Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 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. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 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.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” –Matthew 22:1-14
There is a lot of conversation these days about what to wear. Of course, I’m referring to masks. Once upon a time, wearing a mask in public was tantamount to announcing sinister intentions. Today, it is a sign of taking care of keeping one’s germs to oneself. But with this practice has come a new must-have item in the clothes design industry. Fashion designers like Ralph Lauren of Polo and others are making masks (but to give the Polo folks credit, their entry into this project was not entrepreneurial, but an effort to bolster our nation’s health). Of course, what has evolved is conversation about the type of mask necessary to match an occasion.
In observing this, I remember a television show from the early 2000s called, “What Not To Wear.” The premise of the show was relatively simple – a couple of stylists, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, helped people who needed to change their dowdy or inappropriate looks into something more chic, trying to teach them ways to bring out their best features. Interestingly enough, our parable for the day references a similar first-century social faux pas to address a much deeper issue.
The text comes from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, and the context of today’s passage is important. We find Jesus in Jerusalem. It is the last week of his life, and he is in the middle of a teaching experience where he is saying some provocative things. In reading Matthew’s Gospel, one feels an accelerating, demanding pace as it moves toward completion. Furthermore, the stories Jesus tells, and especially this one, come across as judgmental. Tom Wright is correct when he says that this parable is difficult, because it doesn’t say what we want it to. We want to hear a nice story about God throwing the party open to everyone. We want to be ‘inclusive,’ to let everyone in. We don’t want to hear about the judgment, about the gnashing of teeth. But it is, after all, Jesus who tells it!
I won’t go into a lot of exegetical detail with this parable, seeking to pay attention to grammar, customs and the likes. Nor do I want to move into a discussion of suitable attire for church-going. It seems to me that one of the main points of Jesus’ story is to recognize the responsibility inherent in being one of his followers. Theologically, the story is ingenious in pointing out that salvation is “grace given” but also “grace responded to.” Noted preacher and writer Tom Long describes this in his commentary on Matthew: “The parable reminds us that being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live. In other words, there should be a sense of awe and responsiveness about belonging to the church, belonging to the community of Christ, being a child of the kingdom of heaven…to come to church in response to the gracious and altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not conform one’s life to that mercy is to demonstrate a spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and happy hour in a bus station bar.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower has historically not been considered in the upper echelon of presidents, but the opinion of his presidency has changed lately in some respects. This is a result of his simple but profound wisdom. One of the examples of that wisdom took place before he was president. It was April of 1951 and General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of American and Allied forces fighting the Korean War, was pressing then-President Harry S. Truman to expand the Korean War into China and use atomic weapons against the Chinese armies massing across the border. MacArthur had also been speaking critically about Truman’s management of the war for some time. Truman put up with MacArthur’s insubordination for a long time, but in April he fired MacArthur and ordered him back to the United States. At the time, Eisenhower was NATO Commander. He had once served under MacArthur and learned of MacArthur’s termination from a reporter who asked him what he thought. Eisenhower replied, “When you put on a uniform there are certain inhibitions you accept.”
To be a Christian means there are certain ways we live. This parable may have anticipated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s despondent pronouncement of “cheap grace,” or Fred Craddock’s description of addressing a church that is “wallowing in grace.” The call to follow Christ is one that is intentional on modeling out a commitment in keeping with the Kingdom.
Milton Cunningham, who pastored many churches in Texas and finished his ministry in the Baylor Religion Department, told about a time when he was flying from Atlanta to Dallas. As he took his seat on that flight, he happened to have the middle of the three seats on one side. To his right, sitting next to the window, was a young girl who obviously had Down Syndrome. As soon as he sat down this little girl began to ask Dr. Cunningham some simple but personal questions. “Mister, did you brush your teeth this morning?” Cunningham squirmed a bit, but replied, “Why, er, yes I did. I did brush my teeth this morning.” The little girl said, “Good, ’cause that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Then she asked, “Mister, do you smoke?” Again, Milton was a little uncomfortable but said that he didn’t. The little girl sighed, “Good, ’cause smoking will make you die.” Then before he could even settle back, she asked, “Mister, do you love Jesus?” Dr. Cunningham, caught by the simplicity and the forthrightness of her question, said, “Yes indeed. I do love Jesus.” The little girl smiled and said, “Good, ’cause we’re all supposed to love Jesus.” About that time, just before the plane was ready to leave, another man sat down on the aisle next to Cunningham and started to read a magazine. The little girl nudged Dr. Cunningham, “Mister, ask him if he brushed his teeth this morning.” Milton felt real uneasy; he didn’t want to do that, but the little girl kept nudging him, “Ask him! Ask him!” Finally, Dr. Cunningham turned to the man and said, “Mister, I don’t mean to bother you, but my friend here wants me to ask you if you’ve brushed your teeth this morning.” The man looked startled, of course. But when he looked past Cunningham and saw the little angelic face he said with a smile, “Well yes I did. I brushed my teeth this morning.” As the plane moved down the runway the little girl nudged Cunningham again and said, “Ask him if he smokes.” The man said that he didn’t smoke. Then came the big question. As the plane lifted up in the air, the girl nudged Cunningham again and said, “Ask him if he loves Jesus.” And Dr. Cunningham said, “I can’t do that. That’s too personal. I don’t feel comfortable asking him that.” But the little girl smiled and insisted in such a way that even the other man heard her, “Ask him! Ask him!” So, Cunningham did. He turned to the fellow one more time and said, “Now she wants to know if you love Jesus.” The man started to smile like the last two times, but his smile faded into a serious look. “You know, in all honesty, I can’t say I do. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I don’t know how. I’ve wanted to be a person of faith all my life, but I haven’t known how to do it. And now I’ve come to a time in my life when I really need that very much.” As the plane soared above the clouds, Dr. Cunningham and this man had a most unusual conversation about Jesus Christ and what it means to be a person of faith. All because a little girl asked what would seem to be a simple and innocuous question.
Like that young girl on the plane, Jesus has a knack for putting us on the spot. He wants to know what difference the Kingdom of Heaven makes in how we live. We have been invited to a divine banquet. How do we choose to respond?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Inspired by the banquet metaphor of Jesus’ parable, can you remember a time in your life that affected you enough that it called you to step higher (or deeper) — perhaps a worship or prayer experience, a conversation, a time of study or reading, a movie or documentary? Was the effect a lasting one? Does it need to be refreshed? Express gratitude to God for that awareness and growth.
How do people notice you as a person of grace? Audaciously ask God to encourage the ways you appear in “kingdom attire.”
How might we as a congregation “dress” for the occasion of God’s Kingdom?
A Musical Guide for Prayer: Noel Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song (There Is Love)”
(Paul, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, wrote this song as a wedding gift for his friend Peter Yarrow on a plane one evening. He felt that it was a gift from God and thus gave all of the royalties to a non-profit organization, the Public Domain Foundation, which distributes the proceeds to charitable organizations all over the United States — from soup kitchens for the homeless to research into computer interaction for hospitalized kids. The song, of course, is based on I Corinthians 13, which, in my estimation isn’t so much for weddings as it is for the Christian way of life.)
He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part The union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name There is love, there is love
Well a man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home They shall travel on to where the two shall be as one As it was in the beginning is now until the end A woman draws her life from man and gives it back again And there is love, there is love
Well then what’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife Is it love that brings you here or love that gives you life For if loving is the answer then who’s the giving for Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before Oh there’s love, oh there’s love
Oh, the marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name There is love, oh there’s love