You would think that the wedding of someone of such prominence would be all people would be talking about. About 23 million Americans got up at 6am in April three years ago to watch the royal wedding of William and Kate.1 There were 5000 street parties throughout the United Kingdom, a million people on the route from the church to Buckingham Palace. With all of this attention, how many of millions worldwide would have jumped at the chance to be one of the 1900 people in Westminster Abbey, 600 at a luncheon hosted by the queen, or the privileged 300 people at the dinner reception?
But for this king, and his son, no one is interested. The king sent slaves out, but even those invited to the banquet of the SON OF THE KING would not come. So he – imagine how embarrassing this was – sent another round of slaves. Dinner is ready. Fine oxen. Fatted calves. This is the best stuff. Come to the wedding! But they ‘made light of it’ Matthew says. The Greek is closer to unconcerned. One invitee went back to his farm, another to the office. Others, and it is hard to imagine this response, take those slaves who had just been pleading with them to come to the banquet, roughed them up, and killed them.
The king sends troops, destroys those murderers, burns the city. Then, determined to have a celebration, he sends a different group of slaves who go out and gather anyone they run across, both good and bad, Matthew says, and invited them. These people came, the hall was full.
But – as many scholars note – this story is too improbable for there not to be something else going on. A bunch of slaves are killed, then the murderers themselves are killed and a city burned, over wedding invitations? These implausibilities highlight the fact, Tom Long writes, that Matthew intended this be to read as an allegory. Matthew’s first readers knew how to decode the details. I have them for you on the back of your bulletin.
Marriage feast: the great marriage feast of the Lamb of God at the end of time (see Matthew 8:11 and Revelation 19:9)
Those invited: Israel
Violence: Israel’s rejection of the prophets
Destroyed city: fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE
Gathering of the good and bad: evangelistic mission, the spreading of the gospel
Wedding hall: church2
So, again quoting Long, "at the close of this first part of the parable, we have a symbolic picture of Matthew’s church. Matthew’s readers can recognize their own faces. There they are, gathered at the son’s wedding banquet as last-minute replacements for the original guest list – the people of Israel. They are jammed into this churchly banquet hall, both good folk and bad." If I were a part of Matthew’s community, this is where I would want the parable to stop. I, having been separated from the synagogue after a messy church fight, would have been pleased to know that, regardless of what the people of Israel have done – and we as Christians must also be careful, for this sentiment can lapse into anti-Semitism quickly – that my place was secure at the banquet. The invitation is now open, the covenant grown large for all.
But it is precisely in this moment that Jesus turns the tables. Listen for how this parable concludes…
Just when Jesus’ listeners think the story works for them, Jesus turns the tables. The king has FINALLY gotten people to come to his fancy party, and he notices a man – who had presumably just been plucked off the streets – not wearing his fine robe. The king asks how he got in, and the man is speechless. The king calls his attendants – tie him up and toss him outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. As the man cries, Jesus turns to the crowd: "For many are called, but few are chosen."
Initially I tend to sympathize with the guest – I don’t carry my nice clothes with me everywhere I go, either. BUT, remember, this is not a normal story. The wedding garment, it seems, symbolizes the Christian life. Clothing metaphors fill the New Testament, as we put on the baptismal gown of Christ, in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians especially. So, again as Tom Long argues, this final scene is about the end of time, with God, the king, as judge. Those who cry, ‘Lord, Lord, look at me over here in your church,’ may do so to no avail. What is needed is not simply your presence at the party, but some sense of not just the joy of discipleship, but its demands.3 With this reading, this parable is about how being at the party, being a member of the church, being a member of the household of God, should make a discernable difference in who we are and how we live.4 The guest thought that all he had to do was respond to the invitation and show up at the party.
Jesus has been moving us in these chapters into the most difficult, but also most important, parts of the Christian life. Here he is, in the heart of Holy Week. Some of the religious leaders listening are surely in cahoots with the Roman establishment, plotting Jesus’ arrest. But Matthew tells his church that they MUST remain faithful, and that they MUST take this life of discipleship seriously. It is no casual thing. Don’t bother to show up at the party if your LIFE, your BEING, hasn’t been transformed.
My friend Shannon was recently installed as the pastor at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, a majestic place right in the heart of Michigan Avenue. Brian Blount, the President of Union Seminary, preached the installation sermon from Mark, on the disciples getting called out from their fishing boats to follow Jesus. He makes a distinction – with an assist from New Testament scholar David Jacobsen – between discipleship and lifestyle choices. "Even today," Blount said, "we see a minister following a call to a church as a lifestyle decision. Yes, we talk in terms of call, but we know that key decisions are made around issues of family, of children and schools, of spouses and employment, of communities and comfort level, of job expectations and realistic probability of living up to those expectations. That’s lifestyle."5 But then, because he had an audience with some of Chicago’s elite, he went to stewardship. "Today," he said, "we hear a minister talking about stewardship and we think about lifestyle decisions. How much can I realistically give to the church? How much disposable income can I dispose of to support the movement of God’s reign as it breaks into history? How much can I set aside to patronize the church’s vision of mission to this city, country, and world and still have sufficient monies left over for college tuition, house payments, car payments, groceries, or living a little?"
I must tell you, even as I read this last week I was convicted. I thought about how many decisions I am called to make that are about the heart of my own personal discipleship, but I treat them as lifestyle decisions. I confess to you – and you can tell me later if you do this, too – that so many decisions I am called to make happen in a half-hearted, ad hoc kind of way. I confess that most often the basic criteria are: Do I have time to do this? How inconvenient is it? What is required of me? Does it feel like too much? It is a simple, rather pitiful calculus, I confess to you. But I also think it’s a calculus that most busy people use. What if instead of the simple decision-making that comes with lifestyle choices, we took 15 extra seconds and thought about discipleship, about what God might be calling us to be and do? How would that mess with every decision we make?
Is God calling me to participate in this task? We might ask ourselves. How might I know? How may the unique gifts God has given me help out? How is the Spirit changing me, shaping me, teaching me? Is my pledge – of the money and time and talents that come from God – something of significance? Is it something that matters? Or am I just checking another box, knocking another thing off the list, so I can move on to carpool or errands or a project at work or something else I have to do?
The king has issued the invitation, and issued it to all. COME to the party. God’s grace comes as gift. But don’t think you can just come exactly as you are. Christ wants ALL of you to come, and be transformed.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "23 Million Americans Watch Royal Wedding," deadline.com, April 30, 2011.
2. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 246-247.
3. Long, 247.
4. Also Long’s great language.
5. Brian Blount, Look at These Fools!, September 21, 2014.