Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:1-14
A while back, I officiated the marriage of an old friend in Columbus – she was actually a former employee of my architectural firm, and I was so pleased and honored to perform the wedding when she eventually asked me to. But the very first notice I had about the upcoming wedding was actually a couple of months before that, when I got an envelope in the mail, and when I opened it, there was a pretty good-sized refrigerator magnet, that had in bold letters, “Save the Date!” along with their names, and the date and place of the wedding. It was a “pre-invitation,” something less formal than the actual invitation that would eventually would show up. I’d never received a “pre-invitation” to a wedding before, but as I’ve been talking to people about it, I guess that’s a fairly common thing that couples do now. Who knew?
Well, while I didn’t know that people were sending out pre-invitations to weddings, and banquets, and parties these days, I did know that to do so was fairly common in Jesus’ time, and that’s what had happened in this parable from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today. In the parable, a king was throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he had apparently sent out “pre-invitations” to his guests. And when the time for the banquet drew near, he sent his servants out to his guests as a second announcement, the formal announcement, that now it was time to come to the banquet. As we heard, the first group of guests ignored the formal summons. They even killed some of the servants sent out. This has some similarity to the parable about the tenants of the vineyard we talked about last week. And we heard how the king ordered his servants to go out into the streets – the words the king uses denotes going out to the most remote parts of the land – and to drag in replacement guests. He’s determined that this banquet is going to go on.
Of course, very similarly to the parable we heard last week, the king here represents God, and the servants he sent out to the invited guests are the prophets that God sent to the people to call them to the banquet, the great eternal kingdom of God, and the prophets aren’t listened to. So God makes different plans and calls completely different people from those originally invited to come into the banquet. Just like last week’s parable, it isn’t hard to understand how this parable has been used over the centuries to further anti-Semitic viewpoints: the Jews were those people who didn’t listen to God, and who hurt God’s messengers, and who God got mad at, so now it’s us Gentiles who are *really* God’s chosen people these days. But the fact remains, Jesus himself was a devoted, observant Jew. None of his teachings took away from that fact; in fact Jesus never renounced his Jewish faith and never told anyone else to do so, either. To Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with being a Jew; and he shows that a person can be a Jew and also be perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teachings. But over the past 2,000 years, we Christians have had a really dreadful record of persecution and discrimination against Jewish people, partly as a result of interpreting the Jews as the unworthy first guests that Jesus talks about.
But listen to Jesus’ actual words in the parable. What are the people who refused to attend the banquet more focused on? Different religious views? No. Jesus says one went to his farm, another went to his business. They’re more concerned about their own financial self-interests than in fulfilling their king’s wishes. In Luke’s version of this parable, the reasons that the guests give make this point even more explicit. Based on that, couldn’t we get the message that Jesus wasn’t picking on the Jews, but rather, was issuing a warning to anyone who would put their own self-interests, and particularly their own financial self-interests, ahead of fulfilling God’s will? Could we draw out of this that those are the people who are considered “unworthy,” to use the language in the parable?
Another interesting thing about this story is how all the new guests – the “good and the bad,” according to Jesus – come to the banquet, and everything’s going just great, and everyone is welcome – except for one of the guests who’s found to not be wearing a special celebratory wedding garment – he’s underdressed, unprepared for the occasion, he hasn’t lived up to the king’s expectations of him in the invitation. What’s Jesus trying to teach with this twist in the story? Maybe the point here for us is that even though these guests weren’t invited due to any particular merit of their own – they just happened to be standing around when the king’s servants were rounding up replacements – there still needs to be some kind of follow-through action on their part, out of gratitude for having been brought into the banquet. If all we do is just show up for the fun and the free food, we’ve missed the point. We’re just looking for a free ride without any obligation or responsibility to do anything, or change anything in our lives in order to be God’s agents of change and love in the world if it comes at some cost to us. The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that “cheap grace.” [Wow – my Lutheran seminary will be so proud of me; I managed to slip a reference to Bonhoeffer into two consecutive Presbyterian sermons. Maybe they’ll send me a free T shirt or something for that.]
I think that Jesus is saying that no matter who we are, or what the pedigree of our invitation into the kingdom of God, we can’t just sit on our hands and rely on the mere fact that God has called us. We can’t keep on living in ways inconsistent with God’s will for us if we can change them. That goes to issues of personal morality, issues of treating others with the same spirit of grace and forgiveness that God extends to us, issues of how we shape our personal lives as followers of Christ. We can’t rest on our laurels or think that we’re in the kingdom of God now, and our actions, our listening to God’s word to us, just don’t matter. Some people have said that perhaps the most significant message that Jesus offered to us through his earthly ministry is to show, through his life and his words, that a faith that pleases God can’t just be head-knowledge. It can’t just be all-receiving, all-the-time, with no giving. They’ve said that perhaps the most significant message from Jesus is that when it comes to our religious faith, we need to put our money where our mouths are – our actions need to reflect what we say we believe.
It’s an important lesson for us as individuals, and for us as the Church, too. Because mostly what God calls us to do, in terms of being prepared and true to our faith, is to reach out to others, extending God’s love and God’s message to them. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone here for me to say that very few of our churches are doing a very good job of that. Our church institutions, by and large, are operating on models that may have worked 100, or 50, or even 30 years ago, but which aren’t working any more. We can’t just blame those people “out there” for the fact that they aren’t a part of the church. Most of these same people say they believe in God, and consider themselves spiritual, but they’ve voted with their minds and their feet, saying that the institutional Church has simply lost relevance to their daily lives and spiritual and emotional needs. Our congregation has a great opportunity right now, in this transitional time, to dig into that issue for ourselves. We have the opportunity to really, really look at where God’s love needs to be extended right here in Auburn, and how God is calling us to help do that. Out of gratitude for being brought to the banquet ourselves, now we need to extend that grace and acceptance to others – because, as we heard in the parable, it doesn’t really go well at all for that poor shlub at the banquet who hadn’t lived up to the king’s expectations. As a congregation, let’s take a long, hard look at how we can live out our gratitude, and to do what our King wants us to be doing. When our King steps into the banquet hall, let’s make sure we’re wearing the king’s wedding garment, and not the emperor’s new clothes.
Thanks be to God.