This morning, when I read this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 22:1-14), there were two phrases that jumped off the page at me: “those invited were not worthy” and “both good and bad.” Put them together, and we get a powerful parable of God’s grace in action and a gut-wrenching challenge to our understanding of how the kingdom works.
First, we should notice how the king evaluates those who received and then declined his invitation to the wedding banquet. Initially, he sends his slaves to invite them, but they would not come. So he sends other slaves to plead with them, reminding them of the great banquet that awaited them—“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’”—but again they refuse to attend. So he sends his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. Finally, when he prepares to send his slaves out to find new guests, he tells them, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.”
They were not worthy. But surely the king invited those he thought were worthy. Initially, before refusing, we would have considered them worthy, too—at least by worldly standards. But they refuse to come when invited, and it is their refusal that reveals their unworthiness. That gets to the heart of this parable. The worthiness of the invited depends on their response. Even if they seemed like the right guests when the first invitations went out, their refusal to show up evidences their true unworthiness.
So who does the king bring into his banquet? Anyone whom his slaves could find. At the king’s command, they went out into the streets and gathered all they found, and Jesus lets us know that the banquet hall was filled with everyone—both good and bad. Again, the worthiness of the participants is not based on the invitation itself but on the response to the invitation. Those who are able to partake in the kingdom’s banquet are those who show up. In other words, simply getting an invitation isn’t what gives you a share in the kingdom. It’s participating in the kingdom when the banquet arrives.
But then there’s that one stray partier who forgot to wear his wedding robe. Forgot? Or did he refuse? Or was he just neglectful? Apparently, secondary sources suggest that a wedding robe really just means clean clothes. This isn’t a special tuxedo or celebratory tunic. It’s just dressing appropriately for the occasion. So here’s a guy who didn’t bother to dress up for the party. And what does the king do? He throws him back out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Does that sound like Jesus—the host of a great messianic banquet who throws out any who are underdressed?
Actually, yes, it does. That’s exactly who Jesus is. We like to think of Jesus as the one who welcomes strangers and eats with tax collectors and sinners, and that is who he is. But dining with Jesus comes with a cost. You don’t get to sit at his table and leave the same as you were when you got there. You must bring your whole self to the banquet and come ready to be transformed. Even though the invitation goes out to good and bad alike, you must invest in the movement and expect to leave changed.
Grace is free, but discipleship is costly. The church has spent so much time preaching God’s limitless invitation (which is good and right) that we’ve forgotten that the invitation requires participation. In a metaphorical sense, we’ve got to get dressed up before we can come to the messianic banquet. This is a big deal—even though a bunch of hooligans all get invitations. It’s still a big deal. You’ve got to get ready. You can’t take it lightly. Just because the invitation is free and widely given doesn’t mean you can take it for granted.