Today’s gospel reading is set within the context of a wedding banquet and admittedly is a difficult reading full of judgment – and some annihilation, death and burning of a city. But I will submit to you that it is a story full of grace – even though it doesn’t sound like one. It is a story about a king who wants to throw an awesome party … and it is an illustration of how grace is offered and also what it demands of us. This parable follows on last week’s and is still directed at the Pharisees during Holy Week. Its parallel is in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike Luke whose telling of this has a much more grace filled tone, Matthew’s rendering has ominous warnings of judgment and violence along with the grace. There is again a temptation to allegorize this as a story of Israel being the invited guests who blow off the king’s invitation and the Gentiles as the “great unwashed masses” who are brought into the party and accept the invitation. But that is a narrow view which limits the parable’s meaning to some kind of Gentile/Jewish conflict which robs it of its power for our day and time.
In his book Kingdom, Grace and Judgment, the late Robert Farrar Capon, Episcopal priest and author, invites us to see this parable as a reflection of the final marriage supper of the Lamb which John writes about in Revelation and in so doing it begins with the premise that all are invited to the banquet. That’s right … all are invited to the party. The question is whether or not we will say “yes” to the gracious host. The first group invited are the “A listers” – the beautiful people who can essentially take it or leave it … and who, well, choose the latter. Not only do they completely rebuff the king’s invitation to an awesome party, they have really lame excuses for rejecting the king’s hospitality. And notice they get more than one chance to accept the invitation – there are two rounds of slaves come as messengers. With the second round of invites, those invited become violent – beating and killing the slaves. Admittedly, this is a pretty harsh reaction to a party invitation, but this is a story and it is a continuation of the “kill the messenger” motif we saw in last week’s story.
As I reflected on the reaction of these “A-lister” invited to the party, I recalled meeting Pastor Mike Albro in Frederick a few years ago when I was a member at All Saints. Last I heard, he is still running the Second & Hope Celebrate Recovery group at Centennial United Methodist Church. When I met him, he was with the Rescue Mission working with those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. But I knew of Mike Albro many years before that. I knew of Mike back in 1986 when I was involved in the Race Across America bicycle race. Back then, Mike was the executive director of ABC’s Wide World of Sports who was covering the race. Mike was one of those “A-listers” – a guy with a Hollywood job and a seven figure salary. But one night, in a hotel room in Nashville, he had a conversion and call to serve Christ – like St. Paul being knocked off his horse on the Damascus road. He left that very lucrative position to follow God’s call to ministry … and of all ministries, to those suffering from addiction. In his own addiction to wealth, fame and power, he saw his connection to those who suffered under the addictions of drugs and alcohol. When he spoke at All Saints, he said something that really got my attention. He said, “You all have a much harder job of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ than I do. You see, I work with people who have nothing left but Jesus. They have lost everything – family, home, jobs, health … they’ve lost it all and all they have left is Jesus. They know they need Jesus in order to life a sober life. They have no illusions that they are sober because of anything they did – they know they can’t do it without God. But you have a much harder job sharing the gospel in your lives with your neighbors. You have to try and share the good news with people who live in big houses, with two or three cars in the garage, big screen TVs and all the comforts of life, and good paying jobs. Those people think all those blessings only came from their own personal efforts – what do they need Jesus for? Your job is much harder than mine.” And he’s right … our job is much harder. Many of us bear a strong resemblance to those “A-listers” … those who think they really don’t need the king’s invitation to grace. Under the hashtag of #firstworldproblems, we can fall under the presumption that all that we are and all that we have comes from us and not from God. We fail to see that all of what we are and have, including our intellect and talents, are gracious gifts from God who is the king and ultimate party thrower. So we too can be like the A-listers who just don’t see any real reason to accept the king’s invitation into relationship and a great party. We are tempted to blow the whole thing off too.
Sometimes we blow off the invitation by killing the messengers (which happens in today’s parable). I don’t want to be bothered, leave me alone, get out of my face. Whether we physically kill them or do it emotionally through our words and actions matters not. In the parable, this is an outrage the king will not bear – so he sends in the SWAT team to wipe the A-listers off the map (think Chuck Norris meets Dirty Harry meets napalm … and a small nuclear strike thrown in for good measure). Seems a pretty harsh reaction, doesn’t it? Again, let’s see this as a metaphor of cutting off relationship completely with those who blow off the invitation and go so far as to kill the messengers. The king is severing ties with them, not because he is a ruthless punishing king, but as a reaction and consequence to the abusive actions already taken against him. You know this reaction … it’s the “You’re dead to me!” one. And in essence, the “A-listers” do kill themselves by their own choice to say “no” to grace.
So now the king has a problem. There’s a lot of food and drink, a party waiting to happen, and nobody’s coming! The king orders his slaves to go out and invite everyone they can and fill the banquet hall. So the slaves do this … and they invite both the good and the bad. Wait! Hold on! They invited both the “good and the bad?” Absolutely! The slaves as messengers were not tasked with asking for the pedigree of anyone they invited, they aren’t checking id’s at the door, they aren’t running background checks. Their job is to fill the banquet hall. Just as in other parables like the wheat and the weeds, Jesus makes it clear that good and bad will be living together and walking side by side for some time. It isn’t up to us to do the sorting – that’s God’s job. We just have to say “yes” to the invitation to the party.
But this is where our “yes” response to grace meets with an obligation … the obligation to accept the grace on the king’s terms and not our own. The story takes an ominous twist: the king notices a man without a wedding garment. Now in this short story, we might begin to argue with Jesus about the necessity of a wedding garment and 1,001 reasons why this poor fellow doesn’t have one. Let’s suffice it to say that this guy stuck out … and all the guests were in the same position. Everyone else, presumably, had their wedding garments, on … except this one guy. Somehow I picture him as the guy who shows up with a bunch of piercings, Goth make up, grommets in the ears, Doc Martens boots … among those in their “Sunday best.” Of course … it could be the other way around too! Let’s just say he sticks out like a sore thumb. Essentially, he said “yes” to showing up but the king asks for more than just showing up. I submit to you that the man without the appropriate attire lacked the humility to submit to the terms of the king’s party – show up, but show up on my terms not yours.
When we say “yes” to God’s invitation for relationship, one thing which must die for an authentic faith is our pride. Part of our pride is demanding that we live life on our terms and our terms alone. Doing that leads to selfish, destructive behavior which doesn’t make room for authentic relationships – with God or with any other human being. Grace is always offered, but a “yes” response doesn’t mean we get to continue to live life on our terms – we are called to more than that. We are called into a transforming, life giving, love relationship. God loves us where we are (that’s the grace), but God will not be satisfied to leave us there. Christ loves us enough to want more from us than to just stand still … and demands the relinquishment of our pride and demand for having our way instead of God’s way. The fact this person without a wedding garment was silent in the face of the king’s question says much – he didn’t want a relationship with the king. He gives the king the “silent treatment.” And so our parable ends with the king ordering him to be bound “hand and foot” and cast into the darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth. While this sounds like a punishment from the king, I suggest this is merely the king allowing this person, who wants life on his own terms, to go back to the life they came from. It is a consequence of refusing to let go of pride.
So this parable is about the offering of grace and how we accept it … or not. Here at Grace Church, we welcome all people to come to the feast every Sunday: to be with God’s people and receive the Body and Blood of Christ at this altar which is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in this parable. But although we welcome people into this community, it does not mean we do not set appropriate boundaries with respect to behaviors. The offer of grace comes with the expectation that those who come will not stay where they are, but say “yes” to both the grace and the ongoing conversion of heart which draws us to become more loving and Christ-like. When those who come want only the grace but refuse the transformation God expects, they are seeking cheap grace. And, when behaviors which threaten the peace of Christ in this community happen, those people who want cheap grace without transformation will be choosing by their refusal of the call to conversion of heart to walk apart from this community. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that grace is never cheap – it is always costly. The cost of grace is the relinquishment of pride and ego so that we may enjoy the party … now and forever.