The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
October 9, 2011
Upon reading this parable today, I wondered whether Jesus had recently been a part of a wedding party. I mean, I don’t know about Jesus, but weddings have been known to make me a little grumpy! As much as they are supposed to be about two people making a commitment of love to one another, they are also frequently displays of power and wealth – often well beyond a person’s means. Bowing under this pressure, even the most gracious of hosts can turn into obnoxious tyrants.
So, Jesus, in what I’m convinced must have been a terribly grumpy state, gives us this difficult parable comparing the Kingdom of heaven to this king and his disastrous wedding banquet. At this moment in the Gospel of Matthew, things are escalating for Jesus. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, and to the cross. And this is the third parable in row that Jesus addresses the chief priests and elders – people who hold religious authority, and yet do not seem to understand the will of God at all. So, two weeks ago, we heard Jesus chide these leaders because of their disobedience, and refusal to listen. Last week, in the parable of the wicked tenants, he railed against them for stealing the fruits of God’s vineyard and rejecting their Lord. This week he accuses these people of rejecting God’s invitation, even going so far as to murdering the messengers. It’s a difficult parable, and frankly, I don’t know quite what to do with it.
I don’t know how to interpret this parable. The most obvious thing to do is to read it allegorically – the king is God; the bridegroom, his son, is Jesus; the slaves are the prophets; the first invited are the people of Israel; and the people off the streets are the Gentiles. That is the simplest reading, with the simplest conclusions – except that we’re led to conclusions that aren’t consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus preached forgiveness – not retaliation. He reached out to the sinners – he didn’t destroy them and burn their cities. Even when he could have taken up arms against those who would unjustly arrest and execute him, he chose instead to give his life for those same people. As tempting as it is to read this parable as allegory, I don’t think it works. And if we don’t read it as allegory, how do we read it? I don’t know.
And I don’t know about the failure of grace in this story either. Just when we think we’re through with the violence and on to the great open and diverse banquet, we see this poor man first pulled off the street into the party and then, because he’s not wearing the right clothes, sentenced to weeping and gnashing of teeth. What happened to Jesus, the Sabbath-breaker – Jesus, the one who ate with the tax collectors and prostitutes? Where’s the grace? I don’t know.
Finally, I don’t know about that punch-line – “Many are called, but few are chosen.” I mean, what exactly does Jesus mean by “few”? And is he talking about the few who will be chosen to lead? Or is he saying that few will get a seat at the heavenly banquet? Where is that Jesus who charges his disciples to go and baptize all nations? I don’t know.
So there’s a lot about this parable that I just don’t know. But, I think there are a couple of things that I do know.
One thing that I know is that while God continues to invite us to live fuller, more joyful lives, we continue to make excuses and miss out. In the parable, those first invited to the wedding banquet made light of the invitation. It was no big deal to them – they had more important things to do. And so they returned to their work, denying the honor of the invitation and choosing instead something else as higher priority over celebrating with their king. Might that sound familiar? How many times have we all heard that invitation to feast – to partake fully of the life that God offers us – and yet we make light of it? We decide instead that we’re just too busy, or too tired. We have other more important things to do. We make excuses and we miss out. We can do that because God never fails to give us free will. God never forces grace upon us – we have to be willing to accept the invitation and show up.
And the other thing that I do know is that when we do accept the invitation, this is not a “come as you are” affair. The invitation certainly does meet us where we are – pulling us off the streets, out of our homes, the good and the bad, just as we are. But, when we arrive, rest assured we are expected to change. We’re expected to rise to the occasion – not to just come in for the sake of the buffet and hope to leave with a doggie bag – but to respond to the call by putting on the mantle of Christ, a robe of faith. As the old adage goes, “God loves you just the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” The clothing is not what’s actually important. The clothing is the outward sign of the internal transformation. If you show up at this feast, you’re expected to open your mind, expand your heart, reach out in love, and stoop down to serve.
In the end, I think there are two things we have to know about this parable. First, that Jesus spoke this parable in the context of an escalating polemic against the chief priests and Pharisees, who were, by this time, plotting to arrest him. While we may not choose to strictly read it as an allegory, it is most certainly hyperbole – the kind of exaggeration that Jesus would often use to catch the attention and stretch open the hearts and the minds of his listeners. In this case, he’s particularly focused on those leaders who have both the authority and the responsibility to teach and tend to God’s people. And secondly, though we are not the people to whom Jesus originally addressed this parable, inasmuch as we claim the leadership and authority to which God has called us as Christians, we need to be challenged by it. We need to be reminded that we are constantly being called again to the feast, and that we need to be ready to put down our distractions and respond to God’s call.
And as we do so, we need also to be reminded that our response will also require our readiness to be transformed. We can’t expect to come to the table and stay just as we are. For God has good things to give us—fullness of life, joy, and mercy. To receive these gifts, we have to show up, we have to take our place at the table and be ready for these gifts to transform us. Even as Jesus was speaking this difficult parable, there is no doubt to me that he also knew the scriptures.
So in the background of this parable, there is the Song of Solomon, that great ancient song of love between God and his people, which says, “He brought me to his banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.”