For the past several weeks we have been exploring together the parables of Jesus, the stories he uses to describe his mysterious Kingdom. Describe it, but not explain it. Parables tend to raise as many questions as they answer, and that's certainly the case this morning. In the gospels, Jesus tells three kinds of parables. There are parables of the kingdom, where the point is the kingdom grows in a mystery (like mustard seeds and yeast). There are parables of grace, where the kingdom is accomplished by death and resurrection (like the prodigal son). And there are parables of judgment, like the one we are going to read this morning. And because many of us have heard more than enough judgment in church, I'm going to give you the key right now. The parables of judgment describe a kingdom where God includes everyone first but we can choose to exclude ourselves. Inclusion before exclusion.
This parable is told during Holy Week, in the intensity of the conflict that will lead Jesus straight to the cross, and he already knows it. Time is running out for him. His teaching gets more pointed and more serious. However, it does not change in substance from what he has been teaching all along. Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light and Jesus does not pull a bait and switch. So whatever judgment means, it is somehow still included in the good news of great joy that is for all the world. Whatever judgment means, it will not use fear or shame to motivate us. That's not how Jesus works.
So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God. - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:1-14 (NIV)
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and 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 wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
How many of you find this parable disturbing? Me too. So why don't we just skip it? Because we are not the kind of people who run away from hard things, that's why. This is our holy text, handed down to us by our ancestors through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We may not like everything we read in it, and we for sure don't understand everything we read in here. I don't. But we take it seriously, and we work harder on the parts that make us the most uncomfortable. There is nothing to be afraid of here.
Now you already know that interpretation is work. We do our best with what we know and we trust the Spirit to guide us. And we know that we are not going to all come to the same conclusions. Some people who are really smart and really love Jesus are going to totally disagree with what I tell you this morning. You may be one of those people. That's OK. The most honest biblical interpretation should always begin with the phrase "I think" and end with the word "probably" because until we get to Heaven, we won't know for sure. At the end of the day, all we have is our trust in who Jesus Christ is for us today. So, with that being said, let me tell you what I think this parable means, probably.
The first thing that we have to know is that everything starts with a party. The king is giving a wedding banquet for his son. Through the Old Testament, the gospels and Revelation, big parties are one of the most popular images for God's Kingdom. When God makes all things, it's going to be a rave with the most amazing food and wine and music and friends and family and dancing and games and storytelling and laughing. (Or, if you're an introvert, a space to talk quietly to your dog.) Try to remember the best party you've been to. That's what the kingdom of God is like, a big fat wedding party, where Jesus is the groom and the gathered people of God are the bride.
In this story many people have been invited, the kind of rich and good and famous people that get invited to royal parties, and they have accepted. But then when time comes, they shrug it off. Eeeenh. Not interested. So the king sends other servants to remind them what a great party this is going to be. This is not a time-share promotion; this is the party of the millennium and you don't even have to bring anything. Still some of them think they have something better to do and just don't show. But others go berserk and literally shoot the messengers. They torture and kill the servants who brought the invitations. And they are destroyed for the destruction they brought on others.
But the king still has a banquet and he's not about to let it go to waste, so he sends yet another batch of messengers out to invite whoever they find. Doesn't matter who they are; rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, trans, white collar or blue collar, young, old, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Socialist, the sick and the well, atheists and Catholics, goth teenagers, hipsters who are going to take pictures of all the food, alcoholics and opioid addicts, lawyers, presidents, undocumented immigrants who snuck through the border, movie stars, homeless folks, five-star generals and fanatical terrorists, sexual predators, liars, pastors, and lying pastors. ALL. ALL. ALL MEANS ALL. The king wants them all and they all come, the text specifically says the evil and the good both get in, and the wedding hall is filled with guests having a party together.
<hand out more wedding clothes>
Let's review. Did these people recognize their need for a party and contritely ask to be invited? Nope. Did these people earn their invitation to the party? Nope. And yet, the banquet hall is filled with guests, both evil and good. Does this sound like the typical description of who gets into heaven and how they get there? No. So maybe that's not what this parable is trying to describe.
Maybe. But let's keep going because we are almost to the part we usually think is about hell. The king asks one guy why he's not dressed for the party and when this guy has no response, he is thrown into the quote "outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Thank God. Because I was starting to get really uncomfortable thinking that God was going to accept everyone. Here's the hell we all know and love. Maybe.
But we have to ask, if one guy in the whole party isn't wearing wedding clothes, where might the other people have gotten their wedding clothes? Because they weren't ready for a party when they got invited. They are not the obvious guests. That's the point of the story. Apparently wedding clothes are provided. Whatever you need for this party, they just give you when you walk in the door. The queen has a huge closet full of amazing clothes that she just loans out to anyone. So if this dude is here in his street clothes, it's not because he snuck in, because nobody has to do that. And it's not because he wasn't invited, because literally everybody was invited. It's because he didn't take what was already his.
In the kingdom, God includes everyone before we exclude ourselves. The biblical word for judgment, which actually doesn't show up anywhere in here, is "krisis," a decision point, and God has already made God's decision. Everyone is in and we can't do anything about it. The only people who get excluded are the people who want to be excluded, even though they know they are already included. It is possible to miss out on the Kingdom, but we do it to ourselves.
We see three kinds of decision in this story. Those people in the first group, they just don't give a crap about the party. They think they have something better to do than go to a party. They have been so fooled by the culture that they would rather work than celebrate. Because they are first on the list, they think they have earned their invitation and so they feel free to reject it. Listen up privileged church: This is the person I am mostly likely to be. I've done the right things, I'm not a murderer, I have a college degree, I give to charity, I can pay my rent every month. Because I am satisfied with my appropriately balanced meal, I have no idea that I might be passing up on a banquet.
The second group are the ones who violently excluded themselves. The banquet is happening and those who deliberately and violently resist God's party will experience the full natural consequences of their own choices. Here's what that might look like now: If we resist love, if we refuse to receive grace from God and help from others, we should not be all surprised to wind up alone and sad and angry. Here's what that might look like at the end of the age: When God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven and God finally puts an end to all racism, if we try to hang on to our white supremacy, a racially balanced world is going to feel like hell to us. If we hold on to ugliness we should expect to see a lot of ugliness.
Finally, the dude who gets tossed out. God's radical acceptance will transform us. Grace that does not transform has not been received. People at a party wear party clothes and if for any number of reasons we don't want party clothes, then we don't really want to be at the party.
The only way to be excluded is to exclude ourselves by not accepting that we are already included. We are all already in. Period. End of story. Whatever needed to be done to get us in has been done by Jesus and the only thing to do is just trust. Take your pick of the many theological explanations of how it works; it doesn't really matter. You are loved and you are in whether you understand it or not.
But that's harder to accept than it sounds, isn't it? That good news seems too good to be true. Surely there has to be a catch, some kind of requirement. Humans seem to have a deeply rooted desire to believe that we deserve what we have. Actually we want think that we earn the good things that happen to us, and the shadow side of that belief is that other people have earned the bad things that happen to them. But if God simply accepts everyone and all you have to do is not deliberately reject the acceptance, what would that do to our notions of fairness? It would be like everyone getting the same pay no matter how long they worked in the fields! It would be like the son who squandered his inheritance and the son who honored his father getting invited to the same party! It would be like the Samaritan loser outcast becoming the hero of the story. It would be like a farmer who lets wheat and weeds grow together without worrying about it. It would be like losing your life and finding a whole new one.
Now I know that some of you still want to know what's up with the "outer darkness where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth." It's a really specific phrase that occurs only a few times at the end of this parable and a couple others in both Matthew and Luke. I think it's a reminder that there is just no life outside God's party. BUT I will say that I personally have not found anything in the Bible that leads me to believe that God's beloved human creatures ever, ever, ever pass beyond the point of God's reconciliation. In the Old Testament, God's people are never totally destroyed; some are always left to start over. Jesus calls on his Father to forgive even the people who crucified him while they were still doing it. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that at the judgment people survive although our works might be burned up. And even the crazy weirdo imagery in Revelation has no explicit description of people suffering eternal conscious torment. The eternal city has gates but they are never ever ever shut. We can choose to exclude ourselves, but God is not willing that any should perish. And God is sovereign enough to get exactly what God wants. Eventually, the relentless love that will not let us go will win out over everything else. I personally believe there will always be wedding clothes available for anyone who decides they want to leave the outer darkness and come to the party. Amen.