The Invitation

(A sermon for Pentecost 18A — October 12, 2014 — Matthew 22:1-14)

We purchased only one of these.
We purchased only one of these. (Image from tmz.com.)

I try to look away from the tabloid magazines in the grocery store checkout line, but the other day as we were standing and waiting, I said to Kathryn, “It looks like everybody is getting divorced.” “We don’t believe the Star,” she replied reassuringly after glancing at the cover. So I moved on, and did not take the time to worry about the end of marriages I honestly didn’t know had happened in the first place. I used to be someone who knew these things, but the celebrity marriage line of the popular culture train has long since left me behind.

Except of course for George Clooney. I’ve been a fan from way back, long before he was even on ER. His identity as an elusive bachelor with one early marriage in the dim past has been well-established. Rumors of relationships with models or “actresses” came to naught.

Then we saw the announcement:

“Internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin marries an actor (who once played a handyman on The Facts of Life).”

I’ll admit we bought the copy of People magazine with pictures of their Venice wedding on the cover. That’s Venice, Italy. (Show magazine.) Inside were descriptions of their clothes, pictures with their friends and family, and gorgeous shots of the gilded hall with 18th century frescoes where the ceremony took place. Everything was elegant, and one concludes, heartfelt, and the carefully chosen 100 guests spoke – on the record – of their affection for both the bride and the groom.

It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down that invitation.

Jesus tells a story of guests too busy to make themselves available for a royal wedding. You don’t have to be a scholar of Biblical languages to figure out what’s wrong with that opening scene, but the rest of the story tends to have preachers doing more homework on the text than usual. This story was written down long after Jesus died, and it needs some context not only for his time but for the church in Matthew’s time, at least 50 years later.

First, it’s a wedding. That part is simple. A wedding was a major event in a family and a community, something we still understand today. Everyone important to the bride and the groom would be included: relatives, neighbors and business connections, for starters.

Second, it’s a royal wedding. You wouldn’t want to miss it, not only because a wedding is a special occasion, but also because in that time, the favor of a king meant a lot for your family or your business. Anyone listening to this story would immediately understand the importance of attending the wedding; it required no further explanation.

The next part does. Why do all these people ignore the invite to what is certainly the party of the year, if not the party of a lifetime? It’s not only rude, it’s foolish. Proper guests are portrayed as refusing to come. Not only that, they seize, torture and murder the servants sent out to remind them of the party.

This is no straightforward metaphor. The kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws the best party ever to celebrate the marriage, the coming of age, of his son. He sends out the ones who serve him to remind the invited guests that the time has come. The servants specify what a fine party it is, and they offer the invitation again.

Then they are killed for their efforts.

This is not a lesson about manners, or even loving our neighbors. There is more mayhem to come. The king sends his troops out to destroy the ones who murdered his servants, to burn their city. Only then is the more general invitation offered.

Just as the tabloids are intended to shock us, Matthew captures our attention with images of destruction and dismay.

We move naturally to assign roles in the parable as we try to make sense of what makes no sense. Of course the king is God and the son is Jesus. The death and destruction raining down suggests an apocalypse, an end of the world scenario, and that may have felt like a familiar image to the people in Matthew’s church. They were most likely Christians from a Jewish background, living in diaspora, which means away from their homeland and spiritual home base of Jerusalem. Smart people had gotten away before the Roman army destroyed the Temple and laid waste to the population in the early 70s of that first century. The end was horrible.

Resettled, they continued to worship together as Jews, now in synagogues, but conflict between those who followed Jesus and those who did not led to a separation. Differences you can manage in a large congregation feel unmanageable when you know the person sitting across from you thinks differently. Matthew’s gospel is full of negative references to the Jews, but we need to remember that the early Christians in Matthew’s community also claimed their Jewish heritage, believing that Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. The images of destruction here paint a picture of the violence familiar to them. They desperately wanted Jesus to come back again and usher in the future for which they hoped.

God is the king, and Jesus is the son, and the banquet is the table prepared for all of us, the realization of God’s dream for the world. The slaves sent out represent the many prophets who came to point to God’s dream and issue God’s invitation. Instead of getting ready for the banquet, the invited guests ignored it.

We would probably like to skip over verses 6 and 7, which some scholars believe were added later,[i] and move on to the next part of the story. That’s the good part. Now the king sends his servants out – whatever servants he has left – to invite everyone else they can find to the party. Imagine that the guests did not arrive at the gilded hall to celebrate with Amal Alamuddin and George Clooney. Imagine, seeing the room empty, the couple sent their managers and agents and personal assistants out into the city to invite the poor and the hungry and the badly-dressed and the socially unacceptable, “both good and bad,” as the gospel tells us, to come in and join them for (hold on, let me find it) “lemon risotto with lobster and Chianina beef with porcini mushrooms…paired with plenty of vino,” champagne and tequila.

We love that ending! It’s the big finish! The rich and powerful don’t know what they’re missing. The benevolent King and, in this case, Queen, share the love and the lobster with people who would ordinarily never see such glory or such generosity.

They “went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both Good and Bad – so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (Matthew 22:10, NRSV)

Fade out on the beautiful scene, on the musical clink of crystal glasses toasting the happy couple.

But wait. There is a terrible epilogue to come, for apparently these hastily rounded up guests with no social standing all appeared dressed in the right garment for the wedding, all except one. When the King arrives and sees him, things don’t go well.

Scholars say the word “friend” as used in this gospel really isn’t all that friendly. It’s not cajoling, or winsome. It’s more of a “Now, look here, Mister!” Or a “What do you think you’re up to there, Buster?”[ii]

Why is the King picking on That Guy? Why is The Clooney all of a sudden expecting a last minute invitee to have an engraved invitation in his back pocket?

Suddenly That Guy is tied up and tossed into the canals of Venice, which believe me, are not very clean. I’ve been there. I’ve wandered through little museums full of gorgeous paintings hung too close together for hundreds of years. I’ve wound my way through the beautiful Basilica of Saint Mark and marveled at every facet of the  workmanship. I’ve wandered the Piazza outside and been just nobody, not even particularly interesting to the pigeons.

And here’s the thing about fabulous parties and powerful kings and gorgeous architecture and valuable paintings. They are only a sign of what’s to come, in this story and in all our faith stories. Jesus didn’t tell a story about a wedding to get us to improve our etiquette. Jesus told a story about a wedding to get us thinking about how we respond to our invitation from God – him. The gospel writer, living in a time when people dearly wished Jesus would return and restore their community, raised the dramatic tension, to motivate his people and his church to be ready.

A parable doesn’t always hold up to one-on-one comparisons; it isn’t meant to, and the end of this story is no exception. “Many are called, but few are chosen” bothers us, because we may have heard it used to exclude people, to our minds, unfairly. Alternatively, it may please us and make us smug. Neither is the right response. It refers to an old saying, likely familiar to Matthew’s Jewish Christian audience, which we might read as saying, “God wants everybody at the party, but not everybody wants to come or knows how to behave when they get there.”[iii]

The truth is that it’s not enough to simply accept the hospitality. A responsibility comes with it. It wasn’t enough just to enter the synagogue. It’s not enough just to come to church. God invites us to put on a new identity as God’s beloved children. That has implications not only for our thoughts or our feelings but for our actions and for our lives.

We’re not living for some mythic future. Today is the day to start behaving like we know where we are. The invitation is here, and the garment of a new identity is waiting. When we say yes, we begin a new life, marked by God’s generosity and Christ’s glory. What in heaven are we waiting for?

Let’s go to the banquet.

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*********

[i] Long, Thomas G. Matthew. (Westminster Bible Companion) Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, p. 246.

[ii] Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 398. Also Long, p. 247.

[iii] Long, p. 247.

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