Last week I began my sermon by describing our Psalm as one of my favorite passages of the Bible, and then admitting that much of the Bible has been my “favorite” at one point or another. Our parable for this morning is an exception to that rule. I have always struggled with it.
Like most of Jesus’ parables, this one is about the kingdom of heaven. But the picture of the kingdom that we get here is a little rough.
You just heard it. A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. The invited guests don’t come. Not satisfied with that calculated insult, the invitees mistreat and even kill the messengers sent by the king to tell them everything is ready. The enraged king responds by killing them and burning their city.
The king then sends his messengers out into the street to invite everyone they find to the wedding banquet for his son. The wedding hall fills up. But one of the second set of guests is not dressed appropriately and so he gets bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness.
In context, the meaning of our parable is pretty clear, if a little severe.
It is a parable of judgment. It comes from the end of Jesus’ life, in the middle of a long dispute between him and the religious leaders who will have him killed in just a few days.
So, the king is God. The wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven, is for Christ, God’s Son who is often described as a heavenly bridegroom. The first set of guests are the scribes and the Pharisees, the people arguing with Jesus. They have refused God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet. They will soon kill God’s messenger, Christ. And, says our parable, they will experience the consequences. By the time the Gospel of Matthew is written, their city Jerusalem will have been burned by the Romans.
Everyone else, including us, belong to the second set of guests. But we shouldn’t get complacent because we, too, could get thrown out of the banquet, like the man without a wedding garment.
I say again, it is a parable of judgment. But what are we supposed to do with it?!?
A friend of mine often tells me that we need to sit with passages that disturb us, that they have something important to teach us, something we need to learn. Unfortunately, I think he is right.
My inclination is always to emphasize God’s love. That is a good thing. After all, God is love (1 John 4:8). But the danger is that people like me cheapen the meaning of divine love and begin to think of God as Santa Claus up in the sky.
When my children were little, we tried to use Santa Claus as leverage to get them to behave. Every December, we would remind them that Santa Claus knew who was naughty and who was nice, and that it could make a difference on Christmas morning.
But it never worked. Early on, our children discovered that Santa Claus was a big push-over, that Santa Claus was going to come through with the good stuff even if they were naughty on Christmas Eve itself.
Sometimes we act as if God is like that. God might tell us to do right. God might warn us that there will be consequences if we don’t do right. But, we sometimes think, God doesn’t really mean it. In the end, we like to think, God will just smile indulgently and give us the good stuff whether or not we listen. Then we get irritated if God fails to come through.
Our parable reminds us that God is not, in fact, Santa Claus, that God does sometimes hold us accountable, that we should listen to what God says. That is a good reminder.
I also think there is some good news here, even if we have to dig a little for it.
The parable teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a great party, as festive as we can possibly imagine, like the wedding party for a royal prince. This is Meghan Markle and Prince Harry times ten.
And we are all invited. The only people who don’t get to enjoy this party are the people who decline the invitation, and not very politely.
That all helps. But to really make sense of our parable, I need to translate it into terms that make more sense in my life. First, a little background.
Maybe fifteen years ago, Carrie invited some women to our house for a few drinks. The problem was what to do with me. Carrie told me I was welcome to join them, but she warned me that female bonding would happen. Another option was for me to go out. Or I could stay in our bedroom and do my own thing.
In my folly, I decided to stay in. I figured I would be happy reading a book in our bedroom. That is normally something I enjoy.
When Carrie’s guests arrived, I greeted them, then retreated. For the next few hours, I sat in the bedroom, listening to them talk, listening to their music, listening to their laughter.
And I got madder and madder. I felt excluded from a party in my own home. I sulked that night and the next morning, then went off to work where I complained bitterly to a friend about Carrie’s gathering.
To his credit, my friend would have none of it. He told me I had set myself up. He pointed out that Carrie had said I could join them. He pointed out that I could have left at any point. Instead I was acting like a baby and blaming Carrie for my own foolish behavior.
That was eye-opening!
Just out of curiosity, I asked Carrie if she had any memory of this event. Unsurprisingly, she did not. Why should she? It was no big deal, just a few friends coming over, the kind of thing that happens all the time. I only remember it because I made it a big deal.
So here is my version of our parable based on that experience.
A wife threw a party for her friends. She invited her husband, but he made light of the invitation and stayed in his room. When the guests came, they had a great time. But the husband felt confined to the outer darkness and spent his time weeping and gnashing his teeth. And the husband blamed the wife for his own foolish decision to skip the party.
Refusing to join God’s party leads to a lot of misery. And, if we find ourselves outside the party, we have only ourselves to blame. It is not something God does to us. It is something we do to ourselves.
The good news is, the invitation remains open. God continues to invite us to new life and love and joy. We may have a hard time hearing the invitation. We may even consciously reject it. But the invitation is there.
Indeed, we can even go one final step.
We are invited to be more than guests at the heavenly banquet. Christ is the bridegroom at this wedding banquet, and the Church—that is, us—is the bride. We are honorees! It is as if Carrie had her friends over as a surprise party for me, and yet I insisted on remaining in my bedroom sulking.
And so my prayer for us this morning is that we will accept God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet, and that we will encourage all the other invitees to do the same. In the name of our heavenly bridegroom. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan