First Evangelical Lutheran Church
March 8, 2015
AN UGLY PARABLE
I am not going to mince words here. This is an ugly parable. No amount of generalizing about God’s hospitality or vulnerability or invitation is going to do away with that. But here it is in our holy text and we have to deal with it one way or another. And there is always grace and good news in the Word of God. I always find it helpful to begin with context. Where did Matthew include this in his gospel and what purpose does it serve there? Jesus tells this parable within the Temple confines, embroiled in controversy with the scribes and Pharisees, just 2 days away from his arrest. This is in a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven and is an outline of salvation history from a Christian perspective. It speaks to God’s desire that all people be saved, and to the reality not that everyone will be.
Human beings have a responsibility to hear and accept the invitation and, to be fully prepared to obey and live according to the invitation.
Jesus had just told the parable of the vineyard which indicted the Jewish religious leaders for failing to heed the prophets and for killing the son and legal heir of the vineyard owner. That parable ended with the ominous prediction that God would give the vineyard to new tenants and crush the wicked ones. In interpreting such parables it helps to keep the absurd nature of the unfolding story in front of us. As I have said before, Jesus’ parables are filled with hyperbole to push us across the boundaries of personal interpretation to consider the radical nature of being followers of Christ. In these parables of the kingdom, the absurdity has reached a new height.
The wedding banquet given by a king for his son and heir is a common Jewish metaphor for God’s grace and largesse. This is the most lavish and wonderful party that will ever happen in these people’s lifetimes, so it is even harder to imagine or justify the lame excuses for not coming. The king is insistent that they come so he sends out servants to bring them to the party. This time the invited guests torture and murder the messengers and the king’s response is horrifying. He sends his troops to destroy the offenders and then issues his invitation to everyone. Now the riffraff are invited, those without refined manners or knowledge of etiquette.
How many of you were invited to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding? I wasn’t either, and I would be hard-pressed to know how to dress for and behave at such a gathering. Even with my level of education and good manners, I have nothing in my experience that informs me about the proper behavior in the English court. But at this point, even people who have no education, those who collect garbage and scrub floors and live in barns are invited to the banquet. There is a remarkable urgency of grace here. The king is determined that people will be at the banquet, that grace will be given lavishly. The king himself is not indifferent or complacent, and has the expectation that his enthusiasm and party spirit will be matched by those attending the banquet. This is not a party given for the sake of going through the proper protocol. The king really wants the people to celebrate with him and his heir. There is a real will for relationship here, the king wants people there to share the joy. And he will not tolerate indifference to his invitation.
So what about this poor guy who shows up without the proper attire? Does the king really expect that someone coming directly from gleaning the field or sweeping the street to have the proper attired for a royal wedding feast at hand? The absurd hyperbole of the parable is now at its apex. The proper wedding robe is the key to the mystery here. What does it signify, that one who is at the feast of the king’s son be properly dressed. As is true with all parables, the wedding garment is a metaphor.
The point of the parable of the wedding banquet is that attending the banquet is not just an affirmation of the status quo, that since you got into the banquet, life can continue as it always has.
Attendance at the banquet is intended to be transformative, that life will never be the same again. Everyone is invited and even admitted to the feast, but only those who are transformed will be there forever. Everyone else is cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Followers of Jesus Christ are not called to a life of passive ease. We are not given choice seats at the table where we can stay indefinitely gorging on the goodies, oblivious to the other guests and the host. The proper wedding garment is the metaphor for understanding that, for showing to the world that we have been transformed in the presence of God, at the table of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many are called to demonstrate to the world that Jesus invites everyone to the banquet because it is God’s good pleasure to feed us eternally in his gracious presence.
Jesus is putting before us the radical and active choice to accept or reject the invitation. There is never room for indifferent complacency. Having been brought in, things are never the same again. The wedding garment is symbolic of the inner transformation of being a part of the new community. This is an urgent invitation, one that requires a strong and affirmative response. Is our profession of faith that Jesus saves us from our sins transformative, or do we just say the pretty words? Have we been transformed in the experience, or are we just mindlessly partaking without regard to those next to you or for the king?
To God be the glory.