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."
When I was younger, say about 12, my family and I took a trip out to the East Coast. Now, when were in Washington DC, touring the White House, my younger brother had to use the restroom, like desperately, like we might be risking incredible public humiliation and embarrassment if this situation was ignored, desperately. Making this information know to the tour guide, my younger brother somehow managed to get led by White House security, behind locked doors, mind you, into a staff bathroom. He actually had the guards watching the bathroom doors during all of this. This, of course, got my whole family wondering if maybe he would run into then President William Jefferson Clinton, and by some happy accident, my family would be invited to dine with the President and first lady. Now, the point of this story is not about political affiliation, because I am confident we would have responded in the same way had this in during one the Bush presidencies. The point, though, is that the allure of power and prestige is nothing short of intoxicating to us mere mortals. To be near those whose lives seem to occupy a different plain than ours, this is the stuff of dreams and fantasies. Think, if you will, about the response to the marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton. If, for some random reason, you received an invitation, including airfare and accommodations, to that splendid event, do you think you could have resisted? Resisted the chance to see Kate walk the aisle, or watch Sir Elton John enter Westminster Abbey? Or see all those ridiculous hats in person? I think not. It would be absurd and insulting.
And it is with that in mind that we turn towards those who, in Jesus’ parable for today, do just that, turn down an invitation from the king for his son’s wedding. Now, to hear this story more fully, we have to rehearse a few details from life in ancient times. What is at stake here is more than good manners and whether or not one fills out an RSVP on time. Instead, what we are dealing with is an issue of honor. Those who turn down the king’s invitation, given the flimsiness of their excuses, they might as well have told an eager young man that they were washing their hair that night, they are intend in sending a message to the king. Their goal is to dishonor him, which may account for the escalating violence that we see in the text, in which they quite literally end up shooting the messengers. For whatever reason, their hatred of the king will not allow them to recognize the king’s rule over them. Their desire to be free of his rule will keep them from feasting with the king, enjoying the best of his prime rib and lobster, and drinking from an endless bottle of vintage wine. Their goal is not to keep their weekends open for whatever else might come up; instead, their goal is war with the king, and it a war that they are intent on waging until their city gets burned down.
Now, if all this strikes as you a bit extreme, this is probably the point. We are in a portion of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus is very near his death, and the tension between him and the religious leaders is thick. This is the third straight parable that Jesus has told in the Jerusalem Temple, and he just refuses to stop his verbal attack on their authority and hypocrisy. But, there is another reason that this parable makes us a bit uneasy, besides the exaggeration, and I think it has something to do with God’s own authority, with the fact that God is beyond our attempts at manipulation, and ultimately, what God says, well, that is what happens. This is not a God that we can box up and control, and yet, this is the God in whom all of our fates rest. And that, that combination right there, that is terrifying. Our illusions of freedom, of self-determination and the rest, all of that is called to question by this king. By this king who, frankly, can do whatever he pleases, our egos fiercely disregarded. He can invite and cancel invitations, he can take those who refused his invitations and replace them with the first 500 people that he sees. And to be frank, there is nothing we can do about it, and this fact makes us crazy, because it means that we do not have the control that we so crave. And there is nothing more frustrating than giving up control.
But, that this God remains outside our attempts at manipulation, what if that little secret is actually the relief that we require? Yes, this God will frustrate and ultimately defeat our attempts at trying to live apart from God, but what that is ultimately and finally wonderful news ? What if, it is our pride and our fear, our rejection of this God’s invitation, our fable that we can somehow resist the goodness of this God’s banquet, what if that is the stuff that gets singed off of us by the consuming fire of this God’s love? Yes, for if you pause to consider it a bit more, what is really going on here is that God refuses to be refused, and this is good news for us. And, make no mistake, this is costly, for both God and for us. It means, in those words of St. Paul and Martin Luther, that we must die to ourselves, as we do in baptism, so that we might rise into Christ’s love. But again dear people, this death, no matter strange this may seem, this is the beginning of genuine life. For it the death of those things that would keep us from God and the absurdly lavish banquet that he throws. It is the end of all those things that would keep us from the belief that we need to go to war against this God in some misguided attempt at freedom. Yes, it is the end of trying to do things on our own, for in the end, we, and the whole creation, we are in this God’s loving hands.
Yes, God refuses to be refused, and this, too, will cost God something in the bargain. For it will mean that God, in Christ, will be tossed into the outer darkness, the one chosen to bear the world’s sin and unbelief, so that the banquet might begin in the most unexpected of places. Yes, in God’s refusal, in God saying “no” to humanity’s attempts to living apart from God, Christ himself, having been found not in his righteousness but rather clothed in our fear and greed, he will be thrown out so that even our darkness, our pain, our fear may be a place where we feast on the goodness of his love. Yes, for in his ascent to the cross and his descent into hell, he has joined us deep in our misery and our strivings, so that there, even there, his love may be known, and this is so very different from how our culture of celebrity functions. No VIP passes or security escorts are required at this banquet. Come, then, dear people, for you have been called and chosen, and please do not be surprised by those whom you find next to you; for the king loves those from whom we try to distance ourselves, calling all from the highways and byways to the feast, and calling us to deeper bonds of love with all those whom we meet, especially those of whom we might be a touch suspicious. Yes, your king awaits your presence with giddiness, longing as he does for you. Here, at this table, you will be clothed and fed with Christ’s righteousness, blessedness and the peace that passes all understanding. What, then, are you waiting for? In Jesus’ name, amen.