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Monday, October 13, 2014

Wedding Day Blues

Matthew 22:1-14; 10-12-14              
          Is there any parable more troubling than the one we just heard? I’m not sure there is. When I look at this parable, I know my mind just starts racing, and I am tempted to begin making excuses for the king. Because on the surface, with our 21st century ears and context, the events depicted in this parable are appalling. However, as is usually the case in the stories that Jesus addresses to the leadership of the temple, there is a great deal below the surface of any parable.
          The details would have been appropriate and better understood by those for whom the gospel was being written. That being said, this living word of God still carries with it the meaning for us today. So, let’s dig under the surface together and discover applications of this gospel text to our lives of faith.
          So let’s start by considering three questions:
          1. What is the most elegant (or expensive) dinner or party you have ever been invited to?
          2. What is the most fun you have had at a wedding or other party to which you have been invited?
          3. What is the lamest excuse you have ever used yourself, or heard someone else give, in order to get out of doing something – like accepting an invitation?
          Today’s gospel text begins with preparations for a grand wedding banquet, a feast that would, in those days have played out over an entire week –compare this to the recent wedding activities of George and Amal Clooney, which reportedly cost well over one million dollars, to which only a few of the most connected people were invited. This included activities, outings and parties that went on for days. Only in our reading of this wedding feast described in our gospel, it is the king’s own son for whom the wedding feast is being held.
          Invitations are sent out, but unbelievably, the intended guests all find something better to do – that is hard to understand, given that fact that in this context, an invitation by the king is tantamount to a command to appear and partake in this celebration. Those who received that invitation by all rights would have a) felt privileged to be included, and b) known that their participation in this feast was essential to their political welfare; it was an opportunity to show the king appropriate honor, and allegiance to the legitimate successor to the throne.
          Indeed, political alliances are at stake. Your life and well-being are at stake. Refusal to come for any reason short of a death in the family or some other tragedy would have been interpreted not only as an insult – but as an act of rebellion – as a deliberate act of defiance and contempt for the king’s authority - not a good move in anyone’s book of etiquette or survival manual. In light of this fact the excuses of all the invitees were pretty lame indeed. They probably trump the lamest of excuses you might have recalled.
          Instead, they defy the king, and refuse to come. However, the king persists in his desire to include all these fine folk in the feast of the bridegroom, and sends another set of slaves out to issue the invitations. Maybe he thought the first set of slaves were just inept at their job, gave the wrong message or got lost, so he sends this second set out with more explicit directions to instruct the people to come now that everything is ready and waiting for the party to begin.
          It is in horror, then, that we consider what happens to those poor, wretched slaves when they deliver this invitation. The response from the invitees can be seen as nothing less than a deliberate act of insurrection. The king, appropriately, responds as any king would, to put down this rebellion and destroy those who initiated it.
          Following this interlude of violence, death and mayhem, the invitation is opened up to include everyone else. And they come: the good and the bad, the wealthy and the poor, the Gentiles and Jews, the women and men, the business owners and the farmers, the sheep and the goats.
          And, just when we heave a big sigh because all seems, at last to be well, the king spots this one man who has the audacity to upset the apple cart and wear the wrong clothes to party. Now, at this point we might scratch our heads and say to ourselves, “Really? What was he thinking?!
          And the king’s response to this man’s faux pas? We are again shocked and horrified, as this man is tossed out to a place where he will endure great suffering – we’re confused because isn’t this a parable about the kingdom of God? Isn’t Jesus telling those around him this story to prepare them for the Lord’s coming? And don’t we hear from our scriptures that God is patient, full of grace and mercy and abounding in steadfast love?
          So how do we interpret this parable?
          Today’s gospel is about invitations, feasts, and the appropriate response to magnificent, lavish grace. Like other parables, this story uses hyperbole, allegory – and metaphor. Most of us will recognize the king as God, and the son for whom this feast is given as Jesus.    
          The marriage feast represents the great marriage feast of the Lamb. The slaves who are sent, are the prophets; those whom God sent to invite the wayward people of Israel to repent, to prepare the way for the Messiah, and finally, to believe. Those initially invited, are God’s chosen people – the Israelites. The violence represents Israel’s rejection of the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist.
          The destroyed city may be seen as the fall of the temple and its destruction which, for Matthew’s original audience, is an event which stands out in collective experience and memory. Finally, the clothing that is worn by all who accept this invitation may be understood as metaphor for the baptismal garment of Christ.
          So, if you received this invitation, from the king no less, wouldn’t you be honored? Wouldn’t you be exponentially more honored than you were by the invitation to the event you wrote down in our exercise a little earlier?
          So we have to wonder at the refusal of the original honored invitees; where is their awe?  Where is their sense of wonder? Where is their gratitude for the grace and generosity of the king? Where is their party-spirit?
          Those responses come from the ones who DO accept the invitation – the misfits; the marginalized; those whose only real value comes from that fact that they were invited at all, regardless of the circumstances. It is the king’s invitation that grants them status – they have none on their own. Finally, the hall is filled with a mix of people glad to be fed and served at the behest of the king. They show up ready to party.
Clothes say a lot about a person, especially in the tradition of first century Palestine. For an important event, especially something like a wedding feast, or an appearance with the king, one would wear his or her best. Anything less would be an insult. 
          So important was it to honor the host of something like a wedding, especially when the host is king, that wedding garments might have been provided by the host. If the garments were provided, not only would everyone be suitably attired, but individual class and station would be indistinguishable. The clothing offered would be, as the feast was, equally generous to all. So it is with the mystical garment which clothes us from the moment of our baptism, mercifully prepared by our Lord.
          This garment, supplied by our most gracious Lord of all, is no ordinary garment. It is the righteousness that comes from God and it becomes for us the outward expression of the inward change God performs in us through our baptism. It is comprised of threads of compassion, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. The fabric of this garment is knit with concern for social justice, care for the poor and marginalized. The golden thread that holds together the seams of this garment was spun from the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and it compels us, to welcome others to the feast. It compels us to be not only guests, but servants.
          This garment that clothes us so righteously reminds us that in the eyes of God, whether we came from the stock of the good or the bad, beggar or prince, sheep or goat, we are forever transformed by God’s grace, united with Jesus Christ and with one another. Those of us who wear this garment will be forever equal to all other garment-wearers, with no distinction between race or class or gender, for the righteousness which comes from our Lord, Jesus Christ knows no distinction, and becomes our salvation.
            About the garment and the rogue guest, Robert Capon writes that the Great Banquet has been made possible, indeed it is ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by that alone.
          Capon writes, “one person apparently thought the banquet is based in something other than that.  He wears some other garment.  We are not told whether the man wore rags or a tux.  It matters not which.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ's death and resurrection is irrelevant. The man is asked how he got in without the proper dress.  The man was "speechless."  In essence, by refusing to respond or speak, the man refuses to enter into a relationship with the king….. if he'd said anything at all--if he would have acknowledged a relationship in any way--he'd have been all right.  But he didn't.  He was "speechless."”
          The man is unceremoniously shown the exit because the death and resurrection of Jesus is the only reason that anyone is there.  Their presence has nothing to do with their "goodness" or "badness."  It has nothing to do with whether or not they are in any way "worthy."  It has everything to do with a "new creation" in which none of that counts. 
          Sooner or later that grandest, most elegant party we listed earlier will end. But for those who have accepted the invitation of our heavenly king, the feast has only just begun. We must do more than just show up when we accept this gracious, unmerited invitation. Like all those clothed in the baptismal garment bestowed by God, we must allow ourselves to be forever transformed by the life-giving feast of Christ. May it be so.

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