This morning, we have yet another parable in Matthew as Jesus describes what the kingdom of heaven is going to look like to the people who are listening to him. Last week, we heard him compare the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who paid the workers he hired late in the day the same amount of money as he paid the workers whom he hired first thing in the morning. After Jesus tells that story, he tells his disciples again that they are on their way to Jerusalem, and that he will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, where he will be condemned to death, then crucified, and then on the third day he will be raised. We don’t have any record of the disciples’ immediate reaction to this news, but James and John, the sons of Zebedee, must have said something about it to their mother, because Matthew tells us next that the mother of these two disciples comes forward and requests that her sons would sit at Jesus’ left and right hand when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s asking, and that it is not for him to grant that request. The other disciples hear what has happened and they get angry, and Jesus tells them that whoever wishes to be great among them must be their servant, for that is what Jesus has come to do. As the group is leaving Jericho, Jesus heals two blind men. Then, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds singing, “Hosanna!” We will return to that story on Palm Sunday in a few weeks. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem, and in these days before he is crucified, he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and then he teaches—a lot. So, for context, it is important to remember that when Jesus speaks today’s parable, he is in Jerusalem in the days immediately before he is taken by the authorities and crucified.
And sisters and brothers, Jesus has told some odd parables up to this point in Matthew, but I have to say that this is probably one of the oddest. We have a king who has invited guests to a wedding banquet given for his son, but when they are called, they refuse to come. And not only that, these guests mistreat the king’s slaves who were serving as messengers and kill them. The king gets angry, and in revenge, sends his army and destroys the ones who killed his slaves. Think for a moment how the wedding couple must feel: on what should be a joyful occasion for them, their guests refuse to come and the king slaughters everyone. If it were me, I don’t know if I would feel very joyful, and the memories of my wedding day would be haunted by this violence. And, to top it all off, the king sends his slaves out into the streets to gather anyone they find to come in to the banquet. So, not even the people who were supposed to be friends of the couple were rejoicing with them, but instead, complete strangers that the slaves just dragged in to the hall. And, finally, there’s a guy who comes in and is not wearing the proper attire. Rather than have him simply escorted out, the king orders this guy to be tied up and thrown into the outer darkness. This is a very strange wedding banquet indeed. And this is somehow supposed to resemble the kingdom of heaven? I think it resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone more than the kingdom of heaven; just substitute Rod Serling for Jesus and there you have it.
So, what is Jesus trying to say with this parable? Well, first, let’s remember that a feast is used several places in our Holy Scriptures as a metaphor for the time when God will come and be with God’s people forever. The verses that we heard read out of Isaiah 25 today describe the feast of rich foods and well-aged wines that the Lord will spread on the mountain for all peoples, and where he will wipe away all tears and death will be no more. If that sounds familiar to you, it should: we have the same imagery in Revelation, and these passages often get read at funerals. Given also that Jesus is speaking this parable after his entrance into Jerusalem, when he knows that he will die in a few short days, it’s probably safe to say that this image of the wedding banquet is an image for that time when God will be with us forever and when all will be well.
So then, why wouldn’t the people want to come to this banquet? And why would they mistreat and kill the messengers who asked them to come? And why would the king be so enraged that he would send his troops out to kill them? This is where I think we need to be careful and to remember the context of this parable. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. He only has a few more days before he is going to be crucified. And in Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus, Jesus has grown up as a refugee, with a very rigid view of people who are good and people who are bad. So it is very possible that, when Jesus first told this parable in Matthew’s version, he is envisioning those among his people who have not listened to his message. This is one of those parts of Scripture that I don’t think carries over well today. I don’t believe God is calling any of us to go out and destroy people who don’t listen to the invitation to come and hear Jesus, and I don’t believe that God does that either, and so I think we need to leave this part of the parable back with Jesus and his original audience in 1st century Palestine.
It is, instead, the next part of this parable that I would like for us to focus on: “‘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.” In the midst of this frightening parable about people who ignore a king’s invitation and kill the messengers, and about a king who destroys those people, we find a message of grace. Everyone, both good and bad, is invited and is gathered in to the wedding feast. And this is the part of the parable that still resonates for us today: we are called to go and invite everyone we find to the wedding banquet. It doesn’t matter who they are: the mayor of the town or the homeless person begging on the street; the woman who seems to have everything together in her life or the man addicted to opioids. We Christians are called to go out into the streets of our neighborhoods and invite all whom we find into the wedding feast.
But here’s the thing: in order for people to want to come in to the wedding feast and to receive that unconditional grace that God gives, we need to give them the message in words they can understand. If you were with us last Wednesday evening, then you heard Pastor Mike speak about what the Gospel is. The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” The good news is God’s unconditional love and grace for each person here and every person in the neighborhood, both good and bad. The good news is not this: “Come to church with me on Sunday, because we have lots of nice people that you can get to know and be friends with.” People can get that at Planet Fitness, or the Kiwanis Club, or the Lions Club, or even their local bar. No, this is the good news: “Come to church with me on Sunday and hear about our Lord Jesus. Jesus has given me such grace in my life and such unconditional love, and I want you to know that love, too.”
Again, if you were with us on Wednesday night, Pastor Mike had us start working on our statements of faith. This is the idea where you imagine that you’re in an elevator with someone, and the person says, “I see you’re wearing a cross. Do you actually believe in this Christianity stuff? Why?” And you have 5 minutes or less to give that person an answer before one or both of you leaves the elevator. What do you say to that person about why you believe in Jesus? The answer to that question is your statement of what you believe, and it is also the definition of evangelism: telling other people the good news of Jesus Christ. This is how we invite people in to the banquet hall, and it is how God works through us to fill the banquet hall with guests, both good and bad.
But then, at the end of this parable, we get one more sour note: the expulsion of the person who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. No one quite knows what this part of the story is about. But, here’s the best guess that I’ve heard: Matthew’s Jesus does not believe in cheap grace. Cheap grace is the idea where, even though you’ve received this incredible grace from God, it does not transform your life. You still go about doing the bad things you’ve always done, but you don’t struggle to change your ways; rather, you just say, “Oh, I’ll go to church on Sunday and God will forgive me.” The incredible grace of God, who takes you just as you are, should not leave you unchanged. Rather, that grace and the faith which God gives you should shine forth in everything you do, and that faith is revealed as you allow God to work in you to change your ways. A dramatic example of this would be the Holy Spirit’s conversion of Paul from one who persecuted Christians to one who preached the good news of Jesus Christ. The man without the wedding robe most likely represents someone who has not allowed his life to be changed by the grace he has received from God.
For those of you who were not present on Wednesday night, I would like to ask you, when you go home and in your devotions this week, to write out your 5-minute statement of faith, something that you would share with someone in an elevator. In the coming weeks, in upcoming meetings and maybe even in the service on Sunday morning, I am going to start asking people to be ready to share their statement of faith with the congregation. And I will get the ball rolling by sharing with you what I wrote on Wednesday night:
Growing up, my family moved around a lot. But the one constant for me, wherever we went, was going to church on Sundays. Each week I went and I heard how much Jesus loves me; so much that he went to the cross and died for me. As I became an adult and continued moving around, I knew that Jesus was always with me, calling me forward into the next place to serve him, giving me community everywhere I went. His love sustains me and guides me through this life, through both the good and the bad. I know that I am in his hands, no matter where I am, and he loves me. Amen.