Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:4-9
Oct. 12, 2014
Audio of sermon not available.
I am a great believer in the love, mercy, and grace of God, for if it were not for those things, I surely would not be standing here today, presuming to talk to you. I love the hymns that speak of God’s love and grace – “Love Lifted Me,” Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done,” There’s Wideness in God’s Mercy,” and the list goes on and on. You have your favorites too.. I love the Bible stories and the verses that tell about god’s love – “the Prodigal son,” “the Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” John 3:16, the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. In personal devotional reading, I prefer to read from Luke’s gospel rather than Matthew’s because of its emphasis on God’s inclusive love for all people is evident in practically every verse. Matthew, on the other hand, scolds and is often cautionary, focusing on judgment more than I would prefer!
You can see the difference between Matthew and Luke in this story of the great banquet, which in Matthew has become a wedding feast. Luke’s version is simpler, kinder, gentler, emphasizing concern for the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame and the inclusiveness of God’s banquet table where everyone is welcomed and no one is asked to leave. Matthew’s tale adds various components that take it out of the realm of parable and into the arena of allegory. It is over the top, bizarre in some aspects and downright violent. An invitation to a feast in honor of the king’s son is met with rejection, which is a disappointing response to a royal summons. A second invitation, not included in Luke’s version, is similarly rejected, but this time the rejection is accompanied by violence. In retaliation the king goes to war against his own people, murders them, and burns the city – presumably his own city.
But it gets weirder still. The dinner has been kept warm all the while, and the invitation is issued once again, but this time to commoners on the “main streets” of the city which supposedly had been destroyed just a few verses ago. Finally guest from all walks and station of life arrive at the dinner, some of them probably dragged in off the streets with a very hurried, last minute invitation. And among them is a person not appropriately dressed for such a gala occasion, whom the King banishes to outer darkness for his disrespectful appearance.
It’s no wonder that messages based on Matthew’s version of the banquet story rarely make it into collections of published sermons. And I’ve checked. There is nothing as far as I could find from William Sloan Coffin, Fred Craddock, Walter Bruggeman, or Will Willimon (whom some say has never had an unpublished thought). And a number of interpreters, I have found, have immediately linked Matthew and Luke together, saying Luke’s version of the parable surely more closely reflects the original structure of the story, and “accordingly, we will focus our analysis on Luke.” That’s actually a quote from a book entitled of all things, Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus. But there’s a reason Matthew tells his story the way he does rather than as Luke does. And to understand what Matthew is doing, we have to understand when and where and why he was writing. Too often we like to jump to broad universal conclusions or sweeping moral assertions when reading scripture, but these can be way off base if we don’t understand the context in which it was written.
Matthew’s story of the wedding banquet has been called “an allegory of salvation history,”[i] spanning the time from the original covenant of God with the Israelites in the long ago past to God’s Final Judgment which was yet anticipated to come. And within the context of this gospel’s structure, it is the third and strongest rerply to the Pharisees’ questions about Jesus’s authority.
The gospel of Matthew was written during a time of great change, a time when Christians were a persecuted minority. Even though they believed Jesus was God’s Son, the awaited Messiah, not many people were convinced enough to leave tradition behind and celebrate this revelation. Writing for a predominantly Jewish audience that followed Jesus, Matthew reminds them of the tradition of the prophets who came to them many times over with an invitation to the kingdom of god, but often were killed by the people for the message they brought, even Jesus himself, who tells this banquet parable in the last week of his life, was killed because of his message.
Then in the year 70, Jerusalem was burned by Rome and the temple was destroyed. Many at the time interpreted this as fire coming from heaven, as divine judgment against those who ignored God’s invitation. And we still do the same thing today, don’t we – whenever a great catastrophe occurs, there are always those who immediately try to make sense of the chaos by interpreting the event as an act of God or a message from God, even though what that interpretation does to God’s character is awful. Pat Robertson attributed the Haitian earthquake some years ago to God’s judgment on the Haitian people for having, he thought, made a pact with the devil to overthrow their colonial oppressors. And there were others, I thankfully have forgotten whom exactly, who blamed the “immoral lifestyle” of the city of New Orleans for the bullseye hit of Hurricane Katrina. Generally, it’s not good theology to try to make sense of natural or man-made disasters by putting the blame on God, but God is a very convenient scapegoat to support our fears and our prejudices.
Matthew may have been writing with and for those who sought to see some divine reason behind the sacking of Jerusalem, and some hope within that devastation for them as they struggled with persecution. By the time Matthew was writing for his struggling congregation, through the efforts of Paul and others in earlier years, the Jewish community that followed The Way of Jesus, had been opened to a second group of invited guests – the gentiles, who had no knowledge of the God of Israel or of God’s laws. They were convicted by the gift of the love and grace of God in Christ, but some interpreted this as permission to live anyway they wanted to because Jesus had settled humanity’s account with God forever. For some of them Communion became a kind of “come as you are party,” while other groups who leaned to heavily on tradition and the Law, tried to figure out how to honor both and yet make room for God in Christ as the final arbiter.
So first, we have to understand that Matthew is speaking to these particular controversies. He is answering several important questions about the kingdom of heaven – the banquet of the Lord — which Old Testament scripture had often described as a wedding feast. First of all, everyone is invited, but many of the original guests for whom the banquet was intended were not interested, or saw the invitation as getting in the way of their own agendas. But the king didn’t call off the party because his original invitation was refused, but instead expanded the invitation list, sending out his servant to any and all, inviting the good and the bad so that the wedding hall would be filled with guests.
One guest arrived inappropriately dressed for the occasion. It was, after all, an invitation from the King, which out of respect required a little sprucing up. If we were invited to a state dinner at the White House, we’d probably make a special effort to wear our best clothes in honor of the occasion and leave our jeans and flip flops at home. In Matthew’s time, appropriate wedding attire was important enough that some historian say special clothing was made available to guests who showed up at events dressed improperly, sort of like a fancy restaurant today having a coat or tie ready for a gentleman if he arrives dressed to casually for dining there. But for whatever reasons, the inappropriately dressed wedding guest was evicted from the party because he was not properly dressed; he did not rise to the occasion and the king has him removed from the party and cast into outer darkness!
Before we who are prone to dress casually get too offended by this unfortunate guest’s departure, there are a couple of things to note here – first, Matthew isn’t just talking about outer clothing, and it doesn’t take a great theologian to figure out that the wedding robe has a deeper and more symbolic meaning – it is not just a white linen tunic or a tuxedo; it is a whole way of life, one that honors the king and recognizes the privilege of being called into his presence. And secondly, it is the king who makes the call on who is appropriately dressed and who isn’t. it is not the place of the servants who offered the invitation and it is not the place of the other guests in attendance – only the king is in a position to decide.
These two observations make this very strange, unsettling, and over the top story important for us as well as for Matthew’s original audience even though our social and political contexts are so different. First of all, no matter what century we live in, God has offered us the most significant invitation of our lives; it is not to be treated as one option among many to be declined now and deferred until later at a more convenient time as those first guests did. How we respond to the grace of God and how willing we are to live now in obedience to God’s love and grace are not small side issues. They define who we are and how we will live in the world. How we treat other people, what we do with our resources, our time, our money, our talents, and our interests show our level of commitment and our awareness of our responsibilities to God and God’s kingdom. And as we become more and more committed, we will see that some of our “old clothes,” so to speak, aren’t comfortable anymore; they just don’t fit the occasion.
And also, we are reminded that this is God’s party, given on God’s terms. A long time ago I saw a church sign that said, “God calls us to be players in the game of life, not referees.” Maybe we could restate that for today as “God invites us to be guests at the wedding banquet, not hosts.” We aren’t in charge of the invitation list; we aren’t in charge of determining who is in and who is out; who is appropriately dressed and who isn’t. We overstep our bounds and get ourselves and others into a whole lot of trouble and cause great pain and hurt when we think we speak authoritatively for God, especially when we speak an exclusive rather than an inclusive word. We need to know our rightful place.
On the one hand, we are the servants of God, who are commanded to share the invitation with anyone we meet. There’s a party going on at Oconee St. United Methodist Church and you’re invited! And on the other hand, we are also among the invited guests, graced with an invitation through no great merit of our own. And thankfully, it’s God’s job, not ours, to sort us all out!
I read one commentary this week that attributed the ejection of the one guest not to his inappropriate dress, but that he failed to party! The kingdom of heaven is a banquet, after all, and “you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program. The kingdom music is playing and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.” In a more sober tone, the theologian Karl Barth put it this way, “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”[ii]
So God’s throwing a party, the party of a lifetime, and we’re all invited. The only thing required is that we participate with our whole heart in the festivities. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Lance Pape, “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14,” www.workingpreacher.com, 10/7/2014
[ii] Lance Pape