Sunday, October 12, 2014

Come to the Feast

Matthew 22:1-14, Isaiah 25:1-9
October 12, 2014

            The late humorist, Erma Bombeck, wrote about the horrors of the banquet table.  Whenever she and her husband, Bill, would be invited to attend a banquet, it seemed that Bill was always seated at the opposite end of the table.  Erma wrote that not only was she not seated near her husband; she also seemed to be seated between two people she didn’t know.  When she would turn to make polite conversation with the person on her left, he would be in an animated conversation with the person on his left.  It was the same with the person on her right; he would be engaged in an intense discussion with the other person sitting next to him.  So she would sit, talking to no one, turning her peas and carrots into mosaic art.  Once, a person sitting across and several seats away from her waved at her.  She didn’t recognize him, but thought she must know him somehow.  After all, he was waving at her.  She waved back, smiling brightly.  He mouthed something to her, but she couldn’t understand.  So she leaned forward, dragging her necklace through the mashed potatoes, and mouthed, “What?”  Again, he silently formed his question, but this time she understood him.  “How’s Marjorie?”  Not having a clue who Marjorie was, she pantomimed back, “She’s fine.”  Then she realized that he was talking to a person two seats down from her. 
            No, the banquet table, indeed banquets in general, are not for everybody.  So it would seem with today’s parable from Matthew.  While Bombeck’s story is funny, our parable isn’t.  But a bit of humor seemed the most positive way to open a window into a difficult, even frightening parable. 
            With each week that goes by, Jesus’ parables are getting more and more challenging.  It’s painful just to hear or read them; making sense of them seems impossible.  The parable that we read this morning is not only difficult, it’s bizarre.  Following his last parable about a vineyard and wicked tenants, Jesus tells yet another difficult story.  This time it is designed to once again illumine the kingdom of heaven.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” 
            It’s not unusual to hear God’s kingdom being described in the language of a banquet or a feast.  We see this same sort of analogy in the beautiful language found in our passage from Isaiah as well.  I personally love the image of a feast or a banquet in the context of the kingdom of heaven.  It is a welcoming image, an inviting image.  It speaks of hospitality, abundance, joy, celebration.  The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a great party, where there is enough for everyone and everyone is invited.  That’s good stuff in my opinion.  But the image of banquet, of feast, takes a different turn in this parable. 
            “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 Disney.  The king sent out his slaves to bring the folks who had been invited to the feast.  But the folks would not come.  In the version of this parable told 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. 
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. 
Just as in the parable we heard last week about the tenants turning on the emissaries of the landowner, this is an unexpectedly violent response to not just an invitation, but a royal invitation.  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 this in 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.  This is what strikes me as so odd, so bizarre.  It’s as though the king says, “Well, that’s taken care of.  Oh look, the food is still warm.  Y’all come.”  But the king tells his remaining servants that the ones who were invited originally were not worthy.  So now they are instructed to go to every major intersection, every major thoroughfare and main street, and invite the people they encounter 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 copasetic, right?  No.  Not even close.  The king arrives in the hall to see the guests and he sees this one guest without a robe.  One guest.  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?
  As always, context matters.  As I’ve said often these past weeks, we have to be careful to keep this as a parable rather than see it allegorically. 
The parables Jesus tells are getting tougher and tougher.  But the cross is getting closer and closer.  Jesus is well aware of the consequences for his words, yet he’s ready to accept 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, I’d like to believe that I would not mince my words.  I would say what I have to say regardless of the cost.   
So Jesus’ stories, his parables, his teachings have taken on an intense urgency.  Jesus is saying, again and again, “Look folks, the time is upon you.  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, an invitation.  It is 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.  Here we come to what I think of as the strangest part of the whole parable.  That poor guest dressed in the wrong clothe wasn’t merely ostracized for being underdressed.  He’s thrown into the outer darkness.  Forget fashion police.  Try fashion hell.  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.  It is a violent ending to a story of violence.
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, if we take this parable seriously, our response counts too.
Our response counts too.  I know that this is where the rubber meets the road.  I also know that more often than not I show up to the feast wearing my old clothes.  That’s what’s so frightening about this parable, that’s what is so hard to hear.  We may all be invited to the feast, but responding means that we have to work to change our clothes.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace.”  It was his way of expressing that our response counts.  Yet while I know that grace isn’t cheap, I do believe that God’s grace is extravagant.  It’s given to me in spite of the fact that I don’t deserve one ounce of it.  But believing that does not negate the impact of this parable. Our response counts.  So where is the good news?  Is it just in our belief in grace, although that grace is not present in this story?  I don’t have a clear way of reconciling this.  Maybe I’m not supposed to.  Although this parable leaves me shaking in my unacceptable, shabby boots, I do have hope.  I put my hope in grace, true, but I also find it in the words of Isaiah. 
“On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
We are invited to come to the feast.  It is an urgent request, requiring a serious response.  But the good news is that it is a feast; a feast where all are invited.  It is a feast where tears and death and heartache will be no more.  We are invited to come to the feast, and we are cautioned to dress appropriately, but it is a feast.  It is God’s feast on God’s holy mountain in God’s magnificent kingdom.  It is a feast that changes not only the world, but us.  We are invited to come to the feast.  What will our answer be?  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

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