The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A): October 12, 2014
Exodus 32:1-14 | Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 | Philippians 4:1-9 | Matthew 22:1-14
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest at St. Michael’s Church
As some of you know, I used to be in the opera business. My fascination with opera was and is not really about the music—it’s about the spectacle. I love big productions—you can imagine, how much I enjoyed my years as a priest associate at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger the better.
And so it won’t be too surprising to you that, on a cold morning in April of 2011 I got up around 4 a.m. to witness the event of that year: the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Did you get up early that morning too? Perhaps you were a bit saner (it was a workday, after all), and just watched a replay later in the day.
It was quite an event. Beautiful music, wonderful Anglican pomp, and lots of waiting for the moment we would see “the dress.” Do you remember the way all the guests were decked out? Everyone wore their best wedding finery– morning coats, military uniforms, beautiful dresses, and of course, the hats – who can forget Princess Beatrice’s “fascinator”? (Don’t you love that term – fascinator? I guess it speaks the reaction we are supposed to have to the hat, and to the wearer. I am not sure Beatrice garnered exactly the reaction she desired.) It was definitely a see and be seen event—a party as only the royals can do it.
If you saw the news stories that led up to that event, you were also introduced to some of the guests that had been invited to the wedding, both famous and ordinary. Without a doubt it was a coveted invitation—I am sure that every person who was invited was thrilled, and you can be sure that no one missed it.
And that makes it a little different from the event that is at the center of today’s gospel lesson. As in our modern day fairy tale, the Sovereign throws a big wedding, but many of the invited guests decide not to come. Now I imagine that, if someone did actually decline the invitation to William and Kate’s wedding, they probably sent a nice letter and a gift, and there were no serious repercussions. But in this parable, those who refuse invitation act pretty poorly – we read that they seize and kill the messengers who have come to bid them to the wedding, and, in turn, there are rather alarming results – death and destruction of their cities.
So others are invited, right off the streets, and they are glad to come. But just as the party is really swinging, the king enters and sees that one guest is not properly attired. The king orders that guest bound and thrown out of the party, “into the outer darkness.” The passage ends with what seem to be important words: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
It would be easy to get bogged down in the strangeness of this story—after all, who can really imagine killing the very people you had invited to a party, just because they didn’t come, much less throwing out a last-minute guest because he don’t have the right clothes? One commentator says, “This is one parable you won’t find in your child’s Sunday school curriculum. It is intended for theologically mature audiences only.”[i]
I think the best approach we can take to unraveling God’s message this morning is to recall the context of the community for whom the story was written. Perhaps the extremes of the story make more sense in light of the world of its initial audience.
Scholars suggest that the gospel of Matthew was written between 80 and 90 C.E., only a decade or two after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The themes that run through the gospel suggest that the writer was part of a group of Jewish Christians who had broken away from Pharisee-led Judaism. This passage is cited as evidence that there were also internal disagreements among this group of Christians – remember there is a clear understanding in this passage that the body of the faithful includes both the good and the bad. The gospel of Matthew is also distinctly anti-Pharisee, and it has a heavy focus on matters of the apocalypse, or the final judgment. We see evidence of all of this in this passage.
A version of this parable also appears in the gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Thomas. Unlike the other versions of this story, the writer of Matthew seems to focus on the worthiness of the guests—not on whether they are good or bad, but rather whether they take seriously the invitation that God offers through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The two parables that precede this one, as well as this one, focus on the Jewish leaders that Jesus (and we assume the original readers of Matthew) find themselves in opposition to. For the first hearers of this parable, the King was clearly God the Creator. Remember that these early Christians would still observe the Jewish prohibition to saying the name of God, so they readily thought in allegory—they can read between the lines. The son was Jesus, and the wedding itself represents the covenant offered by God to God’s people.
Thinking in anti-Pharisee terms, those guests who are invited to the King’s wedding banquet but refuse to attend are like the leaders of the Jews who don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and so refuse to accept the grace of God that comes in the gift of Christ.
The writer’s focus on a wedding is significant, because it evokes the covenantal relationships initiated by God. In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, found in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 843, we read that, “A covenant is a relationship initiated by God to which a body of people responds in faith.”[ii] Covenants are an important subject for our Bible Study group this fall, which focuses on the Book of Genesis.
But covenants are not only important in Old Testament times. As Christians, we understand ourselves as people of the covenant; God’s actions in Christ’s death and resurrection mark us again as people in direct relationship with God, responding faithfully to what God offers us. We remember God’s covenant with us each time we come to this altar to partake in the Eucharist. In the words of the Eucharistic prayers we are reminded that “Again and again, [God] called us into covenant,”[iii] and that we are “[assured] in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your Son, and heirs of your eternal kingdom.”[iv]
As Christians we are called, in all our actions, to respond as people in covenant with God: All we do should reflect the mystery and glory of God’s promise to us. Through the covenant with God, sealed in Christ’s body and blood, we are called to reflect the glory of God in all we do. We are made the Body of Christ, and we are exhorted to be worthy of the promise made to us by Christ of “life in all its fullness.”[v]
And Matthew is pointing to that worthiness—that reaction, that taking of personal responsibility for our own actions in the face of God’s grace-filled promise—in the parable of the wedding guests. Those who turn down the invitation are like the Pharisees who fail to respond to the new covenant offered to them. They are too busy with other things to respond to God’s call. They are unable to see what’s really important. And so, as theologian Marvin McMickle says, “When the king’s first invited guest refused his invitation, he did what many coaches on sports teams will do; he shifted the lineup that was on the field.”[vi]
God’s promise is available to all. We see that the subsequent guests were “both good and bad.” It is not by our merit but by God’s mercy that we have been saved. McMickle says, “This is rule number one with Jesus; the Lord will take anybody who shows up.”[vii]
So the good news for us is that God’s invitation is available to all, regardless of who we are or what we have done. What God asks in return in this covenant relationship is that we take his gift seriously—that we respond to the gift in a way that is worthy of such extravagance. The way to thank God for the riches that come our way as the people of God is to live a life lived after the example of Christ.
John Wesley, that great Anglican who founded the Methodist movement, echoes this point in dealing with what may be the most sticky part of this parable, that seemingly innocent guy who didn’t have the right wedding robe. Quoting the Book of Hebrews, he says that the wedding garment points to “the holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” And he goes on to say that holiness is not worship, nor acts of war in the name of Christ, nor good works, nor mere harmlessness. Instead he says that holiness is having “the mind that was in Christ,” and “walking as Christ walked.”[viii]
Today’s gospel invites us to joyfully accept the promise that God makes to us—a promise we didn’t earn, and surely don’t deserve because of our own actions. God has made a covenant with us through the act of salvation in the giving of God’s son to be one of us, to walk among us, to teach us, and to die for us. God invites us to celebrate that promise in the great party that is life here in God’s creation, secure in the knowledge that we are God’s honored guests and that we will be welcomed with open arms into the eternal banquet, the Kingdom of God. In return, God asks that we put on Christ as our party clothes; that in thanks for God’s extravagance toward us, we earnestly imitate Christ and his life governed by the rule of love. We claim our place at the party simply by the act of accepting Christ and patterning ourselves after his example.
Jesus is our fascinator—the garment that becomes us most. Let’s put on our hats and join the party! Amen.
[i] Ira Brent Driggers (Associate Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, SC), http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/12/2008, accessed 10/4/2011
[ii] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 846 (Catechism)
[iii] Ibid., p. 373 (Holy Eucharist II, Prayer D)
[iv] Ibid., p. 366 (Holy Eucharist II, Prayer A)
[v] Ibid., p. 351 (Catechism)
[vi] McMickle, Marvin A., Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 167
[vii] Ibid., p. 167