October 15 2017 Sermon
“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, maltreated 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.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
We’re so lucky that the lectionary cycle that is leading us through parts of the gospel of Matthew brought us to this gem of a story this morning. If our attention hadn’t been turned toward the tragic violence in Las Vegas last week, I would have preached on another equally delightful story that Jesus tells about workers in a vineyard murdering the servants and son of a wealthy landowner who was seeking to collect rent on the vineyard workers. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a vineyard that is given over to new workers when the first batch of workers destroyed the landowner’s messengers out of greed.
Today’s parable isn’t much more pleasant than the story of the landowner and the vineyard workers that precedes it. In order to drive home some points with the Pharisees, Jesus offers up another parable, this time about a wedding banquet given by a king for his royal son. The kingdom of heaven is like this thing over here, a wedding banquet, a festive occasion requiring the utmost attention to detail and preparations. A guest list to prepare. A menu to plan. Wine tastings are the order of the day to get a good pairing.
A occasion of festivity to celebrate the establishment of a new covenant. The kingdom of heaven is like that.
The story begins as one would expect but takes an unconventional turn quickly. Invitations are extended to a select list of individuals. Then the king’s servants call upon the invitees requesting an RSVP. But they would not come. Sounds normal enough.
I remember the weeks before Keeli and I got married, working the list name by name calling family mostly to see whether they’d be making the long trip out to Nashville from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Health. Work. Childcare. Cost of travel. Those are all reasons that get invoked when you can’t make a wedding. I’ve declined some invitations for those very reasons, even turned down invitations to preside at weddings of folks I love.
But the king isn’t one to be thwarted so he sends another group of servants back out instructing them to play up the menu for the evening. Have you ever started inviting someone to a get together and listed off the menu of an 18 course dinner in hopes that the food will be an allure? This is exactly what the king is doing. This is the best food and wine around-you don’t want to miss this celebration.
But still those invited passed on the invitation for work, for time at home, or out of disinterest in attending a royal wedding. It is here that this story goes from likely to absurd. As the second group of servants seeks to persuade the original invitees of the quality of food to be served, some of the invitees seize, mistreat, and kill the king’s servants. This is the making of a good allegory. Unsurprisingly, the king is beyond angry that in the midst of throwing a royal wedding celebration, his servants are murdered for extending hospitality and following up on invitation responses. So the king sends troops into the city, destroys those who murdered his servants, and burns the city to the ground.
Even after this action against the entire city, the king is still in the mood to host a wedding banquet. Servants are dispatched for a third time, now instructed to go way out beyond the city center onto the roads leading out of town to find folks to fill the banquet hall. They do this task diligently and find folks of every walk of life, not just the desirable, to come fill the banquet hall.
If this story ended right here, it would be a grand way to lift up the inclusive and hospitable nature of God. It would seem to say that it doesn’t matter whether you’re perceived as morally upright or societal scum at the bottom of the morality ladder, the grace of God prepares a place at the eternal messianic feast for everybody. That would be a fine way for the story to end and that’s roughly the way it ends in Luke’s telling.
“Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.”
But Matthew is trying to do something different than Luke with this story so he continues on sharing how the king was milling about with the wedding guests. To his surprise and dismay, one of his guests is not wearing a wedding robe and this is unacceptable to the king. The attendee is unable to express how he ended up at the wedding in the wrong attire so he is cast out at the king’s instruction.
Wedding customs of the time would have meant the attendee was provided the outer wedding garment upon arrival. So if the guest is milling about the banquet hall without the garment that would have been provided to him, this appears to be a refusal to participate in the festivity of the messianic banquet. Why go to a party and then act like you don’t want to be there? In referring to the presence of the guest who has no wedding garment at a wedding celebration, Karl Barth offers up these words: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”
Before we continue unpacking this Jesus story for our own lives, a few things need to be said about its context so that we don’t misuse it. Plenty of interpreters over the ages have utilized this allegorical story in an unhelpful anti-Jewish manner. It goes like this: Jews are equated with the wedding celebration invitees who say they are too busy and occupied with work to go to the event. God sends prophets to issue the invitation a second time and the invitees still refuse to go to the celebration. They even end up killing the prophets, including Jesus. So God in God’s anger at the invitees refusing to come to the celebration destroys their towns. In 70 A.D., Rome destroys Jerusalem and sacks the Temple, the residence of God. In Matthew’s telling of the story of the angry king destroying the towns of the invitees, he is trying to make meaning of Rome destroying the center of worship in 1st century Judaism. Jerusalem’s destruction must be the result of Jews forsaking the wedding celebration which was an Old Testament symbol for God’s covenant. The invitees who are too busy for the wedding are Jews who aren’t faithful to the covenant of Abraham and Moses. So God goes out in search of new wedding guests or non-Jews who will come to the eternal banquet.
If we read the allegory this way, we end up with a supersessionist theology in which the second round of guests replace the first. A new covenant to replace the old one. Christians replace Jews as God’s favored people. And a long list of atrocious actions over the ages stems from that very claim. The story isn’t a Jewish vs. Christian issue though it’s certainly used that way much further down the line. Matthew is trying to resolve an identity issue within the Jewish community. There are Jews who believe that Christ is the long awaited Messiah and those who were rejecting that claim. Matthew is trying to establish his listeners’ identity in a way that is distinct from their cousins who are also trying to be faithful to the covenant established with Abraham.
This story gives us a window into an intense family feud between siblings and cousins who are divided on the understanding of Jesus’ ministry. The intensity of the feud is evidenced here in this story and in the story of the vineyard that is given over to new tenants once the old ones are punished. Matthew’s claim is that those who don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah got their due when Rome destroyed Jerusalem or when the king burned the city to the ground for refusing to attend the wedding. Nothing like driving the point home than to say your misfortune is because you don’t believe the way that we do.
So if this is a way for Matthew to position his community against fellow Jews who have a different understanding of Jesus, then what do we do standing far removed from this intra-Jewish conflict? Remember the attendee who is cast out because he has on the wrong attire? I think this is possibly where we find ourselves. The invitation into God’s salvation has been extended to all-no doubt about that. The righteous and the unrighteous, the good, bad, and ugly all show up at the wedding banquet. This eternal messianic banquet surely is a colorful and savory crowd. But there are some as Matthew claims who will show up unprepared or unwilling to feast at the Lord’s table and party at the Lord’s party. They’re unwilling to live in a way that demonstrates they’ve encountered the good news of Jesus Christ.
It’s not enough to step into the wedding banquet and act like an 8th grade wallflower at the school dance. Life with Christ, life in the presence of Almighty God requires or demands more than just showing up. The expectation is for full participation in the reign of God in the world, to fully enjoy the feast that has been prepared and to share in table fellowship. Matthew is getting at the heart of discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus, then and now by contrasting those who put on the wedding garment and those who refuse to participate in the banquet.
Later in Matthew, there is a well known story of people being judged according to their works, just like a shepherd sorts out sheep from goats. The criteria used in the judgment is whether or not folks were hospitable, compassionate, and just toward the embodied Christ in their neighbor. If you were a jerk to your neighbor in his or her time of need, not only were you terrible to them, but also to Jesus Christ. If you provided care to one who was hurting not only did you help a neighbor, but you tended the wounds of Christ as well. Now think back to the banquet, those in the wedding garment are meeting the high expectation of participating in the works of God’s reign. The guy who is in the wrong attire at the banquet is the individual who would refuse to help his neighbor and live fully as a disciple of Christ. That’s why he’s shown to be improperly dressed at the banquet and is ushered to the door. There’s ample opportunity to find ourselves in these characters.
Were you invited to the banquet? Sure you were. Everybody gets an invitation. Are you half heartedly milling about the banquet hall hoping to go unnoticed or have you donned the wedding garment intent on festively celebrating the reign of God with good food, drink, and table fellowship? Well that’s a question for your own heart to answer.
Bless you in the name of the Everlasting God. Amen.