Preacher: Rev. David Exley
Scripture: Matthew 22:1-14
Most of us have had THAT dream before. You know the dream that I’m talking about—the one where you show up to school or work or, (God forbid) church wearing just your underwear.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ministers/priests/pastors, we have our own version of this nightmare. It either involves us finding ourselves in the pulpit with no sermon written (no preparation done for worship) trying desperately to get through the service, but failing miserably. Or, it involves us being at an important service of worship without being properly dressed. Having spent three years of my theological studies at an Anglican institution (shout out to Huron College here in London) the dream that I’ve had a few times is one where I show up at an ecumenical service with other faith leaders in an alb and no stole or with the wrong liturgical colours for the season. This may seem like the world’s most boring nightmare, but trust me almost every faith leader has woken up in a cold sweat after a dream like this.
Most of us share that common fear of being underdressed at a critical moment in our lives. It speaks to a deeper fear within us: the fear of being on the outside; the fear of being alone , singled out. There’s something about THAT dream (that nightmare) that makes us human.
Today’s scripture reading from Matthew 22, where we hear Jesus share the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, touches on this fear that we all have. It reads a little like a nightmare. The king sends out invitations for a wedding banquet involving his son. The slaves go to each of the guests to deliver the good news. However, each person on the guest list has an excuse for not attending. The slaves come back and share the bad news with the king. He sends them out a second time, this time with more information—details that should entice them to attend. But, instead of changing their minds, they again reject the invitation. A few end up seizing the slaves, mistreat them, and then end up killing the slaves. The king is now enraged. To the point that he sends troops to avenge the mistreatment and killing of his slaves. He destroys those responsible and burns down the city. The remaining slaves are ordered to go out and invite everyone to the banquet. The king ultimately decides that “the show must go on”. The meal has already been prepared. And so, the people in the neighbouring area might as well ALL enjoy the feast. This time the response is different. When the banquet day comes, the place is filled with people. Instead of this being the “happy end” of the story, the king comes along and sees someone not wearing a wedding robe (something that would have been a strict custom at the time). When the king confronts the robe-less man and inquires as to why he’s not wearing a robe, the man has no answer—he’s speechless. And so, the king has him bound hand and foot and “thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The parable then ends with these ominous words: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
There’s a reason why this parable is not typically high on the list of favourite parables from the gospels. It doesn’t seem to paint a good picture of God—the one who is supposed to be loving, gracious, and merciful. In fact, it seems to do the opposite.
Now, before we flip this parable upside down we must remember that there are some helpful things to point out when we look at it from a traditional standpoint. Amidst all the shock and awe of this story there is an important theme that relates to honour and shame. In Jesus’ day, it would have been incredibly dishonourable to decline an invitation like this—it would have been incredibly insulting to the host. And, if it wasn’t shameful enough, in the parable, the invitation is declined twice. And not only are the messengers mistreated, they’re seized and killed. You can see why the king would have become enraged upon receiving this news.
It also would have been incredibly disrespectful to refuse to wear a wedding garment to the banquet. However, it does seem excessive for the man to be tossed out into the darkness… into a place of misery.
There are so many elements of this parable just leave me wanting more. I don’t want this to be the picture of what the kingdom of God is like. The images in the story (and the traditional interpretation) just doesn’t seem to fit with the message of Jesus. It also doesn’t seem to fit with the message we typically get from the writer of this Gospel. Early in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus advises his followers to love their enemies. In fact, Jesus prohibits anger itself, because it is the precursor of murderous actions. All his teachings seem to suggest that God is a God who is not at all like the king in this parable.
And so, let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s look for clues that might help us better understand what Jesus is trying to tell us. There’s one line that we often skip over as we read, and attempt to interpret, this passage of scripture. At the very beginning, Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven may be COMPARED to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is LIKE this…” OR “The kingdom of God is synonymous with this story.” He says, “The kingdom may be COMPARED to this…” God is not LIKE a king who seeks vengeance on those who reject his invitation—someone who burns a city down in anger… who tosses a nonconformist into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. God’s dream is different dream is different from this dream. God’s dream is very different when compared to some of the nightmares this world has to offer.
From the beginning of Matthew’s gospel to the end of the passion narrative we see Jesus demonstrate what it means to participate in God’s realm—to be a part of a different kind of kingdom. The writer of Matthew seems to give the reader a side-by-side comparison of God’s realm and the realm of this world. He seems to place them next to one another in an effort to show us who God is and how God measures up to the structure and powers of our world. At the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi (the “Wise Men”) find themselves in the company of King Herod as they search for the young Jesus (the Prince of Peace) Herod invites them to bring the young Messiah to him so that he might “worship him” also. The Magi ultimately reject this misleading invitation from the king. They choose a different path. In doing so, they show us the way.
This early section of Matthew’s gospel provides a little clue for the reader as to how we should respond to invitations from a narcissistic and power-hungry leader. Later in the gospel story we hear another story that gives us a glimpse of what God’s realm looks like when compared to our world. In the midst of the passion narrative, Jesus appears before the high priest after his arrest. Much like the underdressed wedding banquet attendee in Matthew 22, Jesus is stripped down (naked) and is silent in front of his interrogator. And, of course, the image of the man being bound up and thrown into the darkness doesn’t seem out of place when we think about the passion story of Jesus.
With all this in mind, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus is inviting us to reject kingdoms like the one we find in Matthew 22. God’s banquet is a different kind of banquet. God’s invitation is a different kind of invitation. God’s table is open to each one of us. The invitation comes with no requirement pertaining to attire. God’s not concerned about our outward appearance. God is focused on that which dwells within our heart. We’re called to be clothed in love, grace, and mercy. The things that God offers at the table—the things that God highlights as the invitation is extended to us—are not elegant food items. What God offers at the table is a different way of living and loving. God simply says, “Come. All you who are weary, come to the table. Come to a place of love, justice, and peace.” It’s only when we reject the invitation to those other kinds of banquets that we will see God’s dream of grace, love, and peace fulfilled.
In many ways, God’s dream is a response to the nightmares that we have—the ones where we find ourselves underdressed and ridiculed by others. The ones where we discover that who we are is not enough.
For most of us, our greatest fear is that we will find ourselves judged and deemed unworthy. We fear that when people discover who we really are OR when we share who we really are we’ll be tossed out like the under-dressed wedding guest. This parable reminds us that Jesus does not just understand the rejection that guest experiences, he IS that rejected guest. And, perhaps what we’re called to do is follow him out the door as we seek to join a different kind of feast. What will that banquet look like? What will that dream look like?
Perhaps another great spiritual leader—one who has experienced rejection in his life—can offer us an image of what God’s dream looks like. Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu wrote a book called, “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time”. In that book, he writes this:
You are the indispensable agent of change. You should not be daunted by the magnitude of the task before you. Your contribution can inspire others, embolden others who are timid, to stand up for the truth in the midst of a welter of distortion, propaganda, and deceit; stand up for human rights where these are being violated with impunity; stand up for justice, freedom, and love where they are trampled underfoot by injustice, oppression, hatred, and harsh cruelty; stand up for human dignity and decency at times when these are in desperately short supply. God calls on us to be his partners to work for a new kind of society where people count; where people matter more than things, more than possessions; where human life is not just respected but positively revered.
As we give thanks this holiday weekend, may we listen for God’s invitation to join a different kind of banquet. May we be those agents of change that guide all creation toward God’s dream of grace and love. Amen.