The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Have you ever been invited to a wedding and really didn’t want to go? Maybe the bride or groom was the relative of a friend and you had not even met them. Maybe it was a family wedding but there would be people there that you just didn’t want to see—and you could be stuck sitting at their table.
Maybe you were a single person and knew it would feel awkward being there solo with so many couples. Maybe you’re a true introvert and the idea of having to navigate conversation with a crowd is anxiety producing. Maybe you just can’t stand the thought of eating rubbery chicken and getting pulled on the dance floor to do the chicken dance. In any case, we’ve probably all been in a situation like that at one time or another. We struggle with filling out and returning that RSVP card until the very last minute.
The setting of today’s parable is a marriage banquet given by a king for his son. I’m pretty sympathetic to those in this story who opted out of the wedding which in the first century lasted several days. It is somewhat understandable why some of the guests could not take that much time from their livelihood to attend.
Like the parable of the vineyard we heard last week, it is an ugly and violent kind of story. Killing the messengers who came to remind the invited guests about their presence at the wedding is way over the top. The story is a metaphor expressing disappointment with the Pharisees and other religious leaders who question the authority of Jesus as he teaches during the final days of his ministry.
So it is really not a story about the common folk but of the religious hierarchy of that time, leaders who lived and ruled like kings, taught the people about a God of retribution and vengeance, forced them to observe the letter of the law, and treated them very shabbily—while they lived high on the hog and walked among them with an air of superiority and arrogance. These are the same people Jesus called “hypocrites.” They have rejected the invitation to celebrate the appearance of God’s Son as the Messiah.
Luke tells a similar story and scholars believe that the original parable ended as it does in Luke with the master’s gracious invitation being ignored. Clearly, something was eating Matthew to carry it further than Jesus did. Might he be saying that the invitations ignored and cast away as rubbish by the people of Israel were picked up by the Gentiles, those who had no history with the God of Israel? This was a real thorn in Jewish Matthew’s side. Does Matthew shape this parable for his own agenda? Matthew has written some lovely texts but this, like a few others of his authorship, is dark, violent, and full of judgment and has been a source of anti-Jewish sentiment in the history of Christianity.
We may be familiar with Matthew’s famed warning about “the weeping and gnashing of teeth,” a phrase which might want to send us right out the church door in search of a Quaker prayer meeting. Maybe this narrative will help us understand Matthew’s vitriolic language. A certain seminary professor of church history would say the most outrageous things to his students. He was funny. He was sarcastic. He was sometimes offensive, and he was challenging. One never knew what to expect or what he might say next to irritate them.
After a particularly outrageous comment he would look at the class and say, “You know I’m given to exaggeration, and if you quote me outside of the class, I’ll call you a liar.” This was the professor’s way of telling his students not to take what he said literally but to take it seriously. That was his way of challenging them to see something new rather than just hold on to their preconceived ideas.
The parable of the wedding banquet is so outrageous and shocking that it begs us to take it seriously not literally. It is a story that holds some truth but is not necessarily historical fact. Is God like the angry king who, when he is slighted or doesn’t get his way, destroys lives and demolishes cities? That certainly doesn’t fit with the God revealed to us by Jesus and certainly is not the God to whom I pray. If we preached this parable as gospel truth, I think Jesus would call us liars.
But what about this wedding garment? Why was the king so unreasonable? If in desperation to fill the banquet hall you are going to pick up your last minute guests on the street corner, how can you expect that they will come in their best wedding finery? Wedding garments were costly. Some scholars think that wedding hosts provided garments for their guests. If that was true, then the onus shifts from the king to the guest. Why did he refuse the robe offered to him?
In truth, the wedding garment is again a metaphor for something else. It seems to equal the sense of awe and humility we might have in the recognition of God’s unconditional and outlandish love—radical gospel grace. Those who accepted the invitation of Jesus were lepers, a man born blind, tax collectors, public sinners, a woman with a flow of blood, little people without a checkbook or voter’s registration, a woman of the night who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears. And they all come with deep gratitude. The list goes on and the real truth of this parable is that the kingdom of God is a realm of radical equality.
The wedding garment is our amazement, even shock over the fact the God not only accepts us at the table, but loves us as we are. I’d like to think that is the wedding garment that Matthew thought some members of the community were missing.
So today we hear another parable about what God’s kingdom is like; a kingdom that contains no hierarchies is not fueled by competition and has not even a hint of oppression. It is open to all—at any time, any place, any circumstance. Yet, the parable of the banquet is offered as a reminder that there is a cost to radical inclusion. The entry fee would be our response—a thoughtful, thankful, response that takes us beyond just enjoying the meal to giving ourselves in service for the good of the community of those with whom we gather at the banquet table.
Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor tells us:
“God is not looking for warm bodies but for wedding guests who will rise to the occasion of honoring the son. We can do that in shorts and sneakers as well as in suits and high heels because our wedding robes are not made of denim or silk.
They are made of the whole fabric of our lives, using patterns God has given us—patterns of justice, forgiveness, loving-kindness, and peace. When we stitch them up and put them on, we are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.”