A couple of months ago, I attended a wedding. It was my own. Like many weddings, we had all the last minute craziness of planning, setting up the venue, and getting final head counts for our caterer so that we would be sure to have enough food and wine for those who would attend. And, like many outdoor weddings, we had lots of surprises – loud airplanes flying overhead during critical moments in the service, logistical challenges with the sound system set-up, where to locate the portable toilets and generator, (they ended up being just to the left of where everyone was seated and the ceremony took place, and as a result they featured prominently in most of our wedding pictures) and of course, we had the surprise of guests who RSVP'd but didn't show up, and guests who showed up to the wedding but had not RSVP'd. Despite these surprises, I got married and we all had a wonderful time of celebration.
The word, 'celebration' is normally what comes to mind when we think about weddings. But, we don't often think about the vulnerability on the part of the host or hosts in planning such feasts. Will the invited actually come? If they do come, will they enjoy themselves? Will all of the planning, and all the attention to detail enhance or detract from the festivities?
In our gospel reading from Matthew this morning we are confronted with a wedding feast unlike any wedding I have ever attended or heard about. It is a complex and disturbing story filled with vulnerability, persistent invitation, and of violence and wrath when the invitation is rejected. The story features a king who has to beg his citizens to come to the wedding celebration in honor of his son, yet who uses violence against them when they do not respond, or respond inappropriately. Perhaps, like me, you cringed when we declared after this very disturbing gospel reading that praise should be offered to our Lord Christ! This is a hard and difficult gospel lesson. This story is not the sort of story that accepting, inclusive and loving Episcopalians like as much as we like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, for example. Nevertheless this is our gospel for today and perhaps even in its extreme features there is good news offered.
In the narrative flow of Matthew's gospel, this parable occurs in a lengthy exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. It follows the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Jesus with the crowds hailing him as the Messiah, and after his violent overturning of the temple vendors' tables who had turned a house of worship into a place of commerce; Jesus calls them robbers. So, the narrative as a whole reflects an intra-mural conflict between those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and those Jews who rejected him. The gospel writer's use of this parable reflects this wrestling within his own community: Why was the invitation to receive and celebrate the kingdom come in Jesus rejected by some of his own people?
But, the story is much larger than simply this intra-mural conflict narrative. Indeed, it is an extended metaphor of a vulnerable God who has been extending an invitation to come and enter into kingdom celebration from the very beginning of the human story. Like the king in the story who sends out servants three times to extend the invitation to celebrate, God had faithfully made Godself vulnerable by inviting human beings who would just as faithfully reject the invitation. Many reject the invitation because they have better things to do – tending to the farm and the business. Some simply ignore the invitation perhaps because it seems so implausible. But, then the rejection is not just of the invitation, but of the Inviter. The servants of the king are harmed and killed, just as Israel's own prophets were rejected and killed. The parable's use of a king and the invitation to a royal wedding makes the rejection by the citizens even more potent for the point of the parable. Why would anyone not want to attend a royal wedding celebration?
And so, the king in his anger-as any earthly king would do-defends the honor of his servants by destroying those who murdered them and by setting their city on fire. The burning and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE is likely in the mind of the author, wondering aloud if the horrific destruction of God's own city was a sign of sorrowful judgment. 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I longed to gather you under my wing as a hen gathers her chicks…but you were unwilling.'
Despite all of this, the king continues to extend the invitation to his son's wedding feast. And as we read this story, I think we are meant to feel both the desperation of this king, and exasperation – the desperation of his vulnerability and longing, and exasperated at the lengths to which the king goes to throw this party! Again, servants are sent out to compel those living on the 'main highways'—all they could find—both the evil and the good; and these folks respond, and the text tells us that the wedding hall was filled with celebrating guests.
Given that this parable is told as an allegorical comparison for what the kingdom of God is like, it would have been nice if this was the end of the story. But, it takes yet another unexpected turn. As the king comes to see all those who had responded to the invitation, he notices a guest without wedding clothes. We might wonder how in the world this guest would have acquired these festive garments since he has just come in from whatever byway or highway he was on. So, we are rightly horrified by the response of the king, especially since we have just witnessed him inviting everyone in – the evil as well as the good – and yet, this guest is banished from the party into a place described as 'outer darkness' where there is 'weeping and gnashing of teeth.' This is where this story ends and offers a sober warning; that many are called but few are chosen. I don't know about you, but I just wanted to stop reading once everyone was included.
Here, it is helpful to note that in many parts of the Ancient Near East, it was the custom that guests would wear garments that symbolized their respect for the host and the occasion; just as it would be customary today to dress up when attending a wedding. Often, the host would provide a rack of garments at the entryway for guests who had not brought their own. 'Not to be wearing a wedding garment', one scholar notes, 'when they were likely provided on the way in, is a sign of disrespect for both host and occasion.' (1) This helps us understand both the speechless response of the guest, and the punch line by the king: "For many are called, but few are chosen." And it also gives us-we who are guests at the wedding feast- much to ponder.
First, the parable asks us who hear it today to think about the nature of our response to God's invitation. Are their things in our lives that function as excuses for not entering fully into the celebration that is the kingdom of God? Second, for those who have responded to the gracious invitation, are there ways in which we have taken our 'status' as invited ones for granted? Are we entering more deeply into the joy of our salvation? Particularly as Episcopalians, how are we continuing to live out the implications of our baptism and our baptismal covenant? In the stewardship of our lives, might we find new and creative ways to respond to our baptismal vows – How might we continue the apostles' teaching? How might we persevere in resisting evil and sin? How might we proclaim by word and example the Good news (in other words, invite others to join the celebration)? How might we seek and serve Christ in all persons? And how will we strive for justice and peace? We have been invited to the wedding celebration – first, have we responded to that invitation, and second, are we entering into that celebration with joyful desire or disrespectful drudgery?
Finally, as the slightly more sober, but no less theologically astute Karl Barth put the matter: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.” (2) There really is a sense of stewardship and accountability for the way in which we live our lives and we need to make a choice. We have freely been offered a gracious invitation; we have the choice to receive, and we must choose whether or not we will turn receiving into a response.
The kingdom of heaven is a banquet, after all – we heard that sung in our Psalm, and in our reading from Isaiah- this is why Jesus was constantly eating and drinking in the gospels as a sign that the kingdom had come in Jesus – in his life and ministry – and of that eschatological kingdom that will come.
Don’t let the invitation go for nothing – freely you have received, freely give! Time is so short, so dress yourself in the joy of the party – live its celebration in righteousness and grace. The king has invited you! Be ready for the feast to begin.
(1)Alyce McKenzie cited by Katie Dawson in www.salvagedfaith.com "The Wedding Garment," October 9, 2011.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 588, quoted in Jarvis, Cynthia A., “Matthew 22:1-14: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28, WJK, 2013, 186.