Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14
Ordinary 28A; Proper 23
The parabalous horriblus continue this Sunday.
Matthew doesn’t shy away from violence, judgment or even retribution. The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is no gentle, bearded Savior with a lamb draped around his neck. Imagine, if you will, reading this parable as a bedtime story to your children or grandchildren.
Snuggle down and let me read you a story from the Bible:
God is like a king who invites people to a big party. (So far, so good.) But the people God invites don’t want to come. They are busy and have better things to do. (Bummer.) So, God invites them again because God really wants them at the celebration. (That’s nice.) This time the people on the guest list not only refuse to come, they beat up and kill the ones God sent to invite them. (That’s not nice at all.) Then God gets mad. (Who wouldn’t?) God goes ballistic and gets even, killing those who killed the ones who’d come with the invitation to the wedding party. (Huh? What about slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy?) God will have a party and there will be guests, so God sends out more servants to invite anyone and everyone they can find. (That sounds generous.) They come. (Yay!) But one unsuspecting guest doesn’t dress appropriately and God gives that underdressed one the same treatment as those who refused to come at all. (That seems really unfair.) The one without the right robe is thrown into the outer darkness. (Yikes!) Moral of the story: Many are called but few are chosen. (Sleep tight!)
Such is the gift of preaching and teaching from the lectionary texts. We can’t escape stories like these, stories we would rather avoid, soften or explain away. The context of this parable is important to remember. Warren Carter puts it succinctly in his book, “Matthew and the Margins”:
“The parable is an allegory that continues the symbolism of 21:33-46 and assumes the audience’s scriptural knowledge. The king (God) has a son, Jesus. The king sends slaves (prophets; cf. 22:3 and 21:34) several times (22:4 and 21:36) to invite people (the religious leaders) to the wedding feast (the eschatological age). But they kill the slaves (cf. 22:6 and 21:35, 38-39; also 23:34, 37; 26:4 anticipating the passion). Judgement is enacted as Rome destroys their city (Jerusalem in 70). God acts as imperial tyrant. Disciples are to invite others, notably the nonelite, who will also face judgment.”
The problem (well, one of many problems) contemporary preachers and teachers face is that such scriptural and historic knowledge cannot be assumed, which results in another challenge of deciding how much background information to share with one’s hearers. Eyes glazing over or closing would not be unexpected should the worship leader choose such an excursus.
So, what would be a more compelling way to approach these 14 verses?
Starting with the enduring truth of this story, regardless of one’s knowledge of the Bible or history, is a faithful exposition of this troubling text. Like Isaac Watts surveying the wonderous cross, we should read this parable and know that God demands our soul, our life, our all. The call of God in Christ Jesus is not to be taken lightly, neglected or responded to carelessly. Violent opposition to the work of God in the world comes with the consequence of God’s judgment. Accepting the invitation to the wedding feast comes with strenuous responsibilities. In our “come as you are” culture and with our “please just come” attitude in churches, this story proclaims the truth that eating and drinking with Jesus requires that we leave everything else behind and thoughtfully, intentionally bring our best to His service.
Is this a tough sell in our current context? Yes. Has attempting to follow and do the will of God ever been easy? No. Would we rather worship idols that we create and control? Of course. Are we ever fully prepared or perfectly dressed to meet our Maker? Of course not. Does that mean we can simply show up and think God ought to be delighted to see us? Not according to Jesus in this parable. Is participating fully in the wedding banquet of our Lord the most awesome and joyous occasion imaginable? Absolutely – and therein lies the Good News of this difficult story.
Even as we wrestle with the judgment of God, we cannot forget the grace inherent in both the invitation and the Son in whose honor the party is given. God wants guests at the party, the good and the bad, those on the top of society’s ladder and those working through the night to hold it up. None of us is worthy of being included, all of us will fall short of properly honoring the Host. However, in our baptism, we are clothed in Christ, the promise of the obliteration of our sin through Christ’s sacrifice is made visible, and we are given the assurance that our hope of feasting at the heavenly banquet is not in vain. That should give us the courage to say a resounding “yes!” to the call of God no matter when it comes or where we are when we hear it.
We should drop everything and come as we are, but we should also never expect to remain unchanged. Just as the first disciples dropped their nets and followed, we should also respond to God’s invitation immediately and fully, trusting that once we do Jesus will welcome us as we are and transform us into who God intends us to be: clothed, in our right minds, witnesses to the generosity and goodness of the One who called us.
That’s the remarkable thing about responding to the gracious, awesome invitation of the Living God. We are changed. Our whispers of assent mingle with the roaring wind of the Holy Spirit. And, somehow, God transforms us from Cephas to Peter, from those who catch fish to those who cast their nets to bring in people, from ones who persecute and murder God’s servants to the chief among sinners who put their lives in peril for the sake of the gospel and, yes, from the ones ashamed of their nakedness to the very ones who put on Jesus Christ and are clothed with power from on high.
God demands our souls, our lives, our all. Given that God has not held even the Son back from us, how could we respond with anything less?
- Do we take the invitation of God lightly? Or do we consciously consider what the call of God requires of us?
- The text tells us that when the first ones on the guest list refuse to come, the slaves are to go to the “street crossings,” those places that are on the margins. Where are the “street crossings” we need to go to invite people to the party?
- How do we talk about God’s judgment? Do we talk about it? What are the dangers of our talking about God’s judgment? What do we lose if we don’t talk about it?
- Are there lesser gods of our own making that we worship rather than giving all we have and all we are to the Triune God?
- Use a biblical concordance and look up other passages in the Bible where clothing is mentioned. What is the importance of clothing in those passages? Do those passages illumine your understanding of this passage in Matthew?
- What excuses do we give when we refuse to accept God’s invitation?
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