Wedding Banquet sermon: Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to 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 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 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.”

There’s a lot going on in this story. It’s complicated and even confusing when we think about the images of God and Jesus that we typically embrace around here. Jesus starts this out like he does so many of the parables — the kingdom of heaven is like this

There are multiple meanings we could make of the story- and I don’t want to foreclose any for you. But, as with all stories from the Bible, we need to find a way to get a hold of this, to make some sense of it. So I’m going to offer a couple of ideas.

Let’s talk for a minute about this in the context of Jesus’ time, about the world into which Jesus offers this parable. What do we know?

First of all, we know Jesus is not all sweetness and light here. This is not warm fuzzy Jesus. Jesus is angry. This is the beginning of chapter 22 in Matthew’s gospel, right? At the beginning of chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem — it’s the narrative we traditionally think of as Palm Sunday. He’s been traveling around the countryside, preaching, teaching, and healing. And then he comes to Jerusalem. He enters with crowds shouting Hosanna and cloaks and branches on the road. He’s got his disciples with him. And Matthew tells us the city is in a clamor, in a turmoil wondering about this man Jesus.

What happens after that – he goes to the temple and turns over tables and turns out money changers, he withers the faithless fig tree, he gets into it with the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. These are the people who have sold out their faith to the empire. Then we get a parable about a vineyard. And then we get another parable about a vineyard. All of these are pointed at the Pharisees, the religious authorities beholden to the Romans, the servants of empire.

The Pharisees are already ready to go after him – they want to have him arrested, but Matthew tells us they were afraid of the crowds. Because the people believed Jesus to be a prophet. This story we’ve heard is the final straw – because verse 15, the aftermath, reads “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” He has been getting on their nerves, threatening their power, and after this, they’ve had enough.

And then we come to this story  —  this hypothetical situation that Jesus is posing:

We’ve got a king with a son who is getting married – we’ve got an invitation to all the best people — to this fancy event. The king has gone all out to prepare. But his invitation gets mocked, gets ignored. He sends an emissary or two and they get messed up, even killed. This is all wrong. So the king deals with them — in terms that would make sense to the people who are listening — to those who were listening in Jesus’ time and to the audience that Matthew had in mind later, which was also probably a Jewish one.

Then we get a turn that we’re more comfortable with — the king says  “Invite everyone.” Everyone. No conditions — last week we were talking about conditions, right? Or the lack of conditions? Everyone is invited. That sounds like the God we preach in this church, right? All are welcome.

There was a story a year ago about an Atlanta couple, Carol and Willie Fowler, whose daughter Tamara cancelled her wedding at the last minute. The reception dinner for 200 was paid for and planned, so the couple prayed about it and then turned to an organization that works with the homeless. They invited 200 homeless men, women, and children to a celebration.  It was a grand event.

We get that. What an incredible parallel to the banquet Jesus describes. Everyone belongs at this table. Pretty incredible message for this weekend. Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, an annual event where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are encouraged to tell their stories. Tomorrow is Columbus Day, where we paradoxically celebrate the “discovery” of this continent — and the genocide of the native peoples who had been living here for centuries. We live in a world where people have to somehow prove their worth, to prove their very humanity. We measure people based on their wealth, their looks, their productivity.

That’s not the measure God takes. We are all invited to the table.

So if Jesus had just stopped there, we’d be in pretty good shape. Let’s put ourselves at that banquet okay? Close your eyes for a minute. Get a vision of yourself at that banquet, gathered around that table. You can see it, can’t you? This works, this inclusive vision. Right?

But Jesus, does he stop there? Nope, he does not.

Somebody gets singled out here. The King comes out and there’s a man without a wedding robe. Now, our first question would be – okay, people invited in off the street, what’s the big deal. But most sources seem to agree that it’s pretty likely that provisions were made – people had access to wedding robes, whether their own or those provided by their host, the king. So regardless of interpretation, the general agreement is that this is a deliberate act by this person.

My father has been known to describe me as contrary. So I feel for this person a bit. He is being contrary. But if you look pretty closely, it could even be considered an act of treason – this being the king and all. The whole story comes together to suggest that the stakes are pretty high.

So here comes the king:  “Friend” – how’s that for a loaded word? not sure whether he really means that, but it’s a civil way to address somebody. We don’t get the tone, but regardless, this is pretty restrained. The king’s giving ‘em a chance.

And what happens – okay – put yourself there, standing in front of the king – nothing. Not a word. Speechless. Are you there? Can you feel it? Maybe you’re watching or maybe that’s you. Doesn’t say a thing.  Talk about awkward.

I write thousands of words each week for my online classes. It’s what I’m required to do and most of the time it’s not a problem. But every once in a while, I find myself staring at the screen and going “I don’t have a single thing to say.”

That’s not the only time I’m speechless. I logged on to the New York Times – the newspaper’s – website yesterday – and here was the breaking news that greeted me

Four Bombings Kill Over 50 People Around Baghdad

Some Remains in Mexico Are Not of Missing Students

Football Clouds Justice at Florida State, Records Show

Hundreds Attend dictator Duvalier’s Funeral in Haiti

Stray Shot Kills a Child in New Jersey

We know I could keep going. Sometimes we just stand there, struck mute by the pain and horror of the world.

This is different from silence, which can be restorative, nourishing. Sometimes we just need to hush, right? And listen. It’s not always better to say something than to say nothing.

I don’t think that’s where we’re going here. Silence can be valuable. But it can also be deadly.  Sometimes an answer is called for. And we’re not talking about excuses – we’re talking about taking this seriously, being real.  Our language – and our silences – shape the reality we live in.

We preach a loving God around here – and I absolutely believe that to be true. But what I hear here is that there are things that matter.

It’s not just the absence of a robe that gets this guest in trouble.

It’s the absence of an answer.

It’s a failure to respond. To speak to the needs and the heart of the community.

We are talking about lines to be drawn, behavior that is acceptable — or unacceptable. Not belief. We’ve turned Christianity into something that’s about what we believe or don’t believe. For Jesus it’s not a question of belief. That’s not the standard he’s talking about.

It’s not about what’s in here, up in our heads.

It’s about what’s out here, all around us.

The offense is in the behavior – this unexplained refusal to participate in the life of the community. The king has opened his table to all, welcomed all — and this guest showed up, but refused actual engagement.

We serve a loving God, but it is okay to let. Jesus. challenge. us.

This is what makes us different from the fire and brimstone people — we know this invitation and table are open to all. Just look at the literacy event we just had here  — what a perfect banquet, totally in the kingdom’s vision — young and old, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, good and bad – okay, I ain’t going to call anybody bad, but we all have our good days and our not so good days, right? Gathered in God’s name to celebrate our common mission, to learn, and to join together in God’s work in this world.

But this story is also what makes us different from the prosperity gospel people — those who look at all this as what we can GET from GOD. This whole Christianity thing is not just about what GOD does for US. It is about OUR responsibilities in the COMMUNITY. It about how we function in RELATIONSHIP to ONE ANOTHER. Here we are – God is telling us to PARTY with one another – and somebody is going to say no.

In those terms, there is a wide range of acceptable behavior. And then there are forms of disrespect, of I’ve-got-my-rights-and-my-freedom-and-to-hell-with-you, of I’M-GONNA-STAND-MY-GROUND-EVEN-IF-YOU-END-UP-DEAD, of contempt and ignorance and flat out ugliness to one another.

That.is.not.okay.

So God says no. That is not acceptable. Talk to me. No? Not going to talk to me? Not going to enter a conversation about this? Then no.

So this guy gets hustled out and cast out. Through his actions, he separates himself from God’s presence and from the company of those who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus. It’s a refusal of fellowship of community.

He’s cast out of the light and back into the outer darkness, back out onto the streets with all the other folks who decided to ignore the invitation, those who chose not to participate.

Those who not on condition of belief, but by their behavior, separate themselves from God’s promise.

Because many are called. The invitation is there. But few are chosen. And you know why? Because they opt out. They refuse to engage with their neighbors. They turn up their nose and reject the fellowship and the conversation. They opt out of the community.

They don’t know what they’re missing. WE know what they’re missing. We’ve gotten a look at the fellowship of the table, one that calls for the generosity of spirit for all.  But they elect to go another way.

They are missing a great party.