Text: Matthew 22:1-14
Here are just a few of the responses the gospel lesson elicited in lectionary group this week. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t like any part of it.” “What does it mean?” “This is a bad story.” “I don’t like how this parable pictures God—as an angry, vengeful God.” “I guess it does matter what you wear after all.” In Western civilization, the parables of Jesus remain some of the best-known stories in the world. They are located mainly within the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (There are no parables in John’s gospel.) The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded teachings of Jesus—about one third of his recorded sayings. Believing that the parables are the “authentic words of Jesus,” scholars and Christian tradition have placed a high importance on them. Some scholars would even say that no part of the Gospels can better put us in touch with the mind of Jesus than the parables themselves.
Jesus’ parables are seemingly simple and memorable stories, often with imagery, and each coveys a message. Many of them refer to simple everyday things, such as a woman baking bread, a man knocking on his neighbor’s door late at night, or the aftermath of a roadside mugging; yet they deal with major religious themes, such as who is welcome at God’s table, the importance of prayer, and the meaning of love. Scholars have noted that the parables are what made Jesus such a great teacher. But in truth, the parables are not simple lessons, with clear meanings easily grasped. They often feel more like a riddle with a hidden meaning than an easy-to-understand story explaining the nature of hard-to-get theological concepts. More times than not, these teachings of Jesus were complex enough that even Jesus’ own disciples quite often missed the point.
What better example of a hard-to-understand parable than that of the wedding banquet as recorded in the gospel of Matthew; especially if we approach it from the perspective that there is a “right” answer about faith to be found in this one parable. I have often heard it said that a parable contains one truth about faith or God or the kingdom of God here on earth, and that each parable stands on its own. It is true that each of the parables seek to convey a message about faith. But it is also true that Jesus’ teachings build on one another as they seek to convey his central message—that God’s radically inclusive and unconditional love is for all people. The wedding banquet parable is no different. Isolated, it is confusing. But put alongside Jesus’ other teachings, its message becomes more clear.
It is important to note that parables were not delivered as sermons. We understand them best when we imagine them instead as maybe an hour-long conversation or interaction between Jesus and an audience, who are probably talking back to him, and interrupting him and debating with him and disagreeing with him and fighting with him. And each of these conversations are with people who have actually been following him, or at least listening to him talk about his strange ideas of politics and religion. And so, the real purpose of Jesus’ parables was not to deliver a well-crafted sermon with a neat, simple answer to hard questions of faith. No, the parables were designed to initiate a conversation in which the listener was provoked to think for him or herself. Or as one scholar noted, “to strike the imagination, to pique the curiosity, to make the listener reflect and work to arrive at the meaning, but only so that the lesson will be more deeply engraved on the mind.” (M.J. Lagrange) The parables of Jesus are about interpretation—they are about leaving one’s self open and vulnerable to a variety of insights and truths about living a life of faith. If we are looking for only one meaning in the parable of the wedding banquet we may very well miss what Jesus intended for it to do—encourage us to reflect, even work to arrive at what meaning the parable might hold for us today. So, what does this first century parable of Jesus have to teach those of us trying to live faithfully in the 21st century? Here’s my best shot at responding to that question.
A significant biblical image for God’s radically inclusive love for all—that all are welcome at the table—is the banquet feast. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the open table of fellowship represents God’s love for all. The message is that everyone is invited to the banquet—to the table. You are invited. I am invited. They are invited. And the invitation is a standing invitation. For our times, the parable of the wedding feast invites us to think about what image we would have for who is invited to the banquet? How would we describe the prevailing metaphor for our culture? I think we can safely say it is not an inclusive banquet. Rather, it is a deliberately exclusive banquet, where invitation is granted to a very select few; where money and power are required to enter; where separation from the poor or even the common is the goal. Taken at the societal level, this translates into deeply divided classes, and exclusion of the many to the reward of the few. But taken at the individual level, this exclusive banquet mentality means that even within ourselves we are constantly measuring and judging, comparing and criticizing, excluding and exiling. Our cultural understanding of being invited to the banquet is the opposite of what Jesus portrays—Jesus teaches that God is inviting us all home to be celebrated and loved—but in our world we are taught, often under the auspices of Christian theology, that we are not good enough. We internalize this teaching so well, that when the invitation comes, we are not ready to accept it. And yet, God keeping seeking us out—offering us an invitation to come to the party.
In our parable, Matthew records Jesus as saying that the invited guests do not come to the party. They all have excuses. Luke’s telling of this parable goes into great detail about the excuses. One guest says that he has bought a piece of land and must go out and see it. Another says, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out.” And a third guest says he can’t come because he has just been married. Reflecting on this parable, Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not the red-hot sins of passion that keep people from God. More often it’s business as usual.” It is, indeed, the day-to-day excuses that keep us from attending God’s banquet. We tell ourselves we are not good enough. We work harder and longer hours hoping to earn the right to attend God’s banquet and sit at God’s table. We stay busy, going here and there, trying to avoid being alone with ourselves. We acquire more things, take on more responsibilities, and busy ourselves with projects until we are literally too tired to respond to God’s invitation to sit at the banquet table and enjoy the feast that God has prepared for us. And yet, God keeps sending us an invitation.
Possibly, the most disturbing part of this parable is that part about the man who was cast out from the banquet because he was not wearing the right clothes. The great theologians— from Augustine to Martin Luther to John Calvin—have all given their interpretations to this part of the parable. And while all their interpretations vary, one thing is clear: Jesus is not talking about the literal clothes that the man is wearing. The garment, the wedding robe, what clothes you wear, is about what is in your heart—the spirit that you bring to the table—compassion, love, acceptance, forgiveness, grace. Listen to how the writer of Colossians says we are to clothe ourselves:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as God has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…
Yes, it matters what you wear to God’s banquet table. Lucky blue jeans or an old pair of Levi’s—it doesn’t matter. A Vera Wang dress or a Target hand-me-down from a friend—it doesn’t matter. A Life is Good tee shirt or a Ralph Lauren button down—it doesn’t matter. A Brooks Brother’s suit with matching tie or a second hand suit from the Bargain Box—it doesn’t matter. Worn out tennis shoes or a brand new pair of Cole Hahn’s—it doesn’t matter. What matters is how your heart and soul are clothed—with hatred or love, with vengeance or forgiveness, with judgment or compassion, with greed or generosity, with arrogance or humility. It matters what your heart wears to God’s banquet.
There is a banquet going on and you are invited. Have the courage to lay aside your excuses. You are good enough. There is nothing else more important that can’t wait—no project, no responsibility, no work commitment. Clothe yourself with as much love and compassion and grace and kindness as you can and then show up. Show up, and be the beloved, to yourself, to your partner, to your child, to your friends, to strangers, and to God. Show up to banquet table that God has set and God will receive you.