Lectionary blog for Oct. 15
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23;
Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
In his book Marry a Pregnant Virgin, Frank Honeycutt says that a Bible story often seems to be about one thing, but then it throws us a curve ball and is really about something else. This story about the wedding banquet seems pretty straight-forward—the king’s son is getting married and the king is hosting a banquet to celebrate. The date was announced months ago, the invitations went out not long after that.
We all know our fairy tales; invitations to this party should be the hottest ticket in the kingdom. But, in this version, things begin to go wrong immediately. The king’s servants fan out to tell the guests that the banquet is ready, but they refuse to come. The king can’t believe it. The guests must have misunderstood. So, he sends out other servants, makes a new announcement, sends a more explicit message: “Dinner’s ready. We’ve got a great menu. I’ve booked an “A” list band. Let’s party!”
Not only do the guests refuse to come, some of them insult the king with the lame excuse that they have work; others, unbelievably, torture and kill the king’s messengers. The king is outraged, and in true fairy tale fashion, sends in the troops to punish the murderers. The king then sends out even more messengers to work up a crowd, to find other people to come to the son’s wedding feast. “Go out in the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” he says. And the servants go out into the streets and gather all whom they find, both good and bad, so the wedding hall is filled with guests (Matthew 22:9-10).
Well, so far so good. We can read the story as meaning a) the king is God, b) the wedding banquet is the kingdom of God, c) the servants are the prophets, d) the invited guests are like the Jews or the scribes and Pharisees, or the chief priests or something like that. And e) the people gathered up off the streets are the tax collectors and sinners or the gentiles, or some combination of the three—sinful, gentile tax collectors. So, it makes a certain amount of theological sense, I guess.
Remember what Honeycutt said about Bible stories throwing us curve balls? About how they often mean something else than what we originally thought? Well, here comes the curve ball! The king walks through the banquet hall and throws a guy out of the party for failing to come properly dressed. Jesus saying the man was speechless is probably something of an understatement. Can’t you just hear him later, talking about his strange evening with a friend?
“I was hanging out at the corner, minding my own business, when they come up to me and ask me if I want to go to a free party. So, I come to the party and then this other guy kicks me out because I’m not wearing the right clothes? Can you believe the nerve of some people?”
This story only makes sense if we realize it’s not about clothes and banquets, nor is it about kings and slaves and prophets and Jews. It’s a story about seriousness and faithfulness in responding to the grace of God. It’s a story about us, and about God’s invitation to us, and about our response to God’s gracious invitations and promises. This is a story about taking God and God’s kingdom seriously, about not presuming upon the grace of God to the extent that we assume that God must forgive and accept us no matter what we do. It is a story about the paradox and mystery of God’s love.
“So, I come to the party and then this other guy kicks me out because I’m not wearing the right clothes? Can you believe the nerve of some people?”
The gospel of Jesus Christ walks a very narrow path between two large ditches. On the one side is legalism, which sets out a series of things we must do to be saved. We fall into this ditch when we insist that, to make God love and accept us, we must hold a certain form of theology, or follow a certain type of worship, or practice a strict code of morality. The other ditch is “antinomianism,” which is preacher talk for “anything goes.” This is the idea that no matter what we do God, being God, must love and accept us anyway.
This parable, this story seeks to point us down the middle path between the ditches. All are invited, many come, both good and bad, the banquet hall is filled. It is true; God’s invitation to discipleship is offered to all. No legalism here, no prior requirements, no price of admission.
But, once the invitation has been accepted, it is expected that one’s life will be changed in response to God’s gracious gift of love. The wedding robe represents the desire to amend one’s life, to dress one’s soul in the garments of righteousness, to behave appropriately as befits a guest of the Most High King. To fail to do so indicates that one does not appreciate the gift one has received.
When Jesus shows the king throwing the inappropriately dressed guest into the outer darkness, he is cautioning us against taking ourselves, our souls, or our God lightly. He is warning us not to presume upon the grace of God. You have been invited to the wedding banquet of the Son of God. You have been brought into the kingdom of God. What are you going to wear from this day forth? Are you going to put on Christ, dress yourself in the garments of righteousness, put your best foot forward, bring into the kingdom the best you have to offer? Not because you have to, but because you want to, because God in Christ has been so gracious to you that you can do no other than to offer God your very best.
Amen and amen.