from St Anselms Chapel Center @ USF
I’ve been a church organist all my adult life and my experience as a church musician has included providing music for all kinds of weddings. Wedding celebrations can be memorable for many reasons–sometimes for how very lovely they are and sometimes for the very interesting, unexpected, and maybe even bizarre things that may happen. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a very particular wedding banquet. No matter what sort of wedding mishaps you may personally have witnessed or experienced, I’m pretty sure you have not attended a wedding celebration quite like this one!
This parable has much in common with the Parable of the Great Banquet recorded in Luke’s Gospel. In that story, a man prepares for a great banquet, invites many guests, and sends his servant to let the guests know when the feast is ready. The invited guests make various (rather lame) excuses for not attending: one has bought a field, one is trying out some new oxen, and one has recently gotten married. The master of the house gets angry at their complacency and sends his servant out–not once but twice–to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” He also determines that none of those who first refused the invitation will ever get a taste of his banquet.
This story is fairly easy for us to interpret, right? Those who were called–God’s Chosen People–have ignored God’s invitation and He has responded by opening the doors to extend an invitation to all those who had formerly been considered outcast, all those on the margins.
Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Great Banquet, on the other hand, is darker and a bit more complicated. There is, in fact, a certain “Game of Thrones” quality to this narrative.
The main character is a king rather than the master of a house. The banquet is the feast given to celebrate the marriage of the king’s son. The king sends out his servants to let the guests know the wedding feast is ready but the guests will not come. Some of those invited just go about their daily business (which is a little hard to understand because who ignores an invitation to a royal wedding?). Other invited guests mistreat the messengers and even kill them.
The king is furious. He sends out his troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city! (Which maybe is his city?) Imagine what it would be like to be the poor bride marrying into this family! The fatted calf has been slaughtered and cooked, in fact all is ready for the feast, but your soon-to-be father-in-law has rallied his troops and gone off to battle to avenge family honor before supper.
When the king does return, he sends his servants out into the streets to invite everyone they find. Those who had previously been invited are deemed to be unworthy. (A lot of them have also been killed at this point.) The slaves go out and bring in everyone they can find, both good and bad.
Just when you think you may have arrived at the end of this tale, Jesus adds an unexpected twist.
When the king arrives at the feast, he notices a man there with no wedding robe.
“Friend,” he says….
And you know the man is in trouble. In fact the man has nothing to say in his own defense when the king asks why he is not appropriately dressed. He orders the man to be bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness. Many are called but few are chosen.
I’ve always had a great deal of sympathy–even empathy–for this surprised guest. Haven’t you ever arrived at a gathering, walked in the door and thought, “Oh my goodness, I wish I had known what folks were wearing and had dressed more appropriately?” The man obviously didn’t know when he left home that morning that he would end up attending a royal wedding! Did he deserve to be kicked out of this party when the invitation was extended to all? How are we to understand this strange story?
One important thing to remember is the context in which this parable was taught in Matthew’s Gospel. At this point, we are in the middle of Holy Week. It is a dark time. Jesus is surrounded by his disciples and the listening crowds but also by his enemies, the religious leaders of the day. The tension is growing by the minute. In this parable, we hear about the king’s servants (God’s prophets) who have been mistreated and murdered. We know what is just ahead for Jesus. The local leaders knew Jesus was condemning them in his stories but they were afraid of the crowds and didn’t know how to stop him. The very next verse after today’s reading states: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.”
Secondly, we have to consider carefully who is being invited into the banquet. The story isn’t about a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Those who were first invited are deemed to be “unworthy” and those who do make it in are both “good and bad.” This story isn’t so much about replacing Jews with Gentiles as it is about replacing unworthy followers (especially the current Jewish leaders) with both Jews and Gentiles who are believers in Christ and who respond to His call.
So what about the guest who was cast out? He responded to the call to come in. Why was he judged “unworthy”?
The custom of the time was that a host would provide wedding garments for guests in need. All the guest had to do was to accept the garment and put it on. Whether we think about the garment as a symbol for God’s righteousness or even for Christ himself, the point is to be a proper guest at this party, you need to take action and respond. And so it is with us. To be part of the wedding feast in the kingdom of heaven, we need to take part. We aren’t there just to be enjoying free food at the buffet line.
Make no mistake: this is not about earning salvation through good works or trying to be more righteous than the next guest. It is about being open to God’s work in you and willing to grow into the person God wants you to be. In a few moments, we will join together to renew our Baptismal Covenant. These vows are all part of being guests at the Kingdom Banquet: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace among all people.
We are all called to be part of God’s banquet. Perhaps the problem with the guest in the parable is, as one writer has put it, “not that he is not taking things seriously enough. No, his problem is a failure to party.”
Theologian Karl Barth writes: “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.”
Let us be willing to accept God’s invitation, put on our party clothes, and get up to dance!
October 12, 2014
St Catherine’s of Alexandria Episcopal Church
Temple Terrace, FL