~ Matthew 22:1-14 ~
A problem with every religion is baggage, centuries of it, baggage that is very difficult to remove from whatever the original intent was. One heavy load of baggage that affects all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – is the theme of a judgmental God. That is not surprising because for many people the very purpose for religion is for bad people to get punished or that those who are not of our tribe be excluded by “our” God. So probably, all of us who have grown up in the Christian tradition carry some of that “judgmental-ness” within us. It is my intent, despite what we hear in our gospel reading today, to undermine that theme of the judgmental God and uncover the God who is “grace-full.” Reading from Matthew 22:1-14:
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.”
I don’t have a history of doing musical theater – my son, Joshua, yes; me, no. But back in the 90’s I participated in a church theater production of Brigadoon – you know, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, the enchanted village in the Scottish Highlands – silly plot and cheesy songs but people loved it! Well, I was cast as Mr. Lundie, the wise, all-knowing minister of the village who explained how Brigadoon came to exist – brilliant typecasting, I thought. And, yes, I did wear a kilt. All in all, it was great fun. Well, anyway, as the plot goes the two young love interests come to Mr. Lundie – me – to ask if they can get married. Mr. Lundie is quite pleased and the village is very excited and so I got to proclaim to all assembled: “We’re gonna have a weddin’.” Everyone was invited. And, of course, there was a grand wedding with all the pageantry and Scottish dancing worthy of a Broadway musical.
Well, Jesus invites us to a wedding but in the form of this very strange parable. It hits us as rather dark, with beatings and killings and throwing uninvited guests out on their ear – it hits us as very judgmental. Not like the grace-full God I often extoll. Indeed, this parable enjoys considerable favor with those who like to champion a judgmental God.
But I am bound and determined to uncover a grace-full God even in this dark, judgmental story that Jesus tells. I think the point is this: Do we trust in God’s grace or not?
Here’s the gist of his story: God is throwing a big party, a great wedding banquet. You are invited, Jesus says. God wants everyone to come to the party. At the center of God’s kingdom is a joyful banquet. I contend this is a preeminent biblical image. Grace is the starting point. Celebration belongs in God’s kingdom. In Jesus, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God wills above all that we all join in on the celebration. God, who is rich in goodness and mercy, desires to reveal all that goodness and mercy to all God’s children.
Sadly, though, those who were invited refuse to come. The unhappy truth is that the world is full of folks who won’t believe a good thing when they hear it. I think Jesus had the religious leaders of Jerusalem in mind. “Look,” he says, as he appeals to them once again, “the oxen and fatted calf have been turning on the barbeque spit all day; it’s all, ready to eat. Come to the wedding banquet.” But what do some of them do? They make light of it. Regarding this great invite as nothing; they could care less. Still others seem to take great offense at the invitation. Grabbing the slaves, they abuse them and kill them.
And so the king, out of great anger, sends in the troops and has them all killed and their cities burn. OK, that is quite harsh, isn’t it? But please note the real reason for such a ferocious response. Who in fact were all these corpses lying around killed by the king’s army? They were, in fact, the people who had every right to be at the wedding. They were invited to be there. They were the beautiful and the good. They did not lack for socially acceptable good works. They had style to make even a royal wedding look better. But for all that they were lacking in the one thing that really matters: accepting the invitation. And so they take their place in Jesus’ line up of winners who lose. In their reliance on their own worth, they lost completely the sole worthiness of grace.
We are allowed in just by the mere acceptance of an invitation to a party already in progress. And since God counts only grace, nothing else counts. The party is everything which is why Jesus now has the king proceed to what looks like plan B.
But for God this has been plan A all along: The servants go out into the main streets and gather all whom they find, both good and bad. Notice that God doesn’t only invite the good and snub the bad. All are invited, while we are yet sinners; and we are simply asked to trust that the invitation is legit.
So the wedding hall is filled with guests. And the king arrives to enjoy the party with his guests. But what does he see? A man standing there who is not wearing a wedding robe. Now wait a minute. What robes? It doesn’t say anything about everyone wearing robes. If they’re all wearing robes, where did they come from? And why is this man not wearing a robe?
There is a fascinating account of a vision from the prophet Zechariah. In this vision Joshua is standing before the angel of God with Satan right there to accuse him. Joshua is wearing filthy clothes. The angel gives orders to have his filthy clothes removed. And then he says to Joshua, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” What robes are the guests at the wedding banquet wearing? They are not robes they brought with them. They are not robes of their own making. No! They are robes provided by the host of the party. They are wedding robes given to the invited guests as they enter the wedding hall. You see, the clothes they were wearing were filthy, stained with the guilt of sin. Only festal robes provided by the king are worthy for this wedding.
So why is this man not wearing a robe? Because he still insists on wearing his own clothes. He is doing the same as those who refused to come. He is refusing to accept the gracious gift of a loving God. The fact that he is in the hall could mean something. Maybe he came to have a look-see and decided he preferred his own clothes to those being worn by everyone else. I don’t know. But the issue of judgment is that in distrust the man refuses the gracious gift of God. So he has chosen his own fate, as it were. From God’s point of view there will never be any reason for anyone to get thrown out of the party, precisely because God has made grace, and not our track record, the sole basis for being at the party. There is therefore now no condemnation to the whole world, because there is nothing in the world, neither height, nor depth, nor any other thing – and especially not our long-since-cancelled sins – that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. The entire world is home free at the eternal party. The only ones who will not enjoy the party are those who, in the very thick of all its festivities, refuse to believe they are there.
What does this mean for us? In a very cynical, hard, sorrowing world there is a party going on. In a world filled with lies and injustice, literally, there is a wedding banquet to enjoy. In the midst of this uncertain and dangerous world God invites us to live a joyful life.
Henri Nouwen in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, says this: “God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.” God rejoices because you accept the invitation to come to the feast and be clothed with God’s festal robe. So the first thing this means for us is that we are invited to enjoy the party of God’s grace.
But it also means we are to invite others to the party. Unfortunately there are many who can’t believe they have been invited to a party. It is my experience that there are really very few people who have absolutely rejected God’s invitation. By far the vast majority of people are reluctant to come to the party because they have received the wrong message or they just can’t seem to hear it right now. They are hearing that they have to provide their own tuxedo or gown. Or that once at the wedding they will have to spend the entire time making a robe. Or they don’t come because they have heard it’s a funeral and not a party. Or maybe they don’t come because no one has told them about it yet.
We all got robes! That’s the theme of the spiritual we are going to sing:
I got a robe, you got a robe.
All God’s children got robes.
When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe,
Gonna shout all over God’s heaven.
Everyone is God’s child. Everyone has a robe. OK, I admit the song has vestiges of judgment for the next line says:
Ev’rybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.
But I think that’s just for those who refuse to acknowledge they’re already there, cause we’re…
goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.
But we don’t have to wait until we get to heaven to enjoy the party. We’re already there. We are already wearing the robes of God’s grace. We don’t have to invite others to the party so much as to let them know they are already at the party. We just need to let them know that the party is here. We come as guests invited to God’s banquet of grace. So, party on, dude! Amen.