Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; 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 his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

American revivalism has historically been characterized by hellfire-and-brimstone preachers. One of the most popular of these preachers was an ex-professional baseball player for the Chicago White Stockings, turned evangelist, named Billy Sunday.

Sunday was known for his dramatic “Gatlin’ gun” preaching style. He challenged the men in his congregations to be “man enough to trust Jesus.” On occasion he would chase the devil around the church, running wildly through the aisles, and slide home into the pulpit, “into the arms of Jesus.” Although his theatrics received criticism in his day and since then, Sunday did take sin seriously. The evangelist was known for hanging a huge banner over the stage of his evangelism crusades: “Get Right with God.” For Billy Sunday, being a Christian required living a Christian lifestyle.

Matthew the evangelist could be considered by some a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. Matthew’s Gospel provides vivid imagery of the threat of judgment to motivate disciples to do good works. The theme of judgment is found in at least sixty sections of the Gospel. Matthew warns of being burned in fire (3:10; 7:19), an unquenchable fire (3:12), a fiery furnace (13:42, 50), eternal fire (18:8-9; 25:41), or a fiery Gehenna (5:22; 18:9; see 5:29); being delivered to the tormentors until the last penny is paid (18:34); being dismembered (24:51); and being consigned to eternal punishment (25:46).

One of the places that speaks of judgment is found in Jesus’ parable to the chief priests concerning the wedding banquet that we heard today (Matt. 22:1-14). There is a problem about the punishment of a wedding guest. A man is bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness, where there are weeping and gnashing of teeth—usually symbolic of eternal damnation—simply for showing up at a wedding improperly dressed (v. 13)!

Let’s take a moment to consider the larger narrative and chain of events. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem, an unlikely king on a young donkey. 

He goes straight to the temple and clears out the commercialism and abuses he finds there, making room for people of all ages, abilities, and classes to enter and find healing. Institutions change about as slowly as a cruise ship makes a U-turn, so it’s no wonder the religious leadership questions his authority to do and teach as he does. Note how his teachings in chapter 21 become increasingly surreal and violent. What’s that all about?

What if we do what Jesus so often did and flip the story on its ear? Maybe the man/king is not a representation of God but rather a stock character for all the earthly rulers and power players who act badly and take advantage of those on the margins. The man/king is incensed that people in his honor/shame culture don’t take his invitation seriously. It reflects badly on him and on his heir. So he keeps inviting in the crowd until they finally have had enough and revolt against the slaves he sends on his behalf. The angry ruler sends in his own militia to murder the murderers and sack the city. With his honor at stake he invites all the riff-raff and dregs of society, even providing proper party clothes for them so that they’ll at least look as if they fit in.

Then there’s the one who will not conform, who will not play dress up to ease the man/king’s bruised ego and rage. What if this character represents Jesus foreshadowing his own death at the hands of the institution and power players? This “guest” does not speak or attempt to offer a defense but instead goes forth to meet the politically charged death that awaits him. No one speaks up for him; he is betrayed and cast out. 

If this is the case, Jesus’ teaching offers a strong condemnation about abuse of power and the ways of human reign and institutions in contrast to the reign of God where all are invited and welcomed into full participation.

What about verse 14 then? How does that make sense? If you follow an upside-down, topsy-turvy interpretation of this teaching then it points to the stark contrast between the “invitations” we humans receive to participate in the dominant culture of our day. Few of us will be “chosen” to be power players and bigwigs in the wiles and ways of this world, but all are invited to participate fully in God’s in-breaking reality of life abundant and eternal. It is not about insiders versus outsiders or choosing players for the best middle-school gym class team. It’s about how one non-conformist Jesus shows us a different path to real life—a life beyond the violence, hatred, power jockeying, and window dressing. And this, my friends, is good news indeed.

Matthew may well have used it as an allegory within his context does not require us to retain the same interpretive lens. Equating the king with God potentially alienates our ability to critically examine the ways rulers treat their subjects as expendables, as did the king to the man who was not properly dressed.

Attributing characteristics of violence to God can become a mechanism for normalizing violence and is at times used to give our own rulers permission to employ excessive violence. By extension it is also a means of allowing ourselves to be violent—through deeds or words—towards our neighbors that are less privileged than us.

If God the ruler is violent, human rulers and humans too can be justified in using excessive violence against others. This approach is especially problematic when rulers use religious institutions and symbols such as the Bible to justify their violence and oppression of those under their jurisdiction. 

In a cultural and political context where physical violence towards the other—immigrants, racial minorities, and women—has increasingly become commonplace, it is especially important that our interpretations of scriptures do not inadvertently suggest violence as a manifestation of the divine. The violence towards the end of the parable highlights the absurdity of the host’s suggestion that an invited guest was not worthy of the banquet.

One must ask why the motif of worthiness is a one-way street in this text. If one asks whether this particular king was fit to rule over his people, he emerges as someone who was deeply undeserving of his power and abused it at will.

Rulers—both ancient and contemporary—have a proclivity to be oppressive and solely focused on their own interests at the expense of others. Will they adopt an approach and policies that are appropriate for their office? Will we hold them accountable for their actions and ask if they are worthy of the power entrusted to them?

In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! 

  • Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
  • In the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! 
  • Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”
  • But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!

My advie, When Matthew is the chosen text to preach on, don’t choose “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” for the service 🙂

Because the center of this parable displays the reach of God’s gospel to the least likely of people—a theme Matthew has been hammering away at since his opening genealogy and then the appearance of also the Magi—it is fairly easy to see how and why this is finally a parable full of grace. But that grace is nestled in pretty closely to judgment as well.

When I preach I like to proclaim grace. But does that mean we may never talk about the other side of the coin? Does it mean we should not mention the fact that if people spurn the Gospel or refuse grace or refuse to turn from their selfish ways that they may well face a dire fate? 

  • There is no question that Jesus exuded grace. 
  • There is no question that far from being afraid of him, sinners and those shunned by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus attractive and welcoming. 
  • And there is no question that salvation is indeed a free gift such that at the end of the cosmic day—as in this parable—more people and not fewer people will come, and a good many of those who end up at the king’s banquet table may well be those whom religious types had long ago written off.

There will be surprises. But that’s grace for us all.

But the same Jesus back to whom all of that can be traced was not averse to mixing into all that good stuff darker notes of judgment. It is possible in some sense to tell the God of all Grace to take a hike, and if someone does that in one way, shape, or form, the consequences are real and trend toward the dire end of the spectrum. What Jesus came to offer the world was the most precious thing God could offer: a divine sacrifice of such gargantuan dimensions we’ll just possibly never finish plumbing the depths of a love so great. But precisely because of the value and the beauty and the majesty of all that, to have it rejected, spurned, or chalked up as being of no account is no small matter.

Augustine once discussed the idea—current among some critics of Christianity in his day—that the notion of an eternal punishment for sins committed in this temporal world was patently unfair, if not sheer nonsense. How could anything people could manage to do across a few score of years be so bad as to warrant a punishment into eternity? But Augustine countered that we don’t tend to hand out punishments, even on this earth, based on chronological distinctions. It may take a man no more than four minutes to rape a woman. It takes a matter of seconds to pull a gun, fire it, and take a life. But no judge or jury ever would claim that given the short duration of the crime in question, a sentence of years and years is unjust. It is the monstrosity of the crime, the value of what was lost or taken, that leads to a punishment.

In the case of today’s text in Matthew, what is at stake is the Gospel, the free invitation of grace to sit at the king’s table of grace. What’s at stake is of infinite, precious value. Yes, you can receive these glorious riches by grace alone but if you cannot be moved by that same grace—if you look at what is proffered and find it less interesting than other things that are occupying your heart and mind and life—then the result cannot be a simple shrug of the divine shoulders. 

Offer a person a chocolate chip cookie and have him turn it down and it’s no big deal. Offer to donate a kidney that someone needs to have his life saved only to have them spurn it is a much bigger deal.

This text in Matthew comes down to intention. We dont necessary know what the intentions are for those who declined the man/kings offer, all we can do is speculate. But we see how the man/king repsonded and that is our warning today. I believe this text tells us God is the invitation to the celebration, and we are to be warned not to act as the man/king did in response to the spurm he recieved. We just need to keep extending the invitation and let the grace of God do the rest.

I heard a story once recently that I think brings this to a close for us today. Homeletics scholar Tom Long once told something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game (“Three homileticians walked into a bar and . . .”). Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”

Probably to some of the people there at the ballpark that day, the reference to a “wedding garment” seemed to come from out of nowhere and made no sense to them. 

If you do not know this parable in Matthew 22, then how could you know what Craddock’s wisecrack meant? But really, even within this parable, this mention of a wedding garment comes as a bit of a surprise in that such attire had not been mentioned earlier. It’s even a little hard to know what it means or what it stands for.

But at the very least it may mean this: the party is finally God’s party and everyone there is there by grace alone. You had to be clothed with grace to be there and no matter what you may think of the wedding garment of grace when it is handed to you, you either put it on or risk getting pitched out of the party. There is no other way to be at the party without wearing the attire the master assigns. Those who think they got there some other way or who think they can do without the clothing of grace everyone else is wearing will soon find out how wrong they are. It all comes down to God’s grace.