We launched a new program year at our church yesterday! Last September we were newly in the building after a six month hiatus from in-person worship. We weren’t moving in the sanctuary. We weren’t singing. We were barely breathing! It felt good to be back for a new year feeling somewhat acclimated to the ups and downs of a global pandemic, if that’s possible! One of the lectionary passages for this week was from Matthew 22. I don’t know if I chose it because or in spite of the fact that it ends on a note of weeping and gnashing of teeth! It doesn’t get much more biblical than that! We began a new program year with a parable Jesus told to teach about the relationship between God and God’s people. In the faith, we call this intimate association a covenant. What does it look like to be God’s people? What are the dominant feelings that guide us each day when we set our sights on Jesus? And, in this story, Jesus asks generations of believers, “Who will accept the amazing invitation to be God’s people?
The setting of this story is a wedding! It’s the king’s son and the king is clearly excited! In fact, if this were made into a high school production, only the king would have any lines. The ruling monarch over all the land sends out an invitation to the select and the chosen, inviting them to celebrate the joyous occasion of his son getting married! Folks seem interested. But the day arrives and when the herald is sent out to tell them, “Now!”, no one seems willing to leave their chores behind. Three times he sends out palace staff to get folks to the party and they even kill those servants! In any country, that is tantamount to declaring war on your leader. An ordinary king of Jesus’ day would have responded to their insolence with swift destruction! Why should a king have to beg society’s elite to come to the Buckingham shindig? His continued appeal emasculates him. One commentator on the text stated that God first seeks out, not wipes out, those who spite God’s gift. I suspect that very few of us continue to give nice gifts to demonstrably unappreciative people!
Here’s a description of how a royal wedding would have played out in Jesus’ time (from the Archaeological Study Bible): “A banquet always included wine drinking…The host provided robes for the guests, which were worn in his honor and as a token of his regard. Guests were welcomed by the host with a kiss and their feet were washed because of the dusty roads. The guest’s head was anointed, as well as sometimes his bear, his feet and his clothing. His head was decorated with garlands. The guests were seated according to their respective rank, their hands were washed and prayers were offered for blessing on the food. Often the meal was enlivened with music, singing and dancing or with riddles. A great banquet sometimes lasted seven days…”
Who would say “no” to a grand fete like this?! As usual, Jesus packed unbelievable elements into His story.
Why do the guests turn down the invitation when the actual day arrived? It’s not that they wanted to commit immoral acts or that they hated the king. They decided to do their chores, to go about their usual routine. They prioritized their God-given labor over time spent in the intimacy of God’s presence. Even the people in ancient Israel needed to be told that there’s a time to clock out and spend quality time with those we love.
The key notion to this story is invitation. Followers of a loving God are called to join the party. Jesus uses the image of a royal party to teach us about the life God has in store for us! It’s not a funeral. It’s not a Sunday School class. Life as a disciple of Jesus is a celebration! To repent and turn toward God is a call to joy! Perhaps, as we reconvene after the freedom of summer and the ongoing uncertainty of a virus, we need to be reminded that God repeatedly extends the invitation to join in the fun of being part of one big family.
After a couple of weeks as a chaplain at a mental health hospital, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a few group sessions in three different units. They are spiritual in nature but accept folks wherever they are at. I first go room-to-room and through the common areas to invite everyone to come. I take note of who attends, participates, and interacts. My observations are important as they round out the picture of who is actively working to get better. Who is saying “yes” to the opportunities given? Who is too tired or depressed to be with others? Staff members know that healing takes place in community and those who refuse to take part in the many offerings for wellness will probably not heal as quickly.
In Jesus’ short story there are two unimaginable actions. First, the favored guests refuse—even violently—to come to the party of the decade. Second, the king invites common folks off the street to come to the table. The guy holding the cardboard sign at the busy intersection is summoned. The ethnic business owner, accustomed to discrimination, is invited to stop sweeping the front stoop of his store and join the gathering. The single mom of three young children is told there’s a limo waiting for her on the other side of the playground, ready to escort the four of them to the best party ever! When the honored guests distinguish themselves through murderous insolence, the riffraff of the city are given a place at the table. Someone watching the round-up from an upper balcony murmurs, “Well, I never!”
Jesus suggested that God is willing to switch to the B Team if the A Team begins to wane. If the starting line up has lost their energy and their desire to win, a good coach will whisk them off the field and replace them with second and third-string players. These underdogs are incredulous and grab at the opportunity! As harsh as this parable sounds at its conclusion, God has the authority to bench those who refuse to answer the invitation to service! The grace and nondiscrimination of the Gospel is on full display in this story that Jesus told in the presence of the religious bigwigs of His day.
So what about the guy who is kicked out, weeping and gnashing his teeth? That’s the part that seems extreme to us. Remember that robes were provided at a royal wedding so that guests could enjoy the formal occasion at no personal expense. They would be expected to have a proper reverence toward the royal family and the event to which they were invited. If they accepted the invitation, they were expected to dress for the occasion. When he is approached by a palace staff member, he is referred to as “friend.” He has no answer when they ask him why he didn’t put on the robe he was given. He has no excuse. He wants the goods of the party without showing the respect due the king. Commentator Henry says that “Believer should often ask themselves what the king asks them: ‘How did I get in here?’ and ‘Am I wearing the wedding garment?’”
What Jesus asks of His followers who were invited to be part of His Good News was a transformed life. He didn’t advocate a “one-and-done” conversion. He knew that we either accept or reject the invitation to a grand and holy occasion with each decision, thought and word. Too often we prioritize our work, leisure activities and relationships over time spent in intentional worship of the One who gave us the gifts we enjoy. Later we may realize that the party has moved on without us and the gathering looks very different than we might have imagined! Jesus knows that His Church will bring unlikely categories of people together, those who regard each other as the “bad” or the undeserving. Weaving this tale in front of the very religious authorities who ultimately get Him killed, Christ promises that His movement will meet up with turmoil and even violence as the “good and the bad” find themselves vying for seats at the same reception. In Jesus’ teaching, the Church is always a minority movement that takes on the giants and false gods of their world. What does it mean for us to understand that our faith is a minority movement? Are there people who can’t be bothered to be part of Church even though they’ve accepted the invitation to join the family? Are there others, perhaps in lockdown units or prisons, who gladly say “yes” to group participation? Are persecuted Christians in far-away lands the ones who most readily share the good news that God loves them very much?
If we accept the invitation to follow Jesus, we are asked to show up with a sense of joyful expectation and to dress for the occasion. When we proudly assert our autonomy, we are clothed with ourselves and not with Christ. Like the baptismal gown parents choose for their small child, we put on Christ with each decision to join His Church–or prioritize other tasks. The invitation is given by a God who earnestly yearns for us to take a place at the table with all the others who have come from every walk of life. It’s a wedding party, not a funeral! So who says “yes” to being God’s people? There’s a place reserved for you!