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Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 12, 2014

A couple of months ago, I got a “save the date” card in the mail for my nephew’s wedding. I was delighted. I had already saved the date, since I am the officiant, but I was no less pleased to get my first item of memorabilia from what promises to be a joyful occasion, full of family and friends, good food and good wine. We will have a great time. In the comics for the last few days, Peanuts has featured Snoopy doing his happy dance. I would have done a happy dance upon receiving the save the date card, but until they can come up with a better artificial knee, a happy smile was the best I could do.

The centerpiece of the parable today is a wedding feast – one that a king is giving for his son. This should be a joyful story, full of expansive feelings from the king, who wants to fill his table with people, and pleasure and delight from the invitees who have been asked to attend such a great occasion. But this is not a positive story; it is a negative story. People ignore or refuse invitations, then get violent with those who deliver them. The king gets violent in return, destroying cities and people. Then, when he finally has a houseful of guests, he throws one into hell for not wearing the proper attire, even though he has just been pulled off the street and would not have had the chance to put on his best robe.

It is an ugly story. Why all the violence; why all the rejection, when a feast is about to be given where people will have the time of their lives enjoying the king’s hospitality. Why is the poor speechless street guy punished heavily for just wearing the wrong clothes? And why do so many say no to something most of us would not even think about refusing – though we might quickly brush up on which fork and knife to use when.

The parable is as it is because of where Jesus is in the story. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, cleansed the temple and debated his authority with the religious leaders. This is the third parable he tells where the Pharisees and elders and chief priests are the pointed target, the ones who do things wrong. This is the culmination of his difficulties with them because they refuse to accept him as Messiah that leads to his crucifixion. So Matthew’s story, as the two parables before, contains strong notes of judgment, of a vengeful God who is angry because his chosen people are not accepting his son as the word made flesh.

The king sends out a “save the date” card to a chosen group – in this case the Israelites – and prepares a banquet of great proportion, one big enough to honor a favorite son, one that nobody could refuse to attend. But contrary to all expectations, those invited seem to think the invitation is not important. They don’t show up on the day and time expected, and when the servants go to get them, in case they have forgotten, they refuse to come. It is a mystery. I know I could not have refused such a magnanimous invitation any more than I could refuse to go to my nephew’s wedding. It is probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to dine with the king. For Matthew, the people that refuse are the religious leaders who do not take Jesus’ invitation to be part of the kingdom of God seriously.

So, OK, the king says, I’ll sweeten the deal. And he sends out more servants to talk about what the banquet will be like, to make the invited guests’ mouths water with anticipation. But once again – no dice. Those invited have other things to do, things that they don’t want to interrupt for this special invitation – rather mundane things actually. Some go to their farms; some go to their businesses. And then the ugliness begins. Some get so angry that they abuse and kill the king’s servants, just as the wicked tenants did to the vineyard owner’s servants. There is no reason to hurt someone who is presenting something good to you, but in Matthew’s meaning, this part of the parable is about the times when the Jews killed God’s messengers, the prophets. They didn’t want to hear that they were going to be punished for their sins, and the people in this parable didn’t want to hear about the king’s banquet any more, even though it was an invitation to God’s kingdom and not a command. They did not want to make the changes necessary in their lives to enter the kingdom.

The king then brings more ugliness into the scene through retaliating. He destroys the city and the people in it. Remember that the Israelites had experience with what they saw as a vengeful God who punished and destroyed for sins. Also, the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE had already taken place when Matthew wrote, and he might be referring to this crushing blow as judgment on the Jews who did not take Jesus seriously.

Well, the king thinks, I still have this banquet and I need people to enjoy it, so I’ll send the servants to get people off the street, bringing in the good and the bad alike to enjoy the feast. Shocked and surprised at the invitation, they quickly fill the hall, ready to partake of the king’s delicacies. The king is happy until he sees a guest without a wedding robe and gets what seems excessively bent out of shape that someone pulled in from the streets of a supposedly ruined city is not dressed for the occasion. He is so angry that he throws him into outer darkness. Finally, the king says that many are called but few are chosen. Who are the called – both sets of invitees, presumably – but who are those chosen and how few are they?

My reaction to this parable is strongly negative. I cringe at all the violence and the throwing into hell. I want to shake my fist and say that many should be chosen because we are all God’s children. Like Matthew’s quarrel with his fellow Jews, this story hits close to home for many of us. We have loved ones who believe differently than we do or don’t believe at all. We cannot imagine God not extending many invitations to enter the kingdom life or violently reacting to God’s people. Didn’t Jesus change all that, we say. Didn’t his sacrifice on the cross make forgiveness possible for ignoring him, or refusing him or even wreaking havoc on his servants who invite us into the kingdom? This parable is hard for us to like.

We may not like, but we can learn. And we learn two things about God that we can take away with us to ponder on and to respond to. First, the second invitation is extended to everyone – the good and the bad, the saints and the sinners, the righteous, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. This is good news, because there is good and bad in all of us. We are willing and hopefully eager to come to the party, to experience the kingdom life, but that doesn’t make us white as snow. We are all sinners, and we all need to be transformed. Equally important, we are all saints, doing the work God has called us to do. The man without the wedding robe can be seen as one who has not put on Christ, as Paul says, who does not recognize the requirements that the kingdom life demands.

God issues the invitation, but our response must be transformation, reformed lives, good fruit. Sometimes we have on our wedding robe and sometimes we don’t. God in Christ has blessed us with forgiveness and not judgment for these failings, and we need to respond gratefully for this blessing. This week, as you are out in the world, notice God’s invitations to you to experience the banquet that is the kingdom of God. Do not ignore or think yourselves too busy for these opportunities. You may be invited to begin a new relationship or have the opportunity to do something that you love. You may be invited to develop a new talent or share your resources generously with your church community so we can continue our mission of changing and saving lives. Maybe you will be invited to work for justice and peace. Too often we walk right by opportunities for God to grace us with God’s love and there are so many out there. When the banquet is offered, do a happy dance. Wear your best wedding robe. Be conscious not only of what God can do for you, but what you in gratitude can do for God. May we all feast richly at the king’s banquet.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker