October 22, 2017 Matthew 22: 1-14
Prayer: Dear God, We ask your inspiration as we read your Scriptures. Help us to hear a word from you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
The Great Party
When we were in Europe this summer, we took a train from Warsaw, Poland, to Berlin in Germany. It was a long ride, and there was a derailment somewhere near Berlin that they didn’t want us to encounter.
So our train stopped miles away – or kilometers, I suppose -- out in a little village in the middle of nowhere.
The conductors told us it would be quite a wait, so my son Taylor and I stepped onto the platform to stretch.
A young man joined us who, for some reason, was traveling with a trunk of Kentucky bourbon. He cracked it open and announced that we would have a “platform party.”
He began insisting that everyone have a plastic cup of this bourbon. I told him no, thank you, maybe 12 times. Taylor finally accepted a cup on the 15th ask. I was surprised he held out that long.
Bourbon Man asked me a few more times. So I finally went to the dining car and ordered a glass of wine to get him off my back.
And we proceeded to have a platform party.
Still the young man didn’t let up. “Mrs. Moore, can’t I pour you some bourbon?”
I finally said, “Hey, I’m drinking wine at 3 in the afternoon. I am fully participating in the platform party. I just can’t drink bourbon in the afternoon – or ever.”
Sometimes you’re just not up for a full-on party.
The Bible contains several party stories, mostly surrounding weddings. The best known is probably the wedding at Cana, when the hosts ran out of wine. At his mother’s urging, Jesus turned water into wine to help them out.
Then there’s a parable he told about guests being invited to a wedding feast and not wanting to come. Luke tells the parable in a relatively straightforward way. It would be easy to preach. But for some reason, it is not in our lectionary.
Matthew’s version is. And his is a more twisty, turning, disturbing version.
Several years ago, I preached a series on the “untold” stories in the Bible – those stories that are left out of our lectionary. The lectionary is a suggested grouping of readings that a lot of denominations follow in three-year cycles.
Some of the untold stories are just too weird to understand – Elisha sending out bears to maul children for calling him ‘Baldie.” Saul consulting the Witch of Endor. Ax heads that float.
Others may be considered too specific to the Old Testament era or to the first century. Well, today’s passage is not “untold” exactly. It’s more like “hidden in plain sight.”
Because for whatever reason, the church asks that we study Matthew’s very odd party story instead of Luke’s more easily digestible one. But I think we sometimes leave out the hard parts.
Before we start, I’d like to give a little background. By this point in Matthew’s gospel, we have come to Passion Week. Jesus has gone into the temple and overturned the moneychangers’ tables. He has been in constant conflict with the religious leaders who question his authority.
Matthew uses three parables to jab at the religious leaders. In the first, a father tells his two sons to work in the vineyard. One says he will but doesn’t – that’s the religious authorities. The other son says he won’t, but he then he does -- that’s the prostitutes and tax collectors, and we hope, us.
The second parable is about wicked tenants who kill the servants of a vineyard owner when he tries to collect his produce. Then they kill his son. This parable is about the religious leaders who killed the prophets, and at the end of Passion Week, will kill Jesus.
Now we come to today’s parable. Please turn to Matthew 22: 1-14, and let’s read the parable of this messianic party.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
4Again 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.”
5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.
13Then 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.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’
Now when Luke tells this story, it simply includes the part about a king inviting people to the banquet. Some refuse to come and so he invites others. No killing. No weeping. No gnashing of teeth.
Matthew makes it a much harder, harsher story.
But first, the easy part: The metaphor of the kingdom of God as a great wedding banquet. I officiated at a wedding last night at the Peace Center. And at the reception, there was prime big and crab cakes and quiche and roasted vegetables and cheese platters. There was a three-tiered wedding cake, decorated with fresh flowers. It was splendid, as wedding receptions usually are to this day.
But I doubt anyone there would have starved had there been nothing at all. Such was not the case in Matthew’s time. Hunger was a real possibility, an ever-present reality.
And when people are hungry, food becomes an object of obsession and fantasy. It’s only when we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from that we are free to think about something else.
This was one of the first things I learned at Triune. I remember being surprised when people didn’t want to enroll in literacy classes or try for permanent housing or think about college. But they were in survival mode.
They were worried about their next meal, where they would sleep that night. They couldn’t think six months ahead as I was asking them to do.
The situation was the same in biblical times. That’s why we see food as such an overriding theme in the Bible. Manna in the wilderness. Elisha feeding with barley loaves. Jesus feeding with loaves and fishes.
That’s why banquets were so important in Jewish literature and in Jesus’ parables. Having plenty of food was the best thing people could think of. So when they described the kingdom of God, they described it as a banquet where the food and drink were plentiful.
This parable is about how people respond to God’s invitation to that banquet, to that kingdom.
Now the early church read almost all parables as allegories – that is, that one thing stood for another. We don’t read all parables that way today, but some of them are allegorical. This is one of them. This parable is an allegory of salvation history.
The king is God. He sends his slaves to call those who have already been invited to the wedding banquet for his son. In other words, God sends his prophets to call Israel to belief in his son, Jesus Christ.
But Matthew tells us the people of Israel would not come. So God sent more slaves, or prophets, who pointed out that the oxen and fatted calves had been slain for the feast.
But one man went to his farm, another to his business. Worse yet, “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them and killed them.”
The story is getting ugly. Because of Israel’s treatment of God’s prophets, God then “sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”
You can see that this is an odd addition to a banquet story. Obviously, no one preparing a banquet stops to wage war and then goes right back to worrying about a menu and seating cards.
But Matthew is trying to make a point about people who reject Jesus. The burning of the city is probably a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 A.D.
Rejecting God’s invitation, he warns, will result in something far worse than missing a great banquet. There will be a flip side, a judgment side.
This is where I find the study of the gospel writers so fascinating.
Luke, who was concerned about women and shepherds and outcasts and the marginalized, had the king tell his slaves to gather “the crippled, the blind, and the lame … to go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in….” (Luke 14: 21-23)
And if they didn’t? Well then Luke’s king says “… (N)one of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
Matthew takes a pretty big leap from someone not getting a taste of dinner. His king kills the no-shows and burns their city.
I think the difference is that Matthew was so concerned about this new church and who was in it and how it would survive. He was concerned that people understand that the invitation into the kingdom of God demands a response.
The invitation into the kingdom of God demands a response.
After this interlude about waging war, Matthew returns to the wedding banquet. The king tells his slaves not to worry about those who refused the invitation.
Instead, they are to go and invite everyone they find into the wedding banquet. The people who come into the banquet at this second invitation will be the church.
But here’s what’s interesting: “Those slaves went out in the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
The banquet is filled with people who accepted the king’s invitation all right. The church is now present. But it contains both good and bad people.
We’ve seen this idea before, that the church is made up of good and bad people, and its job is not to choose among them. We see this in the parable of the wheat and tares.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, was like a field that contained both wheat and tares, or weeds. The farmer’s slaves asked if they should try to root out the weeds and throw them away. You can’t, said the wise farmer. If you do, you’ll tear out the good wheat along with the weeds.
Only at Judgment, Jesus explained, will the good and bad be separated. Until then, good and bad will exist side by side. Even in the church.
Isn’t that fascinating? Jesus and our gospel writers knew from the beginning that the church wasn’t going to be pure or pristine. I wish that all those people who have given up on the church could hear that.
The church is made up of people. So of course, we’re always going to be hypocritical … and loving, judgmental … and encouraging, spiteful … and kind, gossipy … and humble.
So now the wedding hall is filled with good and bad people. The time for judgment arrives, as the king himself enters. What does he find? A guest who is not wearing a wedding robe. He says to him,
“ ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ The man was speechless. And so the king had his slaves bind the man and throw him into the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now this passage may strike us as harsh. But in biblical times, a wedding host provided clothes for his guests. This guest accepted the invitation but then refused to dress appropriately.
Remember: This is allegory. Jesus was not talking about someone who couldn’t afford nice clothes to wear to a wedding.
He was talking about someone who has not lived as a disciple.
He was talking about someone who heard the invitation to the gospel and came in, but has not followed Jesus’ teachings, has not attempted to conform his life to the gospel.
This is the point where grace and our response to it collide.
Like Luke, we preach God’s grace, and I believe it fully. But there is another side to it that Matthew highlights here: Our response. Our response.
In the final days, Jesus says in this parable, even people in the church will face judgment for what they have done or have not done, for how they have responded to the invitation to the kingdom of God.
Matthew ends the parable this way: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Everyone in here has been called to take part in the gospel. But only individually can we know if we are accepting that call or not.
Are we clothing ourselves in lives that please God? If so, we will have a seat at the great wedding party.
If not, we won’t.
And it’s not for the church to decide. The church is home to good and bad, doing its best to minister to all.
It’s between the individual and our God.