Proper 23a, October 15, 2017

October 16, 2017

Properly Responsive

Matthew 22:1-14


1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying::2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 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.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 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. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”


Last week I talked a little bit about the difference between an allegory and a parable. I pointed out that an allegory is generally sort of a straight story who’s fictional characters represent identifiable people or entities, and that a parable is a story that goes off in a strange direction in order to make you question your view of reality. This week’s story reveals how fuzzy the line can be between those two types of stories. What we have this week is a story with some strong allegorical features that concludes with a twist that’s fitting of a parable. So when you start reading this parable you think you know what it’s all about. You think you know who represents who in this story and how it’s going to play out, but the story ends with a bizarre twist. If you don’t find yourself saying: What?!! – you aren’t paying attention.


I mean the situation is that Jesus is in the temple and he knows the chief priests and the Pharisees and all of the other people who didn’t like his message and leadership style were plotting against him. He knows that he’s dealing with some biblically literate people, so he knew it wouldn’t be hard for his detractors to understand what he was saying. They knew that he was connecting them with that long line of false prophets and leaders who lead the people of Israel astray. This story of the wedding feast is a pretty transparent tale that identifies the current leaders of Israel as being like those guests who were invited to the king’s wedding banquet and then refused to show up.


This story portrays the kingdom of God as being the kind of place where you aren’t likely to find the people who were originally invited to be a part of God’s holy community. This story reveals the ongoing tradition of abuse within the leadership of Israel and it identifies God’s rejection of those false leaders in a rather graphic way. You think you know how this story is going to end with the king inviting to the banquet those who were formerly uninvited. That is in fact what happens, and the king seems pleased that these new guests actually show up. It seems to be such a nice story for people like us who were never a part of the community that originally rejected Jesus, but out of no-where the king sees someone who isn’t dressed properly, and he has his guards grab that man, bind him, and throw him in to an entirely unpleasant place.


You probably came here this morning expecting to have a little relief from the variety of stressful stories that inundate our various news-feed-lines, and here we have a story that seems to portray God as being a little more erratic and inhospitable that we generally think of God as being. I’m a big fan of that promotional campaign that was introduced in the United Methodist Church a few years ago that described our denomination as being defined by Open Hearts, Open Doors and Open Minds. I like to think of our church as being the kind of place that welcomes everyone, but this passage of scripture makes me think the slogan needs a footnote directing prospects to the fine print that says: Enter at your own risk. Circumstances may call for you to be bound and cast in to the outer darkness where you will find weeping and gnashing of teeth.


There’s sort of a terrifying conclusion to this story, but I don’t think the news is as bad as it may seem on first glance. Once again, I think it’s important to recognize the context of this story. Jesus was talking to people who were very literally out to kill him, and he didn’t want them to continue going down that road without some clear warning of the danger involved in what they intended to do. And in fact, Jesus didn’t want any of us to be unaware of the costs of following him. I believe Jesus used some hyperbole to illustrate this point. I don’t believe this is a literal portrayal of how God treats houseguests, but the truth is that following Jesus is not a free ride down a lovely lane through a peaceful valley.


I liked that United Methodist promotional campaign, but it really isn’t an accurate portrayal of what the Christian faith is all about. If we are going to be true to the message Jesus presented our slogan should be something like this: United Methodism: It’s Not For Everyone.


Because the Christian faith is not designed to be an easy undertaking. Our denomination, like many other denominations and institutions, has experienced a lot of decline over the last few decades, and we continue to struggle to get our trend lines moving up instead of down. We want the church to be an attractive organization, but in all honesty Jesus isn’t the easiest messiah to follow. When he told his followers to pick up their cross and follow him he wasn’t talking about picking up a piece of jewelry that could be hung on a small gold chain. The church is an easy organization to join, but the honest truth is that following Jesus is hard.


And of course if you actually get involved in a church you know it’s hard. Unfortunately the hard things that we encounter in church are often organizational matters. I’m happy to say that we aren’t currently experiencing financial hardship within our church. This is not to say that you can rest easy. We have what you might call some fragile stability, but this is so much better than financial distress.


I know a man who was the Chairperson of the Finance Committee of a church that had become overextended in a number of ways and they had a perpetual shortage of money. He served in that role for a number of years, and he told me that he often remembers how relieved he was on the first day of January of the year he rotated out of that position. He said that was the first thing he thought about when he woke up on the first day of that new year and he could still remember how sweet that feeling was. He was clearly exercising some faithful discipleship in serving in that role, but I think it’s sort of sad that the people who engage in the most challenging church-work are often doing what they can to keep the doors open. I can tell you, I’m incredibly grateful to those of you who do the hard work of keeping the doors open, but I’m pretty sure the hard work Jesus was calling for us to do is beyond the doors of the church.


Jesus wants us to know that we are going to experience some uncomfortable demands if we are faithful to his call.


Of course following Christ isn’t just about costly effort. After all, Jesus compared the invitation to abide in the Kingdom of God to an invitation to a wedding banquet, and in Jesus’ day about the best thing that came along in a village was a wedding banquet. That’s when you got access to the best food and drink. A wedding banquet was a great break from what was generally a pretty tough and austere routine. So the invitation to follow him was an invitation to a grand opportunity, and the invitation comes to us as a great gift, but there’s an expectation of response.


This isn’t easy for us to hear, but I think we all know that it’s true. To be unresponsive to God’s expectation is to somehow miss the party. Actually, Jesus says this is a reason to be thrown out of the party. This isn’t an easy thing for us to hear Jesus saying, but it’s important to keep in mind that there aren’t any of us who are qualified to judge what’s expected of others. It’s the king who observed the guests and who didn’t like what that one person was wearing. It’s God alone who judges our fitness for the banquet. And it’s God who enables us understand what’s expected of us. It’s not unreasonable for us to encourage faithful living within our community, and I think we can help each other discern what that is, but it’s not up to us to decide who is properly or improperly suited up for God’s kingdom.


I don’t think the intent of this passage is to generate fear of God, but I do believe it is designed to illustrate the importance of connecting our lives with our professed desire to show up for God. If we accept the invitation to this divine banquet that we call the kingdom of heaven – we need to pay attention to what we have on – so to speak.


You may think that a person who owns a fluorescent green suit and puts a pumpkin on his head has little regard for the importance of appearance, but I’m actually pretty sensitive to being properly dressed. There’s an experience from a few years ago that’s seared in to my memory of when I realized that what I was wearing was totally inappropriate for where I was going. It happened when my daughter, Liza, was about 2 years old, and I had taken her to a Mother’s Day Out program at a YWCA in Durham, NC. Sharla was in class for the day, and I had taken Liza to Mothers Day Out so I could spend the morning painting our house. I had gotten to work and it was hot and I was young, so I had taken my shirt off. I suddenly realized I was about to be late picking Liza up, so I jumped in the car and started driving to get her. I was about half-way there when I realized I didn’t have a shirt on, and there wasn’t one in the car. It wasn’t a short drive, and I was already going to be a bit late – which was heavily frowned upon,  but I was mortified by the thought of walking in to that day-care situation without a shirt on.


I was near a restaurant where I knew the manager, and of course it isn’t proper to go in to a restaurant without a shirt on either, but that seemed like my best option. I ran in with $10 in my hand begging for a t-shirt and luckily my manager-friend was on duty and she sold me a shirt instead of throwing me out. I was so relieved to get a shirt on before I stepped in to the Mother’s Day Out community. I was late, but I avoided the humiliation of being so improperly covered.


It’s a terrible feeling to be inappropriately dressed. To feel some public scorn is to experience some inner wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus knows how much we hate to be singled out and to have our personal failure exhibited to the public, and I think he used that fear we have to raise our awareness of how important it is to respond appropriately to this invitation we’ve been given to live in relationship with God. It’s a gracious offer, and we don’t need to ignore it. Jesus told this allegorical parable so we will pay attention to our spiritual clothing.


Jesus wants us to feel some discomfort if we aren’t wearing our faith well. Jesus told this story to expose the impropriety of the religious offenders, pretenders, and neglecters of his day and of ours. The living Christ doesn’t want those of us who recently got invited to the party to think that we are fine just because we aren’t the former people.


I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the humiliation of being improperly dressed, but I can testify that its not a good feeling, and I know I don’t want to repeat the experience. I hate to think how often I’ve failed to show up wearing the spiritually proper clothing, but it’s very clear to me that Jesus wants us to pay attention to such matters.


I don’t know if shirts and shoes are required at the banquet of the Lord, but I’m sure we need to be wearing some genuine love and forgiveness in our hearts if we want to enjoy the feast.


Thanks be to God.



One Response to “Proper 23a, October 15, 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    Very powerful and insightful last paragraph !!

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