There is an interesting historical situation of Matthew’s gospel that may be relevant to understanding this parable’s place in Matthew’s gospel. I’m going to ignore that this morning. I am trying to hear it as wisdom from Jesus in a particular controversy with religious leaders while in the presence of those whom these leaders were trying to exclude. There is serious wisdom about God and what that means for how we relate to God and also about how we relate to one another. God is serious about this. This is a jarring parable. Meant to shake us up.
This morning’s passage begins, “Jesus responded.” Responded to whom? Responded about what?
The previous two lines are the last lines of last week’s Bible reading:
45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.
Perhaps the first thing to pay attention to is the position that the teacher is in. This passage is from the very week of Jesus’ execution. This parable was told on Tuesday and he was to be betrayed late on Thursday and then killed on Friday. He is under tremendous pressure. The authorities are trying to arrest him but the crowds are – at this point at least – on his side, and fear of their protest prevents his arrest while he is in public.
So matters are coming to a head. A collision of energies: divine wisdom of the way of heaven in the person of Jesus and the energies of the way of this world in the leaders and rulers in Jerusalem.
I suggested last week that how we interpret what we take to be difficult or troubling passages will depend on what we take to be the fixed points and deepest truths by which we make sense of things.
This morning’s parable troubles us in much the same way last week’s parable did. This parable, with its dramatic slaughter of those who reject the invitation and the condemnation to the outer darkness of the one who was not dressed properly, is deeply disturbing. If we take the parable to be an allegory about God, what sort of a god is this? These troubling dimensions of the parable lead us to back away from it. Too hot to touch. If we get too close we will be burned.
Yet I say to you this morning as the angels say to those they encounter: Do not be afraid. I bring you tidings of great joy! But you must trust. And sometimes that is the hard part.
And so let’s back up and ask what sort of a God did the people Jesus was addressing need to be talked out of? What divine wisdom is Jesus trying to impart that will undermine their [and our] deepest misunderstandings about God? Once we are in touch with the root wisdom that Jesus is communicating we can go on to understand the story within its larger frame of reference.
Part of Jesus’ point here is to be jarring. Remember the aim of wisdom is to help us to disengage from our expectations, and surrender to reality.
Jesus’ parables are stories that help us to do that. Jesus uses exaggeration, paradox, contradiction, and stark alternatives because of their capacity to dislodge us from our assumptions. Sometimes in a humorous, dramatic, or other memorable way.
Last week we talked about deep reality. The deep reality of the landowner in last week’s parable is that the landowner, the landlord, was not about collecting the rent. Rather it was about keeping his relationship with the tenants. The religious leaders Jesus was addressing could not grasp that fundamental reality and so when they provided the conclusion to the story that Jesus set up, it was an ending of retribution, not reconciliation. Their baseline assumption was that the deepest reality of God was about reward and punishment. Sin and righteousness. God as cosmic accountant who is only looking for the rent check every month.
That is not the deep reality of the God in the wisdom of Heaven. And this contrast is at the heart of the gospel. Gospel means good news.
Matthew Mark Luke and John
Heard good news and then passed it on.
Listen and learn. Look and see. The gospel book’s for you and me.
Good news. Good news.
The gospel means good news. Sing it
Good news. Good news.
The gospel means good news.
What was that good news? That God’s default position, God’s first longing, God’s first and foremost priority is God’s love for all things, to be in relationship with all persons and all creation, to reach out in loving embrace of each and every one of us. God has the same seriousness about that as God is supposed to have about the reward and punishment business.
So basic point: God does not start off mad at us and demanding something of us to be ushered into God’s good graces. God does not begin at square one as needing some appeasement so as not to destroy or torment us. And more than that, God’s love for us does not depend on our good behavior. God loves us anyway. That is never at issue. That is the core wisdom of heaven.
But listen. I know that for many of us, even for those who have no problem saying we believe that or believe we believe that, at some deep level we might not be sure. The so-called wisdom of the world undermines our confidence in the wisdom of heaven. Messages of judgment and shame and that we have somehow failed to measure up that we have heard, messages sometimes even in our own voices or in the voices of teachers or parents or others who maybe even thought they were helping us – these messages come to us in voices that just out of clear hearing nibble away our confidence that at bottom God is love. That confidence, that faith, that trust, can always be refreshed with the clear statement of the Gospel’s wisdom of heaven.
And so what is the core assumption of the parable we are reading this morning? The core assumption is that God’s overture to us is the overture of an invitation to a feast. Not just a casual Friday night get together for pizza, but a wedding feast. A grand celebration that pulls out all the stops.
To contrast it with last week’s parable: last week we had God offering folks to rent them an estate. With a rental there is a business arrangement of a mutually beneficial exchange. In this morning’s parable the offering is not to rent my estate, but instead to come to my estate and party with me.
I’ve said before that Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ wisdom teaching, is not a matter for a quick skim, but rather these parables come with invitations to marinate in them, to allow them to dissolve the glue that attaches us to conventional thinking or ordinary prejudice. So savor this wisdom of heaven. God approaches us with an invitation into a joyful encounter. Let that good news sink in and dissolve any fear or anxiety you have about God’s attitude towards you. Good news, good news, the Gospel means good news.
And at the same time recognize that trusting in that basic goodness of God, and therefore trusting in the basic goodness of creation, can be a precarious position, because that stance is so at odds with what passes for the wisdom of the world. So when I encourage you to savor this good news wisdom of heaven, it is not a throwaway line. It is a challenge that prepares the foundation for our trust.
So that is the first move of God: an invitation to a banquet. Actually in the parable the invitation had been sent beforehand. In the invitation protocols of the culture, the invitation was sent well ahead of time, but on the day of the feast, messengers were sent again to say now is the time.
Remember, this is the king. The king is not demanding taxes. Not demanding that people come and work for him. Not demanding that they go to war for him. He invites them to a party. And in the stories of kings, you obey the king. That’s the rule about kings in stories. And the people he invites, in the first instance, of course, are his friends, his courtiers, the nobles, the landowners. The upper-crusters who you would expect to be invited and to want to come or at least feel obliged to come. But the first round of messengers are rebuffed. The invited guests don’t want to show up. And remember that in this 1st century world, these folks are not hungry. They are already well fed.
But maybe it was just a misunderstanding. The king does not want to jump to conclusions. Who would decline an invitation like this? That’s crazy! So he sends out a second round of messengers. Seriously, it’s all ready. The ox is cooked. Come and eat. And again the messengers are rebuffed. Some are too caught up in their own affairs. Others decide to turn against the messengers and beat or kill them. This is even crazier. They are not hungry enough.
Keep in mind that this is a parable. This is not a news report. This is not a realistic story. It’s not a theological treatise on salvation. It’s a story to dislodge expectations. It’s making a teaching time work with drama and contrast and memorable surprises. The story already got to be impossible when the guests refused to comply with the king’s invitation. The destruction of the guests – the king’s friends – is a contrast to dramatically underscore what unexpectedly comes next: the expansion of the invitation to those the king had no particular prior relationship to. People who are hungry.
The people you thought would be most in tune with King are not. They are not in tune with the king’s generosity and goodness. Jesus is here undermining both the understanding of God that the religious leaders have and their notion that they are or will remain in some imagined special relationship with God. Jesus has come to renew, refresh their knowledge of God’s nature as love, and to emphasize God’s initiative of invitation to joy instead of demand.
If you’re worried about God, don’t be. God wants you. If you must worry, then worry about whether you will be alert and alive to the invitation and be ready to come to the feast. That is the concern. Not whether God wants you, not whether God wants good for you, but whether you will be ready to enter the feast. Whether you will be able to release your grip on your field or your business or any other of the excuses you might use to decline to participate in God’s joy.
And – here’s the more important point for the moment – release your grip from worrying about what the story says happens to those who reject the invitation. Of course, the king goes after them. He has bent over backward trying to get them to come to the feast. They have rejected the invitation into joy. They fall out of the story and Jesus embellishes their falling out with memorable drama. Do not be distracted from the basic question about whether you are in each moment, allowing yourself to be drawn into God’s invitation to life and love. That allowing, that responding yes to the invitation is based on trust. Or maybe it’s based on your hunger.
Now once those ingrates who were going to be hogging up all the food at the banquet are written out of the story, there is room for others. The king invites everyone. Notice immediately that the king invites both the evil and the good. God does not invite the good and snub the bad. God invites everyone. And this development brings us deeper into the story. God’s inviting is ever broader, ever more encompassing. It’s inviting all who are hungry. That was the ordinary state of ordinary people.
And this brings us to the other disturbing moment of the parable. As the king surveys his guests, he notices one who is not dressed in wedding clothes. “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”
The guest says nothing. He is speechless. The king has addressed him as friend. Yet he will not engage. In his own way he has refused the invitation. His clothes mark him as one not fully a part of the celebration and in his speechlessness he declines the divine encounter.
He is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth. And then the final tag line is ominous: Many people are invited but few people are chosen.
Once in a while I’m here in the building and I see someone I don’t recognize. I’m not sure what they’re up to. And so I approach in a friendly way. “Can I help you?” It can be an awkward moment. I don’t want to be accusatory. What is my response if they don’t respond? If they don’t respond they are not connecting to me or what’s up here in any way. Of course I don’t have them bound and thrown into the outer darkness. But if the person doesn’t respond – for whatever reason – there is a real awkwardness that makes it difficult to proceed. There is an awkward disconnect.
To regain our footing, we need to find a posture of trust so that we can engage. Our encounter with God will require trust in God’s goodness. A trust that moves us from speechlessness to relationship.
So how do we make this parable not disturbing? We don’t. This is an alarm. This parable is meant to bring us up short with the reminder that to embrace the reality of God we have to open ourselves to love in trust. Fear will be a barrier. Speechlessness will undermine the encounter. This parable is disturbing by design. It is an alarm. An alarm that was comforting would not be an alarm.
There is an alternative to entering into the wisdom of heaven. We can refuse the invitation and remain in the dog eat dog world of reward and punishment. And ultimately that will wear us down and we will find ourselves alone in the weeping and grinding of teeth. Maybe you’ve been there too.
Love is never imposed. It is always offered.
If we seal ourselves off from love, we will decay into isolation and death because we will have taken ourselves out of the eternal reality. Traded it in for the worries about how we are dressed and whether we’re up to snuff. God has no time for that. God calls us out of that. God is hosting a banquet. We’re invited. God wants us to be a part of that.
This parable is a warning that we can resist that call. We can refuse the invitation. We can hang back speechless. This parable is a warning in the form of a story that has a suddenness. As a story with an ending and a conclusion that marks a warning.
But hear this: In the fullness of the reality of God there is no conclusion. In the fullness of God there is an eternity that we trust is forever inviting us in. God seeks us forever.
God is inviting us into life, into the reality of the kingdom of heaven, as we entrust our lives into the emerging life of God that is taking shape all around us as the Kingdom of Heaven unfolds in our midst.