A sermon delivered on October 9, 2011
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
“We are all invited to the banquet!” “We practice radical hospitality and extravagant welcome!” “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here!”
These are all phrases that we use to describe our church and our mission. We believe in an inclusive God, a God who loves all of her children equally—a God who expects us to love each other despite our differences, and we hope, as a church, as progressive Christians, that that intention is clear in our interactions, in the ways we present ourselves to the community, and especially, to visitors who join us on any given Sunday.
How then, can we read such a passage as this parable from the Gospel of Matthew? How can we stand up here and read something that sounds so exclusive, so judgmental, and say that these are Jesus’ words—words we are meant to live by?! Well, I have struggled with this parable for two weeks now…deciding several times to give up and use a different passage for this Sunday, and then talking myself out of it.
The fact is, reading the Bible, preaching, making sense of ancient stories is not always easy. If you are doing it right, it’s a challenge. If you think it’s really easy, you are probably missing the point entirely.
So here we have a parable about a wedding banquet that the king is hosting. He sends invitations to a bunch of people—we might assume these were the wealthy folks in his kingdom, the businessmen and landowners and scholars—much like the people that Jesus is telling this parable to, the Pharisees and chief priests. But when the party is ready, the invited guests refuse to come! They not only refuse, but some make a joke out of it, while others kill the servants who have come to deliver the message that the party is beginning!
It’s shocking behavior, and the king retaliates by killing them and burning their city, even though, presumably, it is his city too, as he is the king. Even after all this happens, there is still a wedding banquet to celebrate, so the king orders his servants to go out and invite everyone they can find—the good and the bad—to join them at the party.
So far, this parable makes sense. It feels inclusive and we can imagine that the king learned his lesson about only inviting the fancy rich folks to his party…but then, it gets weird. As the king wanders through his party hall, he comes upon a guest who is not wearing the right robe, and he has him thrown out—not just to the streets, but into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!” It seems like a pretty harsh punishment for wearing the wrong outfit, doesn’t it?
Now, when I was trying to decide whether to use this parable or not, I read it through with Lori Rivera. When we finished it, I threw the book down and said, “no way! I cannot make sense of that, and I certainly can’t find the Good News in this passage”—the nugget of hope that I always hope you will be able to take with you.
As we talked about it, I questioned the robe situation, and decided it made no sense, made me mad, and was totally beside the point. Still, I was not ready to give up quite yet and then Lori had to remind me about my sermon on clothing, and the importance of how we dress our outside to let our inside show through.
Well, shoot. She was right. I do happen to think clothing is important…and here is a parable with a robe. The robe must mean something more…because the thing about parables is that they are a bit mysterious. This is not really a lesson on how to dress if you suddenly find yourself invited to a wedding no one else wanted to go to! Unlike me, Jesus wasn’t big on giving fashion advice.
This is a story about the responsibilities that come with accepting the invitation to the kingdom of God. Many are invited—everyone is invited eventually—but not all of them choose to come. Some make excuses, and some are downright hostile. Of those who accept the invitation, certain things are expected. In this parable those expectations are represented by a robe—dress appropriate for the banquet.
The man in question did not put on a wedding robe. He chose to accept the invitation, to enjoy the party, but he also chose not to fulfill his end of the agreement, and in so doing, showed disrespect for his host.
Now, there are serious pitfalls in preaching about this parable in a progressive Christian setting, and they make it very tempting to avoid it all together. It can be read as anti-Semitic, and has been used that way throughout history. Jesus is telling it to the Pharisees, and it can be read that all the initial guests who were invited but refused to come were Jews. The burning of the city is generally believed to be referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The gentiles are the second group to be invited, and they are the ones who come.
When we read this passage and deconstruct it, it’s important to acknowledge that historically it has been interpreted as a judgment against Jewish people who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. And that last line, “many are called but few are chosen” has been used to exclude people from the Church based on human judgment.
The problems with both of those approaches are obvious, but I also think they are way too simplistic. They also don’t take into account the particular focus of the author of this Gospel, known as Matthew, who had a sense of eschatological urgency. He believed that Jesus was coming back very soon, and that it was very important for people to understand and accept him as the Messiah before it was too late.
This parable is similar to others found in Luke and in the gospel of Thomas, but neither of those include the last bit about the man and his robe, so we must infer that Matthew included that extra detail to really bring home his point. So what is his point? We are unfortunately not given a specific set of criteria for how we are to behave at the banquet—the kingdom of God—because that would just be too easy. But we are left with the notion of accountability and responsibility.
It is not enough to say you are a Christian. It is not enough to accept the invitation to the body of Christ. You must also choose to participate. You must walk the walk.
So what does that look like? How do we know what that walk is? Obviously, Christians all over the world disagree about what constitutes appropriate behavior, even though we claim the same scriptures and roots of our traditions.
There are Christians in this world who I disagree with on fundamental issues of behavior and morality…but as hard as it is to remember sometimes, this does not make them bad people. Nor do I have the right or the responsibility to decide how God sees them. All I can do, all I can control, is my own walk. My own behavior. My own interpretation of what God expects of me.
What does that mean for you? What’s does your ‘robe’ consist of? Mine includes living and acting with as much integrity as I can in any given moment. Apologizing when I make a mistake and standing up for my decisions when I feel they are right. Keeping an open mind and heart and expecting the best from people until they show me otherwise, doing my best to nurture myself and others, and prioritizing spirituality in my life.
Your robe—the way you live out your faith—might look different from mine. Your beliefs about God and Jesus and Spirit might be very different from mine. But the question to ask yourself is this: what does the robe mean to me? What is my robe? Am I fulfilling my responsibility to the kingdom of God, or am I just here enjoying the party?
It’s not about judgment, it’s about self-examination.
When a person wants to be a minister, we talk about feeling a ‘call’ or being ‘called.’ And every minister has their own story of how they were called to this work—we get very good at telling it, because in our training and examinations, we are constantly asked about it. But it is in fact a principle of Christianity that by virtue of our baptism, we are ALL called to be ministers in the church. We are all called to minister to each other in our own ways, to use the gifts we’ve been given to help create the kingdom of God on earth.
So as I’ve been thinking about that last line from our parable, “many are called but few are chosen,” I’ve decided the wording is slightly off. I think it should instead read, “many are called, but few choose.” We have the choice to put on our robes. We have the choice to accept God’s invitation, to accept the call to minister to each other, to care for each other, to nurture our communities. We are all called, but we don’t all choose.
This morning we baptized baby Andreas. We welcomed him into the community of God, we promised to help him grow in his faith and to nurture his spirit. Andreas has been called. He will get to choose for himself, however, how to answer that call. He will get to choose what religious beliefs resonate most deeply in his heart. He will get to choose how to live, and how to use his gifts in this lifetime. And that is a beautiful thing.
So, this morning, whether you have arrived in ripped jeans or a suit and tie, I invite you to think about what your robe looks like. What does it mean for you to be called, and how will you accept that call? What do you need from us to be able to accept that call, and how can you help others to accept theirs? We are all in this together. We are all invited to the banquet. AMEN.