October 12, 2008 - Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
We didn’t show up for Dave’s wedding. My friend Jay and I were invited. We planned a crazy long car trip from Indiana to Texas, driving all night and day. But we decided it was too long and too expensive and gave up the idea. Then we forgot. Finally, a month or two after the wedding, we went in together on a nice gift and mailed it off. But we never heard from Dave again. Not a thank you note, no answer to our letters, nothing. We still wonder where Dave is and what he’s doing now. We spurned his wedding and he spurned us.
That’s what happened to the guests invited to the wedding of the king’s son in our parable for today. They turned down not one, but two invitations to join the young man’s family and friends at the party of the year. In verse 3 they turned down royal servants. They glanced at the invitation, checked “No” on the RSVP card and didn’t give it a second thought. But the king gave them a second chance.
In verse 4 the proud father sent servants back with a menu: fattened oxen and cattle. Steak and prime rib with all the trimmings for everyone and, he said, “everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” But they didn’t care. They had other things to do.
Verse 5 says some had good excuses. If you’re going to farm or run a business, or go to school or care for your family, you can’t just take time off to party whenever you feel like it. You need to stay home and be responsible. But other guests, we’re told in verse 6, were just plain mean. They mistreated and killed the king’s messengers. They wrote their negative RSVP in blood.
To this point, this story sounds like the one Jesus told us last week, the tenants in the vineyard. There’s a ruler with unruly people, messengers ignored and abused, and a dear son that should have gotten more respect. It’s about the lousy reception Jesus got from the Jewish leaders. Their ugly attitude toward God’s messengers began long before, with persecution and murder of the prophets.
Yet this story is different and has a different point from last week’s. For one, in this parable the son is not killed. He stays home, getting ready for the wedding. For another, and more importantly, we hear how God will replace the people who refuse His invitations.
First of all, though, the enraged king dealt with His recalcitrant guests. In verse 7 he mounted an army and sent them off to kill the killers and burn down their city. It doesn’t quite make sense that a fancy meal, with everything ready, is going to sit around until a little war is over. But the action here isn’t happening in real time. It’s happening in parable time. And this part of the parable was fulfilled in real time when Rome invaded Jerusalem in 70 A.D., killing thousands and burning down the Temple.
Back in the parable world, verses 9 and 10 tell us the king had a back-up plan for his son’s wedding party. Forget the important guests, the social movers and shakers who would have brought nice gifts. They’ve got a fire to put out. Instead, print up a whole new batch of invitations and deliver them in the street. Invite anyone. A-list or alcoholic. Ballerina or bum. Car thief or commodities trader. Drug dealer or debutante. They’re all welcome, and many of them came, “both good and bad,” we’re told. Verse 10 concludes “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
In the real world, we know Jesus extended God’s invitation of grace to tax collectors and prostitutes, peasants and soldiers, possibly a terrorist or two. Yes, there were a physician and a Pharisee, but they were the minority. The Lord filled up His Church with smelly fishermen and humble women, with the poor and with slaves. They flocked into God’s kingdom to eat and drink at the feast of the King’s Son.
The parable might have stopped here. That’s how it happens in Luke 14. The point is the unflappable grace of God. If His love and salvation are rejected by some, He will find others ready to accept. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has set a kingdom Table to which any and everyone is welcome, if they will only come.
You and I are reminded that we’re not invited because we are worthy. God invites us because He is good, so amazingly good that He’s willing to invite anyone to fill up the seats at His Table. We’re included because the invitation has gone out into the streets and welcomed even the worst into the kingdom. God is determined to have a party. You might say Jesus was going to hand out God’s grace and party hats if He had to die trying. And so He did. And if filling the guest list means inviting sinners, like you and me, then He will. He has. It’s pure, wonderful grace that brings us here and that’s every reason to celebrate.
Yet, as the TV ads say, there’s more. My friend Stu tells the story of how he was away one summer and didn’t get his lawn mowed. When he finally returned and tried to hire someone to do it, the fellow looked at the grass and said, “Mr. Hackett, my regular price is $20, but this is going to be $40. You have two lawns, one on top of the other.” Well this parable is really two parables, one on top of the other.
Remember that everyone came to the kingdom party in verse 10, “both good and bad.” Just like the parables of the weeds and the fish earlier in Matthew, there is still a little sorting out to do.
The second parable begins in verse 11. The party is in full swing. The music is loud, the food is hot, everyone’s having a good time. The king is walking around, schmoozing with his guests. All of a sudden, a man catches his eye. Someone is here who doesn’t fit. He’s not dressed for a party. He looks like he came in off the street, which, of course, he did. In verse 12, the king confronts him, “Friend,” (the word is not all that friendly, we might say something like, “Buddy”) how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”
My wife doesn’t make me wear a coat and tie to the opera anymore. Most of my pastor friends and I don’t put on ties even on Sunday. Formal attire still appears at weddings, but I did one outdoors this summer in which the men wore khaki shorts, white shirts and pink polka dot ties. The guests came in whatever they pleased, from suits to jeans and T-shirts. There’s a large culture gap, especially in Eugene, Oregon, for us to grasp what an insult to the king and his son it was for a guest not to have been properly dressed.
There’s also a gap in figuring out just why the king got mad. He invited these folks in off the street. How can he expect them to be in nice clothes? A fairly large interpretive tradition says he expected it because he was providing the clothing. Supposedly, first century hosts gave banquet garments to their guests. As you came in the house, you were handed a nice clean robe. The man’s rejection of proper attire is a rejection of hospitality. The clod tossed the clean clothes in the corner. So grace is offered, but not everyone accepts it.
However, other scholars I respect say the evidence for hosts providing banquet garments in the first century is skimpy. Supposed biblical examples, like II Kings 10:22 and the father’s provision for the prodigal son in Luke 15:22, don’t really match up. So if it’s not grace, what does the missing wedding attire imply here?
If it’s not grace, was Jesus saying you need good works to enter the kingdom? But that hardly fits with how everyone was invited to start with. They came into the banquet, “both good and bad.” Perfect righteousness was not required in the first place. Why would it suddenly be necessary once the party was underway? In the real world of spiritual life, if we come into God’s kingdom by grace, do we now get to stay only if we meet a different standard that depends on works? Yes and no.
In his magisterial book on the parables, Klyne Snodgrass says over and over, “limitless grace. . . brings with it limitless demand.” The man with no wedding clothes represents those who take grace for granted. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s terms they see God’s grace as “cheap.” They imagine it demands nothing of them. They suppose they can receive incredible grace and remain incredibly bad. But that’s an insult to what grace cost God, the blood of His own Son.
To understand this second part of the parable, we need to recover a sense of times and places when nice clothes, even formal clothes, are needed. Think of wearing cut-offs and a tank top to the prom or a beautiful church wedding or an elegant dinner party. Or turn it around and imagine showing up at a pool party in a suit or for a backpack trip in high heels. It’s not so much the clothes that matter as an attitude which hasn’t truly entered into the spirit of the occasion. You’ve shown up, but you haven’t joined in.
Woody Allen is often quoted for saying “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” But Woody’s own failures demonstrate the need to give more thought to life than just being there. This parable teaches us that just showing up in the kingdom of God is not enough. God asks us to genuinely join His party. Show up, but then start to become the kind of person who will really enjoy being in the kingdom of God.
We can start learn what it means to join God’s party right here in worship. We obviously have no dress code. None of us want to go back to suits and ties for every male, with dresses, hats and gloves for all you poor women. Yet there other ways we dress ourselves for the party to which we’re invited every Sunday morning. Moments of prayer for an open heart or for the Holy Spirit to lead your worship leaders. A confession to God of sin. As in our reading from Philippians 4, reconciliation with another person. Or put on some of the virtues mentioned there—gentleness, thanksgiving and peace. Instead of Sunday newspaper ads, take to heart Philippians 4:8, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” That is dressing up for the party.
Our invitation to the kingdom banquet is pure grace. God sent Jesus into the world to welcome us all, rich and poor, good and bad, wise and foolish. We all open the same gilded envelope inviting us to the great kingdom feast for eternity. And once you say yes, all that’s left is to determine how you will arrive. Will you be dressed and ready and glad to sit down with the Son of the King, or merely present, not quite sure why sure even there?
I Corinthians 3 talks about God’s judging whatever we build on the foundation laid for us in Jesus Christ. Salvation is by grace, but our lives will still be tried by fire. Those who build out of wood or straw find their deeds burned up in the end. Those who build with gold, silver or costly stone have something that will last. Paul talks about those who will be saved only as if escaping through flames, with nothing left to show for how they’ve lived.
A classic sort of fairy tale is about a young man who wanders in the woods as evening falls. He meets a strange little man who shows him a wonderful banquet hall he’d never seen before. It’s filled with people dancing and eating and drinking. The men are handsome and strong, the women are tall and beautiful. They are dressed in white silk with silver and gold threads. They draw him in and seat him at their table.
The boy’s plate is filled with luscious food. His cup is filled with ale that goes down gently as milk but warms him like a live coal in his belly. He eats and drinks and listens to songs played on golden harps. He dances with the women and his head spins. He is more intensely alive than ever before.
Then he is beckoned to the head of the table, where the silver-haired king of the fairies sits. The king tells him glorious secrets, fills his pockets with gold and jewels, and puts on his head a silver crown set with sapphires. Then a lovely fairy-maiden spins him away to dance and eat and drink some more, until he is exhausted and lies down on a silk couch to rest his dizzy head.
In the morning the young man wakes outside on damp ground. He is lying on dirt and rocks, not silk. There is no hall, no beautiful people, no king. The only thing to drink is the dew. His pockets are full of leaves, not jewels. The crown on his head is a spider web. It’s all gone, all vanished into the night like the dream it was. He’s back in the real world.
Jesus’ story teaches us that the fairy story is true in reverse. It’s the world we live in now that is the dream. The houses, the cars, the television sets and cell phones, even the clothes we work so hard for will someday vanish like morning dew. If we accept the Lord’s invitation, we will one day wake up at the banquet that is the kingdom of God. And what seemed intangible and invisible will be all that’s real, all that will clothe us in the presence of the King. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—those will be the sumptuous garments, flowing robes woven out of precious thread.
Verse 14 says, “…many are invited…” We’re all invited, anyone, everyone. The King keeps sending out invitations to His Son’s banquet and no one is left out. There are only two questions. The first and most important is “Will you go?” Will you accept the free grace of forgiveness for your sins and put your trust in Jesus Christ and nothing else? If so, then you are on your way to the feast of heaven.
Yet verse 14 continues, “…but few are chosen.” The other question is, “How will you arrive?” Will you be prepared, dressed, ready to meet your King in clothing you’ve at least tried to wash and press and make as attractive as possible? Or will you find yourself like the man in the parable, still in the same old clothes you started in, speechless when the Lord asks how you got there that way? Will we choose to live in a way that demonstrates that God has graciously chosen us.
We dress up for all kinds of reasons. We put on our best for a special date, for an important graduation, for the boss’s invitation to dinner. We buy new clothes for the start of school, for that dream vacation, for the wedding of someone we love. Why wouldn’t we want to prepare and dress as finely as possible for an event that will last forever?
Our opportunity is right now, right here. Every Christian worship service is a rehearsal for God’s great celebration. May you and I use these opportunities to get dressed up. May we clothe ourselves with lives and with worship that honors Jesus. When the big party starts, let’s be ready. The festivities, and the joy, will never end.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj