First Lutheran Church
NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Text: Matthew 22:1-14
By the Rev. Richard Elliott
The word “gospel” means “good news.” How can our parable this morning possibly be called “good news?” “The Gospel, ‘the Good News’ of the Lord.” and you responded, “Praise to you, O Christ.” Like last week’s parable, this week’s parable seems to say that the blessings of God’s kingdom, ‘of God’s Kingly Rule’, are available to all, “both good and bad.” No one is excluded. Obviously, Jesus was no teller of cozy bedtime stories; His parables are meant to disturb us—to wake us up, shake us out of our complacency, and compel us to ask hard questions about ourselves and about God.
I don’t like preaching on this parable. I understand that Martin Luther didn’t like preaching on it either. And I am not at all sure that those of you who are here this morning, in the middle of October, are in the mood for its judgment either. Jesus taught this parable while He was on the way to the Cross, but, this morning, we are a long way from Holy Week observances. Our minds, at least some of our minds, are perhaps on football, baseball, or Oktoberfest fun, or perhaps even Halloween costumes. We’re having too much fun to gnash our teeth. But the odd gift of our lectionary is that it does not give us the freedom to avoid difficult scripture, nor does it give us total control over passages that refuse to be tamed by our tools of interpretation. To mix things up even more, we are presented with Paul’s glorious hymn of praise in our Epistle reading from Philippians. How do we always “rejoice in the Lord” who burns a city and casts an invited guest “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”
Our parable starts out very well! In Jesus, the whole world is invited to a party! Who doesn’t love a party? We are a party bunch here at First Lutheran! Most people love to party!
The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, is like a party. God, the King, isn’t angry, isn’t sore, at anybody. God in Christ doesn’t bear a grudge. God in Christ isn’t in the business of striking anyone off the guest list. God in Christ wants everyone to party. Because God is joyful and happy, God wants everyone to feel that same way. God is not in the business of making people sad, or fearful. So, “The King sent His slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet…” Today’s parable focuses, at least initially, on invitation and grace.
Jesus is telling a parable about a King who invites all people to a wedding banquet. At first, this parable seems to portray a wide open and gracious invitation. However, by the end it seems more like a passage from the Old Testament rather than the New Testament. When those first invited rejected the invitation, God became angry and punished them by burning down their city! This sounds like the Old Testament. By the end it is hard not to feel sorry for the poor guy who gets thrown out for not wearing the correct clothes! Through this story Jesus teaches that receiving God’s grace changes us. We are then called to bear fruit with our lives, sharing this grace with others. After receiving God’s Grace, to live in a different way than bearing fruit and sharing this grace with others, is simply not an option. This is a very serious invitation!
Those who view the Christian life through the lens of God’s final judgment and divide the world into those who are blessed and not blessed may not find this parable a struggle. I don’t know about you, but to me this parable seems very harsh and cruel. For centuries, Christians have attempted to soften this story by flattening it into an allegory. This was a common way of interpreting parables in the early church and in the middle ages. According to the allegorical rendering, the king represents God, the son/bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet, the rejected slaves are the Old Testament prophets, and the A-list who refuse to attend the wedding are the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. The B-list, who come in off the streets to fill the banquet hall are us, the gentiles.
It is a convenient interpretation: we, you and me, we end up snug and cozy, feasting on wine and caviar while the rest of the world burns, at least, as long as we show up at the banquet wearing the right duds. (Acting holy? Speaking the right version of Christianese? Not letting are imperfect insides show?) Why has the church tried to make this story OK when it isn’t?
One serious problem with the allegorical interpretation is the framework of anti-Semitism and Christian triumphalism, which is also called the theology of glory. In this view, once again, the chosen Jewish people, who reject the invitation to attend the Messianic Banquet get everything wrong, and thus lose their coveted place as the chosen people on God’s A list, and take a backseat to the more faithful and more deserving (gentile) church.
But there’s also the problem of the story’s supposed depiction of God. Do we, as Christ’s followers, really believe in a God this petty, vengeful, and hotheaded? A God who burns an entire city to the ground in order to appease His wounded ego? A God who forces people into His house to celebrate His son, whether they’re ready to or not, and who casts a guest into “outer darkness” for reasons the guest absolutely can’t control? Of course, we don’t believe in a monstrous God like that. Do we?
Luther lived during a time when God was also depicted as an angry judge. In Luther’s day there were wood cuts showing Christ the judge sitting upon a rainbow with swords coming out of his ears, with people below him being tortured in Hell. Frightened people looking at these images, looking at these woodcuts, could be easily manipulated by the church to buy indulgences in order to avoid punishment in Hell. So it was natural that Luther’s fundamental question was, “How can I find a gracious God?” Sadly, there are many today who still see God primarily as an angry judge. We are surrounded by people who have been victimized by brutal religion, many of them bludgeoned by a “Christian” depiction of God who is angry, withholding, tyrannical, and perfectionistic. Most of us know of people who have experienced the church as petty, ungenerous, and judgmental, just as we also know Christians so exclusionary in the practice of their faith that we dare not approach them.
I remember when I was a young kid (what goes first is short term memory) how people dressed when they attended worship services. Everyone dressed up on Sunday. Oh yes! And on Easter Sunday they dressed up even more! If someone was dressed improperly they were shunned by the community. I even recall a story, a true story, about a congregation anxiously awaiting the introduction of their new pastor, however he came dressed as a homeless person and was asked by the ushers to leave. But then, as they were asking him to leave, he was introduced as their new pastor.
I still can’t get over why the king said to his attendants, to bind the guy hand and foot, who wasn’t dressed properly, and to throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What lens might we use to understand this? Are there any clues? In the Letter of Paul to the Philippians, Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves.” Could this be a clue? Paul continues, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:3-5). As we struggle with our parable this morning, let us try to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.
Some of the greatest teachers of the Christian Faith, and many commentaries, have taught that the one ejected from the banquet represented the one who did not “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul said in Romans, “…Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). In Galatians Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). We are all invited to the kingdom, but we are all under obligation to be clothed with Christ and to live lives of righteousness.
Sermons have been preached on this parable with the message that only practicing Christians are saved – everybody else is toast. If this is really what is meant, how does that make those of you who are here this morning feel? Is this a judgment against many of our loved ones who are not practicing Christians, at least in the way we define practicing Christians? You may have a son or daughter, or a son-in-law or daughter-in-law, or close friends, who are self-proclaimed atheists, or a grand-son or a granddaughter who is unbaptized, or a neighbor who is Jewish or Muslim, or a doctor who is Hindu. You love these people. They are good people. What is going to happen to them? Are they all going to hell? If you are destined for heaven because you are a practicing Christian, how does it make you feel that those who are not are destined for hell? It is hard to imagine a son, a daughter, or a sweet grandchild in hell. How are we to understand this parable?
What does it mean to have the mind of Christ? What does it mean, as Luther contended, that we should each become a “little Christ” in relation to everyone we meet? In means, in part at least, as Paul contends, that we should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves. We should look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.” The Word must become flesh in us! As John contends in his Gospel, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world (the whole world) might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). If we are followers of Christ in our everyday lives, which is what it really means to be practicing Christians, then maybe we, that is, all people who are invited to the wedding banquet, both those who accept the invitation and those who do not, are really in the same boat? We are all saved by God’s Grace. Some accept and some do not, but we are all saved by God’s Grace! Christ died for everyone on that Cross! Grace is free! Available to everyone, without exception! Christ died and was raised for all people, even our enemies! That’s pretty radical!
Maybe this has something to do with the cost of discipleship. We often think that merely attending church on Sunday is enough to insure that we are included as guests at the wedding banquet, while those who do not attend church on Sunday mornings, are automatically excluded. This is how we often think. Is this how God in Christ thinks? Is this how God in Christ sees it? I wonder.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before….Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Perhaps another way of putting it is that cheap grace is like showing up at the party without a robe, i.e., not taking seriously the invitation to follow Christ each day in our relationships with each other! This is where Christ encounters us in the flesh each day in our everyday relationships. Perhaps, cheap grace is like showing up at the party without a robe! When we respond to the invitation of God’s grace, it changes us forever. We are “clothed” in God’s grace, bearing fruit with our lives as we share the invitation with others.
If we are shaped by the Gospel, that is, shaped by what God is doing in Jesus Christ to transform us into the kind of people who carry forth His ministry in relationship with others, then we will enjoy the party which God is putting together for us and for everyone. We will not be judgmental of others, but will invite them to the party, embrace them at the party, and we will love them as Christ is loving us! It’s all about relationships!
Wise teachers of the Bible often counsel us that parables work best when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. I don’t know what a right interpretation of this parable is, to tell the truth. But I know that any way we go at it, it’s a wrestling match and that every preacher and hearer who takes it on comes away limping from the effort.
But why end in such a somber, non-festive note? The main point of this party parable is: All is ready. Come to the party. It just wouldn’t be right without you. It just wouldn’t be right without you!