October 9, 2011
There is a show on E television called Fashion Police. It originally only aired after the major awards shows; The Oscars, The Emmys, The Golden Globes, etc. Joan Rivers, Kelly Osborne and two other fashionistas review the fashion choices of celebrities at different events and discuss them in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
(long, long, long, pause)
The words intelligent and thoughtful don’t really suit the show Fashion Police. Shallow, silly, racy. Those are better words. With Joan Rivers’ tasteless jokes taking the lead, the humor is often inappropriate to say the least. More often than not it’s just downright raunchy. But, just like reading People at the dentist’s office, Fashion Police is a guilty pleasure. Obviously I know about it, because I’ve watched it a time or two. Fans watch it to see what styles the fashionistas don’t like as much as what they do. And trust me, when they don’t like something, they really don’t like it. If I were a celeb and heard such scathing reviews of my outfits, I’d be afraid to go to the grocery store much less walk the red carpet at an event again.
But even Joan Rivers' put downs about a celeb’s fashion choice seem mild compared to what happens to the wedding guest who isn’t wearing his wedding robe at the feast. As far as I know no celeb has been bound, hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness for wearing tacky heels and a too short skirt.
But that’s what happens to this guest at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. This particular part of the story is according to one commentator, “a parable within a parable.” And even though it comes at the end of the story, it’s certainly what we seem to remember most vividly about the entire story Jesus tells. So it seems fitting, no pun intended, to start with the clothing.
I’ve learned that clothing in a parable like this one doesn’t just mean fashion choices. Clothing represents change. The guest who showed up without a wedding robe responded to the invitation of the king but hadn’t made any significant changes. Hence the king responds with such terrible retribution. You wouldn’t think that not wearing a wedding robe to a banquet that you didn’t expect to be invited to in the first place would bring such a horrible punishment, would you? But that’s what happens. The king orders that he be tied up and thrown out. It is a violent ending to a story of violence.
And that takes us to what else really bothers us about this parable. The violence. There is a similar story of a banquet in Luke’s gospel. But Matthew’s telling takes the story to a new and really frightening level.
As in the other parables that Jesus has been telling in Matthew, it begins with “the kingdom of heaven …”
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”
It could almost be the beginning of a fairy tale. But what happens after this is not the stuff of fairy tales. The king sent out his slaves to bring the folks who had been invited to the feast. But the folks would not come. In Luke’s gospel the guests offer excuses. I can’t come because I just bought some land and I have to go out and see it. I can’t come because I have five new oxen and I have to try them out. I can’t come because I just got married and I have to stay home.
But there are no excuses offered by the original guests in Matthew’s telling. They just don’t respond at all to the servants. They just won’t come.
Then the king sends the slaves out again. Basically the king instructs his people to tell the guests that the feast is ready. Supper’s on the table. Essentially it was the king’s way of saying “y’all come.”
This is the king we’re talking about. This isn’t a neighborhood potluck. It’s an invitation from the king. You would think that this announcement would have brought the invited guests running to the party, but two of the guests made light of the invitation and went on their way. The other guests seized the slaves. They mistreated them. They tortured them. They killed them.
This is an unexpectedly violent response to an invitation to a feast, especially when the invitation comes from the king. It is understandable that the king is furious at the treatment of his servants. But the king’s response is unnerving as well. The king sends his troops who destroy the murderers and burn their cities. Think about that. The servants are killed by the guests. The murdering guests are killed by the troops. It’s horribly violent.
If we were reading a novel or watching this as a movie, we’d expect this to turn into an all-out war. But once the murderers have been murdered, the king tells more servants that the wedding feast is still on. The ones who were invited originally were not worthy. So now they are instructed to go to every major intersection, every major thoroughfare, every main street and invite the people there. Gather every person you can find, both good and bad, so that the wedding hall will be filled with guests.
The people come. The hall is filled. The wedding banquet is full. Everything should be fine, right? No. Not even close. Now we’re back to where we started. The king arrives in the hall to see the guests and he sees this one guest without a robe. He questions him about it. There’s a hint of sarcasm in the king’s use of the word, friend. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The hapless guest is speechless. So the king orders his attendants to tie the guy up and throw him out. And we are left with the final word, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Had the parable ended with the inviting of all the guests, as it does in Luke, I think we could have overlooked the violence that happened early on. Instead it ends with more judgment, more violence. And a statement from Jesus that is, quite frankly, terrifying. What does this mean? What do we do with this?
I don’t think we can fully understand this parable without understanding the context in which Jesus is telling it. And as I’ve said in previous sermons, I think we have to be careful to keep this as a parable rather than see it allegorically.
If you’ve been paying attention the last few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that the parables Jesus tells are getting tougher and tougher. But let’s think about where he is. He is in Jerusalem. He is headed to the cross. He knows what lies ahead. He knows the consequences for his words and he’s ready to take them. Jesus is willing to die. Jesus knows that death is upon him, so what does he have to lose? When you think about it in those terms, it’s understandable that his parables have a razor sharp edge to them. If I knew for a fact that I was going to die soon, than I would not mince my words. I would say what I have to say and I wouldn’t think about the cost of those words. I would just say them.
It seems to me that this is where Jesus is as well. I don’t mean to imply that Jesus was not honest in his stories before this time. But they have taken on an intense urgency. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Look folks, the time is upon us. Here is the kingdom of heaven. Here is the invitation to come along. Do you accept or don’t you?”
That’s what this wedding banquet really is, isn’t it? An invitation. An invitation to be a part of this great feast that is being served in our midst. And the invitation is urgent. Come now. The food is on the table. Everything is ready. Will you join us or not?
When the original guests don’t respond. When, in fact, they turn on the servants of the king, new guests are invited. Anyone from anywhere can join the feast. Certainly we can understand this call as inclusion of all people. No longer is the banquet restricted. All are invited. This is the finale of Luke’s telling of this parable. But Matthew’s gospel is an intense gospel and he doesn’t leave it at that.
All are included in the invitation. But our response still matters. The clothes we wear count.
This seems to fly in the face of how we understand salvation and grace. We affirm wholeheartedly that we cannot earn our way to heaven. It is grace alone. Yet our response counts too.
Sharon Ringe, Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. holds this part of Matthew’s parable in tension with James, chapter 2, as well as Paul’s affirmation that we are entirely dependent on God’s grace. We are saved by grace alone, yet our faith is also shown in our “works.”
According to Ringe, “My suggestion about the reason for James' position is that Paul's costly and radical notion of faith as the commitment of one's entire life may have become watered down to a matter of intellectual belief or emotional trust that does not bring one's behavior into play. It seems to me that Matthew is in the same place that we find James. He affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God's grace, but he also affirms that for us to be "worthy" of God's gift requires nothing less than our whole life.”
Nothing less than our whole life.
It seems to me that the guest who accepted the invitation but didn’t wear the proper clothing was like one who commits himself in word alone. I’ll accept the invitation. I’ll show up at the banquet. But I won’t give my whole heart. I won’t commit my whole life. I won’t wear the proper clothes.
I’m old enough to remember what Sunday best was. There were some clothes you only wore on Sundays. They were your best clothes and they were saved for the Sabbath day. As a child that meant dresses, special socks with lace around the trim, shoes that my dad polished every Sunday, a special locket I was only allowed to wear on Sunday and sometimes little gloves.
And my attire was nothing compared to what some of the people wore. The finery in my childhood church on a Sunday morning was a sight to behold. But as I got older I began to realize that the Sunday best stopped with the clothing. Many people accepted the invitation to come to the feast, but few of them seemed to really understand what it meant to give their whole life.
I’m not sure that I fully understand or live that either. But I know that an invitation has been issued. I know that the moment is urgent. And I know that our response counts. Will we accept? Will we come to the feast? Will we make the changes necessary to give our whole selves in response? What clothes do we wear? Amen.