves. It was about how good and smart they were. And when a party crasher showed up, a woman, who began bathing Jesus’ feet with ointment, tears, and kisses - well they just came unstuck. Because they knew she was a sinner (she was no good) and it just proved their point that Jesus was no better because he couldn’t seem to tell the difference.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal if Jesus was just your average Joe, but he was a prophet. People were following him; lots of people. And prophets are supposed to know the difference; they’re supposed to know the difference between the good and the bad, the good fruit and the rotten, the wheat and the weeds, the sheep and the goats. But there was Jesus partying - with everyone. And because so many people were following him, he was a threat.
So these Pharisees pull out the big guns. They say: “this man is a glutton and a drunkard”. It wasn’t just an insult, it wasn’t just sticks and stones. It was an accusation that meant something. Listen to the Law of the people from the book of Deuteronomy:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son ... [they] shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious... He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. (Deut 21.18–21)
“A glutton and a drunkard”. It was an accusation with a punchline. Everyone knew what came next: if he’s a glutton and a drunkard, then they shall stone him to death. The Pharisees weren’t just being uptight, and Jesus wasn’t just being excessive. The Pharisees were trying to kill him. Eventually they would kill him, but not just yet. Because here’s what Jesus says: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt. 11.19). Or Luke’s version, “wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7.35). Jesus says “Fine, tell whatever story you want. Charge me with any crime you want, even a capital crime. But people can still see the truth about you and about me just by looking at our parties.”
I mean, what do you think God really looks like? Does God look like a bunch of power hungry, grumpy men sitting around in long robes and congratulating themselves for how good they are? Or, does God look like an energetic, sharp-witted, fun-loving peasant who loves people so much they chase Him down and bathe his feet with perfume and kisses and tears? In other words, does God actually look like Good News?
These stories in the Bible, you see, care less about what our parties look like than why we’re partying to begin with. And I can’t imagine a better Gospel for this Fourth of July weekend than the one we have today. We are blessed to live in this country, and we owe an un-payable debt of gratitude to generations of Americans who have given their blood, their sweet and their tears to build, to protect, and to preserve this country. The world has never seen anything quite like this.
So let’s celebrate with cookouts, and games, and fireworks. Let’s be a party people. But let’s also think about why we’re celebrating to begin with. Are we just celebrating ourselves? Are we just having a celebration about how good, how smart, and how strong we are? Are we maybe even a bit grumpy that the rest of world doesn’t seem to be getting in line with this great nation of ours? Or are we having a celebration about the amazing gifts God has given us? About how much capacity and opportunity we have to serve others, to love God and to love our neighbor? God’s Wisdom isn’t known by a popularity contest. God’s Wisdom is known by the fruit of our deeds. And if we want to celebrate really big, then let’s use our Independence Day to be the kind of energetic, fun-loving people who love others so much, that our good fortune also means good news for the rest of the world. Amen.