October 12, 2014 Matthew 22: 1-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
When it comes to weddings, there are basically two kinds of people in the world. There are the people who receive a wedding invitation and joyfully prop it up on the mantelpiece. Then they immediately fill in the reply card and mail it back to the happy couple. Right away these folks start to think about shower gifts and wedding presents and they are soon off shopping for something new to wear, and making travel plans and reservations, and setting up hair and nail appointments. And that’s just the men!
The other kind of person (more like me) opens the invitation, smiles, and puts it down on the table with the rest of the day’s mail. It is promptly buried under Giant Eagle circulars, bills, and magazines. Days pass. The pile of hastily perused mail grows. For these folks, the fact that this wedding is approaching hovers around in the back of their minds. It’s not forgotten exactly. They might even mark the date on the calendar, on one of their many calendars. But that little reply card – now where did that go? When was that supposed to be mailed in? Weeks pass. No gifts are bought, no travel plans made, no wedding clothes selected, no hair appointment is booked, and forget about manicures. Suddenly, the wedding is only a few days away – panic! It’s not as if the invitation hadn’t arrived six weeks ago. Now what? They had fully intended to go to the wedding, but…but that intention somehow never got translated into an active acceptance of the invitation and the necessary preparations for the wedding celebration.
So which kind of person are you? I’ve already confessed to you, so come on. The odd thing about this is that I think we all want to be in that first group of eager responders who jump right on board and enthusiastically begin their preparations. For a long time I didn’t even recognize that this was a pattern, virtually a way of life. Being a last minute person and a procrastinator is a difficult way to live. I seldom miss deadlines, and I do get to the weddings (somehow). Does it really matter that I often end up writing a check for a wedding gift and decide what I’m wearing on the day of the wedding? Maybe not.
But this morning we have to deal with what may be the most bloodthirsty of Jesus’ parables and it is all about a wedding invitation that was ignored. This little story is so blunt and brutal that it doesn’t even make sense. Why would wedding guests kill the messengers sent to remind them that they were invited? What wedding host, even if he is a king, would send out troops to massacre the guests who failed to show up for a wedding? And why would he burn down the city? Wasn’t it his city? And why would he bring in waifs and strays from the highway to fill the wedding hall and then throw one of them out because he was improperly dressed? When was he supposed to get dressed?
These peculiar elements in the parable serve to highlight the fact that it is an allegory. It’s almost a coded story in which everything stands for something else. Taken literally the story doesn’t make much sense, but once you know the subtext, the hidden meaning, you can see what Jesus was saying and why he said it. So what we need is almost a translation. I should point out that the people listening to Jesus would have understood this code and they would have been able to decipher the story without too much trouble. For us it’s a little more difficult.
This is a parable of the Kingdom and the central figure in the story is the king who is giving a wedding banquet for his son. The Kingdom or coming rule of God was often likened to a wedding banquet, so, obviously the king was God. The invitation to the wedding was sent out several times. First, they got a ‘save the date’ notice, then the formal invitation was delivered, and finally, on the day of the wedding, a final plea was made: “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”
These multiple invitations from God, the King, had already been sent to Israel. The Old Testament is full of them. The slaves who delivered the invitations were the prophets. The fate of the prophets was a lot worse than that of your regular mailman. As Jesus said in his teaching known as the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Shooting the messenger was something that happened routinely to the prophets, so this part of the parable now makes sense.
Obviously, God was not pleased with this, but in our story the king’s retaliation was terribly violent. Murdering the murders and burning his own city stands in marked contrast to Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. When Matthew was writing his Gospel it was after 70 A.D. That was the year when Jerusalem fell to the Romans. The holy city was utterly destroyed. How could that be explained? In the parable either Jesus anticipates that event or Matthew inserts this explanation of that punishment. Jerusalem had rejected the king’s son, Jesus, and did not respond to God’s invitation, already delivered by the prophets. This was the consequence. And it did, literally, happen. So that explains another of the strange twists in the parable.
Finally, one last wedding invitation is sent. The slaves were told to invite everyone they could find. And that’s what they did. The invitation went to good and bad people, and all were gathered into the wedding hall. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus would send his followers out on a similar mission to “make disciples of all nations.” And even during his lifetime Jesus welcomed the good and the bad, sinners, tax collectors, women of the night, and Gentiles as well as eager fishermen, curious religious leaders, and those who had first responded to the call of John the Baptist. All were welcomed. All were gathered in. Our God is an inclusive God.
But then comes the final shocker at the end of the parable. One of the guests is singled out for being improperly dressed. As a last minute dresser myself, this part of the story is particularly unnerving. But, of course, this is an allegory and the clothing represents something else. It was actually a common way of talking about a change of life.
The 4th chapter of Ephesians contains this warning, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self…and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” In his letter to the Galatian Christians Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And in his letter to the Colossians he says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” Peter in his first letter writes, “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility.” These are the appropriate wedding garments. Anyone responding to the wedding invitation should have been wearing a new self, having been clothed with Christ, and dressed in garments of love and humility.
Now we see why the wedding guest was speechless. What could he say? He was not wearing the right clothes. His life had not been transformed upon receiving the wedding invitation. And he was not ready for the wedding banquet. As the other guests were preparing to celebrate with the son, the king’s judgment was swift and final. “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There is no way to soften or explain away that final element in Jesus’ story. It is what it is. When you receive God’s invitation, a change of life is expected and required.
So now we understand what Jesus was saying in the parable and why he said it. And that brings me back to my earlier question, the one I put to you. When it comes to weddings, which kind of person are you? Perhaps we should refine that question a little more now. When it comes to responding to God’s invitation in Jesus Christ, what kind of person are you?
Have you sent in your reply card? Are you filled with joy and anticipation each time you pass the invitation propped up on your mantle? Are you trying on new clothes – putting on Christ, wearing your new self, dressed in love and humility? What gifts would you like to give to Jesus? Have you thought about that? Will you be ready when the day of the wedding banquet finally comes?
Or have you allowed that precious invitation to be buried under junk mail? Have you been too busy with the other things in your life to give it the attention it deserves? Are you still thinking that you’ll get around to it, that you’ll get serious about your faith, that you’ll repent one of these days? Of course, you meant to send in the little reply card. It was already stamped and addressed. God made it so easy. So why have you put it off? And why are you still dressed in those clothes, the clothes of the old self? We are the baptized. We need to think about what we’re wearing, because when we joyfully put on Christ, he will make us new people.
When it comes to weddings, perhaps you are like me. I always wanted to be in that first group of eager responders who jump right on board and enthusiastically begin their preparations for the wedding banquet. Of course, when it comes to faith, you can be. You must be. You have received your invitation. Now, which kind of person will you be?