Proper 23A (Oct 15, 2023)
Our Gospel reading for today
is one of those stories from the Bible
that makes you want to call for a time-out
or an instant replay.
If this parable were a football game,
at least one referee would throw down his yellow flag.
He wouldn’t be calling
“failure to wear proper equipment”
on the man tossed out of the banquet.
Instead any fair referee would spread his arms wide
to signal “unsportsmanlike conduct” on the king.
The parable would come to a halt
and the referees would confer,
talking about how the guest discovered out of uniform
was bound hand and foot
and cast into the outer darkness.
The king is in clear violation
of the rules of hospitality and sportsmanship.
But wait a minute.
Kings don’t get ruled on by referees.
The king in this parable does as he will, punishing a last-minute guest
for not being properly attired.
There is no one in the parable to cry foul.
We are left scratching our heads.
this is Jesus’s description of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So why does God’s kingdom sound unjust?
Well, you know how it is.
The parables of Jesus often catch us off-guard.
I think they’re meant to do so.
Jesus creates stories that pull us in.
We cruise along,
listening to the tale Jesus is spinning.
We are watching the scenery as we ride past it. Then Jesus hits the brakes suddenly,
makes a sharp turn, and whoops!
We find ourselves hurtling down a strange sideroad.
His stories have a way of getting us turned around,
of seeing things from a whole new angle.
Jesus begins with images we can immediately understand:
a king is giving a banquet in honor of his son. We’re thoughtful Christians –
we see the parallels right away.
This is the kingdom of heaven.
So God the King is the father,
and the son being honored is Jesus.
Easy enough to follow so far.
The king has already invited many guests, honorable citizens of the town.
But at banquet time, they haven’t shown up. So he sends his servants out to remind them.
They refuse to come.
The king makes the offer more tempting
by having the servants offer tantalizing descriptions of the party’s feast.
But still the guests make light of the offer.
One goes to his farm, another to his business, and, Jesus tells us,
“The rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” Wow!
The story starts to sound like a similar parable, the one about the landowner
who plants a vineyard,
puts a fence around it,
digs a winepress,
and builds a watchtower.
He hires laborers to work the vineyard.
Then at harvest time the tenants,
refuse to turn over the produce
to the owner’s servants.
So the owner sends his own personal representative, his son.
The tenants actually seize the son,
throw him out of the vineyard,
and kill him.
The parable for today,
as well as the tenants of the vineyard one,
fits with our understanding of salvation history. God approaches his people
first through the prophets
and then through Jesus,
and some people reject both.
Despite the gracious invitation,
many choose not to attend the wedding banquet,
which represents the end times
that first Isaiah promises in his 25th chapter. “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts
will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear” [Isaiah 25:6].
His invitation violently rejected,
the king sends more servants
(perhaps nervous ones)
with another invitation.
“Go therefore into the main streets,
and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”
Everyone is invited to God’s banquet,
even those who were previously cast out.
All is well until the king bumps into an improperly attired guest and says,
“Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”
What would you have said?
“Your servants practically dragged me in off the street.
Who had time to get a wedding robe?”
Actually our poorly dressed man gives no reply at all.
Then we get the ending
that makes us wonder where Jesus is coming from.
The king tells his servants,
“Bind him hand and foot,
and throw him into the outer darkness
where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Remember the referees and the yellow flags? Here’s where the flags get thrown on the play. Here’s where we need to review the whole scene.
We look at the instant replay
and see the moment everything changed.
“Those slaves went into the streets
and gathered all whom they found,
both good and bad,
so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
The parable at this point
comes to mirror Jesus’s teachings on judgment. Later in the same week that Jesus tells this parable,
Matthew writes about Jesus teaching that the Great Judgment
will be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.
Those who took care of the least
will be placed on one side.
Those who did not feed the hungry
or give drink to the thirsty
or clothe the naked and so on
are placed on the other side.
Judgment falls hard on those
who do not care for the needy.
In the same way,
the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven from today’s reading
is a picture of the coming judgment.
But be careful.
If we focus on the weeping and gnashing of teeth,
we miss the grace of this parable.
The king gives a free invitation to the wedding banquet.
No one has to earn his or her seat at the table. Both the good and the bad
are encouraged to come to the feast.
Now back in Jesus’s time,
guests to a wedding feast
were not expected to provide their own festive attire.
They would be given robes
as they entered the banquet hall –
sort of like a restaurant’s loaning men a tie
if ties are required.
The invitation was (and is) open.
The feast was an unearned gift,
and so was the clothing.
In a parallel situation,
the first Christians were given robes at Baptism as they came up out of the baptismal water. The white robes were an outward sign
of the inward grace of being clothed in Christ.
So if the wedding banquet is the judgment at the end of time,
the robe expected of the guests
is like this baptismal robe
that represents the inward grace
of being clothed in Christ.
The grace is that the guests,
both good and bad,
did not have to procure their own robes.
The King wants the man to explain how it is
that he is improperly dressed
after having been offered the garment
needed for the feast.
Here he has been given the team jersey
for the Kingdom of Heaven,
and he has refused to wear it.
At this point in the story,
we shouldn’t smugly decide
that we already have our own baptismal robes, our own team jerseys.
No guest at the wedding banquet
should enjoy seeing others who were invited failing to enjoy the feast.
The cost of the free gift of grace
is too high for us to feel self-righteous
and to show contempt for others.
Notice this gift:
after his gracious invitation is rudely rejected
by those who return their fields and their businesses,
the King continues to invite others to the banquet.
(thank you Lord)
is not reserved for the perfect.
Instead it is for those who are willing to be perfected
by the generous offer to cover our imperfections
with the host’s own robes of righteousness. That shouldn’t make us arrogant –
but rather humble,
knowing that we neither deserve nor earn our invitation.
There’s quite a bit of stuff in today’s parable when we really look at it.
And it may sound offensive on a first reading – we may be tempted to pull out that yellow hankie and call foul.
But sports analogies go wide of the goal posts. In sports,
you have to earn your place on the team
by your own merit.
To enter the Kingdom of Heaven
we just have to receive the gift freely offered – and then live into the life to which God has called us.