October 11, 2020 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23A
Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Being too busy to go to a party is so last year, isn’t it? When was the last time you skipped a social event because you hadn’t had a quiet weekend at home in months? I miss those days. I miss feeling the urge to skip a wedding or a birthday party or a baby shower or a dinner because I just want to stay home. How we hear this parable of Jesus depends, in part, on whether we’re hearing it with pre-pandemic ears—back when you and me and everyone I know was busy—or with our current-day ears—when most of us would give up our first-born child for a night out with other adults.
For most of us, I think the first half of this parable sounds like good news. The king threw a big wedding banquet for his son. The original invitees were either too busy or too self-absorbed to make time for the party, but that was good news for everyone else. Except for the extreme behavior of some of the characters in the parable, the setup to the first half is pretty reasonable. Naturally, the king was upset when the first round of guests refused to show up. If anything, his decision to fill the guest hall with whoever could be found—both good and bad—was a remarkable expression of inclusion. This party was too important to allow those who would not come to ruin it, and the latecomers were thrilled to be included.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always grateful when someone offers me their ticket to the symphony or to a sporting event. It’s like having a ticket to the Masters. I can’t imagine why anyone would give up a chance to go to Augusta National, but, if they’re too busy with their farm or their business to go, I’d be happy to take their place. We like that image of the kingdom of heaven. How good it is that our God is willing to fling wide open the doors to that great and glorious banquet so that everyone who wants to be there can find a place at the feast! And, as long as we hear this parable with the ears of those who are grateful to be included, it is good news indeed. At least, the first part is.
But then the parable takes a dark and startling turn. As the king walks through the banquet hall, delighted and relieved that his son’s wedding feast wasn’t a total flop, he notices that one of the guests isn’t dressed appropriately. “How did you get in without a wedding garment?” the king asks, but the guest stares back in stunned silence. In the blink of an eye, everything has changed. The music and dancing stop. No one utters a word. The king orders his servants to bind the intruder hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness. What kind of king is that? What kind of God is that? One minute, everyone is raising a glass to toast the generosity of the magnanimous host, but the next everyone is staring at the floor, hoping that the nightmare will end.
If you’re confused, that’s ok. So am I. So is everyone. And I think that’s the point. Sometimes preachers try to explain away the awkwardness of the second half of this parable and, in so doing, rob it of its power. Some claim that the second part didn’t belong with the first but was added on generations later to warn Christians not to give up in the face of persecution. Others try to soften the inexplicable harshness of a host who would expect a last-minute guest to be wearing formal attire by asserting that wedding robes would have been handed out to all of the guests at the door, but there’s no historical evidence that that was the case. No, we’re left with a difficult text that challenges us and our preconceptions of God and God’s reign to their core. And that’s the point.
We like it when the kingdom of heaven is what we expect. We like it when God behaves the way we want God to behave. We like it when the doors are flung wide open and anyone and everyone is invited to come to the party. But liking that and talking about God like that and telling people that we belong to a church that believes that everyone is welcome isn’t good enough. You don’t get to be a part of the celebration if all you do is show up and watch other people make it happen. And you don’t get to share in the festivities if you decide to stay home and let other people take your place. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet that a king threw for his son. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the first one to get an invitation or the last one to show up. What matters is that when you arrive you celebrate with everything you’ve got.
Jesus isn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven that is waiting for us when we die. He’s talking about the reign of God that has already broken through into this life. Jesus came to the earth and lived and died and rose again so that you and I and everyone else might have a place at God’s table. But it’s not good enough that we have received an invitation. And it’s not good enough that we show up for the party. It’s not good enough that we wear crosses around our necks. It’s not good enough that we call ourselves Christians. It’s not good enough that we belong to a church like St. Paul’s. It’s not good enough that we believe in our hearts that God’s love belongs to everyone. Our host wants to see that we’re all in. For a celebration this important, anything less than our full participation—anything other than our very best—isn’t good enough.
You can’t believe in a God who welcomes everyone and not welcome everyone yourself. You can’t believe in a kingdom where everyone has a place and not make room in your own heart for whoever wants to come in. We believe in a God who flings wide open the doors to the kingdom. We believe in a God who searches high and low so that everyone might come in. You and I have been given a ticket to the celebration that God is throwing for us and for all people. But the fact that we’ve been included at all is itself a miracle of generosity and love. Like everyone else, we have been given a ticket because God loves us enough to find us and beckon us to come in. In this life—right here and now—being included in God’s great banquet is the most important thing that will ever happen to us. If we can’t find a way to celebrate that and to celebrate it with everyone else whom God has invited in, we’ll be the ones who miss out.