Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 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.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” --Matthew 22:1-14 (NRSV)
Wow. Just wow. Okay. So, who would like to interpret this parable this morning?
Before we dig into this text in earnest, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention.
First, we have to be careful not to jump too quickly into the allegorical interpretation. An allegory is a story or picture or poem that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, usually a moral or political meaning. It’s important for us, especially with Jesus’ parables, that we first look closely at the story, before we jump to trying to figure out its allegorical meaning. We try to understand what is going on, first, because doing this can then help us draw out its meaning for us.
The second caution is about hyperbole.
In Matthew, in particular, Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole, of exaggeration. If you think about the community that Matthew is writing to, a community some 50 years after Jesus ascended that has been tossed out from their religious and social community, it might be easier to understand that, as Matthew captures Jesus’ parables, there is an edge to them. Whether it is anger or cynicism, Matthew’s Jesus exaggerates. For far too long, the church has used scripture, including this parable, against the Jewish people in a way that encourages anti-Semitism. Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole - exaggeration. Why? To catch the reader’s attention. To draw them into the story. Sometimes, to shock them. To drive home a point. Does that mean, then, that we should take Jesus’ parables literally? Probably not. But, we also should not miss the point. We should take it seriously.
So, what do we first see in this story? We have a king who is inviting guests to a banquet. But, even before this, we have this opening phrase: Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…” So there are other parables that have been told before this one to “them.” If we back up into chapter 21, we see that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. We’ve skipped ahead because we will read this on Palm Sunday.
The first thing Jesus does is to go into the temple and overturn the moneychanger tables. Then, Jesus curses the fig tree. This is an irritable Jesus we see in chapter 21. Soon, the religious leaders confront him and challenge his authority to teach in the temple. This is followed by two parables that are spoken directly to the chief priests and elders. And not in a good way. By the end of chapter 21, they want to arrest him. But, they are afraid because Jesus is so popular - thought by the crowds to be a prophet.
Then comes this parable in our text today, spoken to "them" - the chief priests and elders.
Now, something else you need to know is that in ancient times it was the custom to invite guests to a banquet in two phases. First, messengers would be sent to the guests, several days in advance, to invite them. And to tell them to be ready at an approximately time. The second invitation would be sent when the feast was ready. The guests were now to come.
It appears that, in the story, we first learn about this second invitation. So, those invited have had fair warning to make sure they are available to attend. But, they violate the ancient rules of hospitality by refusing to come, something close to rebellion. Then, asked again, two of the invited guests walk away to go back to their business affairs. Others seize the servants, attack them and kill them.
Is it any wonder that this king is furious? Wouldn’t, if something like this happened in our day - wouldn’t there be repercussions?
But, there is still a wedding feast waiting. So servants are once again sent by the monarch into the streets to invite everyone they can find. Good and bad. And they gather them into the wedding hall to begin this great feast.
Maybe, up to this point, we kind of get this story. It’s about invitation and hospitality. About how God invites everyone, good and bad. And about some - particularly privileged - who simply ignore or even refuse God’s invitation. Or worse yet, seek to harm God’s servants.
But, then, we get to the last part of the story.
Who can make sense of this? How could it be expected that someone gathered up off the streets into the great hall would need to wear a special garment, much less even own one?
What we need to understand is that traditionally the king would have had appropriate garments ready for his guests. The individual did not put on the garment provided - perhaps even refused to put on the garment,, thus, shaming the king. He is cast out not because of who he is, but because of what he chooses to do. Or not to do. In this, he dishonors the king.
So what does this mean for us? (Now, we get to the allegorical interpretation.). There are likely many meanings to this parable. But, perhaps one interpretation is that this is about “cheap grace.” We’ve talked about this before. This is a phrase first written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the years leading up to the second world war, as he and others tried to engage the broader church in stopping Hitler and his movement. Cheap grace, as he writes, is a grace without repentance. Or sacrifice. And, ultimately without a cross. It’s accepting God’s invitation, but refusing to “put on the garment of faith,” as Paul puts it. To truly live as one of God’s people. To do the work of discipleship - prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. Standing up to evil and power, especially when it is harming those whom society has pushed to the edges. It’s refusing to put in our time or energy or resources to serve God. It’s refusing to sacrifice.
To be a disciple requires costly grace. Because it calls us to fully follow - to follow Jesus Christ. This kind of grace is costly. Because it cost Jesus his life.
So where are you in your Lenten journey? Have you, three weeks in given up on any fast or practice you decided to take on? Why is that? Or, perhaps, you have remained steadfast. How might this practice be more fully incorporated into your life as a disciple beyond Lent?
May we, this Lent, accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet. But, may we also willingly put on the garment of costly grace. The garment of sacrifice. The garment worthy of the bridegroom himself - Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Preached Sunday, March 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Psalm 45:6-7