This is one of those days where it’s hard to say “The Gospel of the Lord,” after reading the Gospel. The good news of the Lord. This one doesn’t feel like it. The Gospel of Matthew continues to throw hardball after hardball lately. We keep getting to hear parables of judgement, which reminds me why I struggle to like the Gospel of Matthew. Because I’d rather hear parables of grace, parables of love. Those are the ones we all would rather hear, right? Like the parable of the lost sheep or the prodigal son – parables where we see God’s extreme love for us. The parable I just read was almost a parable of grace, and then at the end it took a turn for the worst. It would be easier and more pleasant to just look at the middle part of our Gospel today – the part where all are invited to the banquet – and forget the beginning, where the king kills the first round of invitees, or the end, where one of the guests gets thrown out for not wearing the right thing. But alas, faith is not only about the easy and pretty stuff. We also have to deal with the things that are hard to understand.
That’s one of the gifts and challenges in following the Lectionary. We happen to be a church that follows the predetermined readings set forth by a committee of people – this list of readings is called the Lectionary. And one of the gifts of the Lectionary is that we are forced to wrestle with hearing these challenging texts. If we were a church who chose our own readings for worship, I’m pretty sure this would not be one of them. We would stick to the parables and stories we like that are about inclusivity and love and grace. Today we have a Gospel to wrestle with.
So let’s explore it. We start with the banquet. A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. I remember wedding planning with Tom 6.5 years ago. Some parts were fun, and some were more challenging. The guest list was more challenging. When planning a wedding now, you have to attempt to guess how many guests will say yes to your invitation, because you have to give numbers to the caterers and the venues, and you pay based on that number. Sending out invites becomes strategic then because you only want to send out so many invitations, but you usually send out more invites than you know you will get yesses to because there will always be some no’s. Getting people to commit can be challenging, just like in the parable. There are some of us who will respond to an invitation right away because we know it’s something we want to do. Then there’s others of us who will wait to see who’s going, or what else we might have going on at that time. Some of us have perfected the art saying “maybe;” we like to leave ourselves open than fully commit to anything because you never know when something better might come along. That makes it hard to get numbers for a party!
There are so many other things to consider when hosting a banquet…like who will sit next to whom? Will everyone get along? Will they like the food? Will the timing work out? Did I choose the right food or drinks or music or tablecloths?
And then after the party come more questions: was it a good party? Did people have a good time? Should I really have served that dish? Did I tend to all the guests equally? Will they want to come back if I invite them again?
These questions can apply to events like weddings, or even events that you might host at your home. Except hosting people at your house is quite a different level of intimacy. When you invite people into your home, you invite them to see yourself at another level. They get to see you in your own space. This is an intimate thing, for aside from family and some friends, we don’t often see each other and our dwelling places. People invited to your home might catch a glimpse of your attempts at controlled imperfection. They might observe a disconnect between the you they know outside your home and how you are in your home. They might wonder or make judgments about you or your personal life.
Even on the other side of hospitality, on the receiving end, there are vulnerabilities – like how should I respond to that invitation? When should I decline an invitation and why? What is a good reason to say no? Being already booked? Busy? Tired of obligations? Not thrilled about the company? It doesn’t sound fun? We have better things to do? We don’t want to be seen or known in places and environments we cannot control?
In the end, hospitality can be a risky thing. There is risk involved for both the host and the guest. Both offering hospitality and receiving hospitality can be uncomfortable and sometimes even hurtful. The king in today’s parable definitely got a taste of hurt by all the declined invitations and disinterested invitees. He sends out the first round of invites, and no one responds. No one. I imagine that was a bit crushing to his sense of self-worth. And he’s trying to throw a nice party for his son – not to mention his son’s new wife and her whole family. So when the second round of invites gets dismissed, and even some of the invitees go to the extreme of killing the messengers who brought the invitation – which seems a little over the top! – the king responds in kind, and ups the ante. He destroys everyone and burns down the city. All over a few dismissed invitations, and the killing of his servants.
So the king tries a new round of invitations, but this time he invites all the people left – both the bad and the good. He wants to fill the banquet hall with guests. That makes sense – he is supposed to be throwing a wedding banquet for his son. What kind of royalty would he be if the banquet to celebrate the prince’s wedding wasn’t completely packed? Only now it wouldn’t be packed with the usual big names. It gets packed with a bunch of nobodies.
We might believe that this invitation to all the nobodies was plan B, but in this parable of Jesus, is it really that surprising that the ‘street people’ would be the ones invited to a banquet? Think of those Jesus hung out with – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented, the unworthy… “street people,” as we might call them, were the kind of people Jesus seemed to be most concerned about.
That’s the beautiful picture in this parable – that all are called to the Supper of the Lamb, if we can take the parable there. All are welcome. Let us go now, to the banquet, to the feast of the universe. A table where all are welcome. The feast of the Lord that we partake of every Sunday… But this isn’t where Matthew ends his parable. He goes on.
“With the party in full swing, the king enters the banquet hall and moves among the guests. To his dismay, he finds that one of them is not dressed properly. “Friend,” he says, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe” (verse 12)?” (Pape, WorkingPreacher.org) This question had the opportunity to sound like a question out of care and concern, but what happens next proves this is not the case. The guy was speechless. He could provide no answer. So the king “has the poor guy bound and thrown out — not just outside the hall, but into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13). With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?” (Pape)
You might be asking why in the world this guy was given a hard time since he had just been pulled in off the street. Exactly. How did everyone else come to acquire the right clothes? That’s the thing. They didn’t have the right clothes, but here’s the turn. This guy, the one without the right clothes and gets kicked out is Jesus. [Yeah, that’s not at all what I thought would happen either until I was inspired by a colleague yesterday at the ordination of a new pastor in Walla Walla.] The one who dons the plain clothes, while the rest are dressed in white, the robes given us by baptism, is the one who took on our sinful lot all himself and got kicked out – literally kicked out of the city – and was sent to the place of the dead, or hell, depending on your interpretation, where often we envision there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He gives no answer to the king just as Jesus will give no answer to Pilate when asked about all the accusations made against him.
Jesus isn’t dressed properly on purpose: so that we are the ones dressed properly. It turns out that this parable is about radical hospitality after all. All are welcome. All are forgiven. All are set free. As Christians we mark this by baptism – we are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection- but who’s to say that it doesn’t extend farther than that? It turns out that at the supper of the Lamb, the doors will be flung wide open, the invitation is extended to all. But once you come in, there are standards. You can’t go on acting like you are just who you were. You can’t pretend this isn’t an extraordinary party.
Through the work of Jesus Christ, God has granted us salvation. That work is already done. The dying and rising of Christ has become the source of our very life. Which means you don’t need to worry about it. Jesus has worn our robes and given us new ones. We get to put on our party clothes and celebrate and live in the truth that God has already said “yes!” to us! That also means extending the invitation until all of us ‘street people’ know that we are already invited to this feast, and that it’s now time to have some fun as children of God – to go about God’s work in this world living in and out of God’s love and grace and mercy. We can say with the Apostle Paul in Philippians today: 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
And what does it look like to live as a child of God? St. Paul continues:
8Finally, …, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in [Christ Jesus], and the God of peace will be with you.
Yes, the God of peace is with us, and is throwing one heck of a party – where all are welcome. There is room for everyone. But you can’t remain the way you’ve been – you’re not a street person anymore; you’re God’s child! So join the party and live like it.