Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Text: Matthew 22:1–14
Audio available here.
So is anyone else feeling a little uncomfortable after hearing that reading from the gospel this morning?? That stuff about burning cities and kicking people out into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…
Yeah…. That doesn’t sit very well does it?
I don’t know what you do, but one of the first things I do when I come across an uncomfortable reading like this one – a reading that I can’t avoid because I’m assigned to preach – one of the first things I do is step back and read what comes before and what comes after the selection assigned for the day, because sometimes putting it in context can help.
And because it is worth reminding ourselves that the small selections we hear read aloud each week are a part of a bigger story – not only within the narrative of each book within the Bible, but within the entire Biblical narrative as well.
So where are we here, this morning?
This is the part of the gospel of Matthew that happens after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is a part of the series of events that the writer of Matthew places between the Triumphal Entry, what we call Palm Sunday, and Good Friday and Easter morning.
When we get to this parable, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and gone straight to the temple, overturned some tables, and cleared it of people taking financial advantage of worshippers at the temple. Jesus then does a few things that embarrass the authorities and tells some stories that make them out to be the bad guys. So at this point, his level of endearment of himself to the authorities in Jerusalem is pretty low.
We know he hasn’t endeared himself to the authorities because pretty much the next thing that happens is opposing factions within the religious authorities come together to plot together to entrap Jesus.
So what happened in this parable that upset the authorities so much that the next thing we see is these opposing factions working together to bring Jesus down? I think that it has to do with entitlement and God’s grace.
Lets unpack what I mean with that by going through the parable again…
Jesus is standing in the temple with the chief priests, the Pharisees, the elders of the people, and a huge crowd of random temple-goers. Presumably the disciples are there too, since they seem to be around all of the time.
The chief priests and elders ask Jesus a question and, as he usually does in the gospels, Jesus responds with a question of his own before launching into a series of parables that basically accuse the religious leaders and authorities of getting their priorities wrong. This is the third in that series and it expands on the previous two.
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
A wedding banquet – this is like Christmas, Easter, and an invitation to the swankiest party you’ve ever imagined all rolled into one. It is a big deal.
He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited…
Everyone who got the “Save the Date” and the “Invitation” is now being summoned: the party is ready!
But they would not come…
So the king tries again. He sends another round of people to everyone who has already been invited. Look! The feast is ready! The decorations are up! The fairy lights are on! 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 the king’s slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.
So the king responds to this violence with violence and burns the city of the folks who killed his slaves.
This is where, if you are trying to identify God with the king, things get tough. Is the God we worship a God of retribution and violence? No. Is there judgement? Yes… but maybe not in the way you are thinking.
So far this parable is following the narrative and worldview of the Hebrew people to whom Matthew was writing. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we read story after story of God sending prophets to call the people back to God and story after story of those prophets being mistreated or killed. The result of this, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, is that the people of Israel are conquered by foreigners, scattered, exiled, and in some cases killed. So in one sense, Jesus is playing into that narrative and worldview: the first round of invitations has gone out, and people refused.
So what does the king do? He sends his people out into the main streets, saying invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet … both good and bad … so that the wedding hall will be filled with guests. Invite EVERYONE. The bad and the good.
This is such a hallmark of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. The bad stuff isn’t a problem for the kingdom of heaven – everyone is invited. Judgement isn’t about keeping people out.
Invite everyone to the wedding banquet because we are going to have a PARTY and it isn’t a party without everyone there, is what the king is saying. So that is what happens. The hall is filled. Everyone is invited and this time everyone shows up.
And because it is such a mix of people and the king wants things to be festive and for no one to feel left out, everyone who comes in is given a wedding robe. A special outfit to wear so that everyone knows they belong at the party.
And then the king comes in to survey his party…
But when he came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there 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…
Hang on there… doesn’t this fly in the face of “everyone being invited” and bringing in the good and the bad?? Why, then, is Jesus making such a big deal about this guy’s clothes??
Remember what I said at the beginning about how I thought this parable was all about entitlement versus God’s grace? I think that is what this is saying.
God’s throwing a party, the best party and the biggest party – and every single person is invited. In fact, every single person is already there, in the door, at the party. It is a gift – the free gift of God’s grace to every single person.
But this one guy decides to come in his own clothes, to cast off the gift of grace. Because what he already has is good enough for the party.
My clothes, that I bought and paid for and put on all by myself, are special and I deserve to be recognized for that. I don’t need the wedding clothes because I am already good enough AND there is no way I want to be associated with the riff raff who NEED the special wedding clothes.
“Nope” says Jesus.
Go into the main streets and invite EVERYONE to the wedding banquet, both good and bad.
God’s grace is that everyone is called to the wedding banquet. Everyone is invited, and everyone is given the “right clothes” to wear.
There is none of that “my clothes are nicer than your clothes” or “my behaviour is better than your behaviour” or “I lived a holier life” stuff.
We don’t like the idea of judgement. But Jesus isn’t telling a parable where judgement is “who is out versus who is in” – Jesus is telling an expansive story of everyone being in… and the only ones who end up out are the ones who think they’re good enough refuse to put on the clothes that God has gifted them.
Even that last line, For many are called, but few are chosen is infused with God’s grace. Don’t think of “chosen” as the means by which we are invited in to the wedding banquet. Think of “chosen” as referring to the end result, a state of being – the simple fact of being present at the wedding banquet.
One scholar translates the last line of the parable God calls all peoples, but the weakest God loves above all. (Schotroff)
If we remove the value judgement often associated with the word “weak,” I wonder if we can instead read that sentence as God calls all peoples, but the weakest, who understand that they have to take on God’s grace rather than their own “good works,” are the ones who can actually experience God’s love.
Our state of being is at the wedding feast, dwelling in God’s grace and and God’s love. Thanks be to God for the gift of grace and may we have the courage to put on that garment every day.