10/15/17: Invited and Chosen, Matthew 22:1-14
Invited and Chosen
Third in the series: Bearing Fruit
First Lesson: Isaiah 25:1-9
Second Lesson: Matthew 22:1-14
Rev. Scott Dickison
We’re all familiar with the superstition that things come in threes, which may or may not be truewhen it comes to bad news, but is certainly true here in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. Our passage is the final of three parables Jesus tells the chief priests and elders at the temple in Jerusalem on Monday of the last week of his earthly life.
The first two parables are allegories set in vineyards and describe the relationship between God and the people of Israel through the generations, and leave us with the message that we’re to bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God: to make good on our charge to bring love and compassion and generosity and joy into the world. But Jesus isn’t done. And this third parable, in theological terms, is what we call a “booger.”
It’s a parable told in two parts. Part one introduces us to a king who throws a royal wedding banquet for his son. Banquets, more than anything else, are Jesus’ preferred image for the Kingdom of God—people gathered around table of rich food and drink, and all the warmth and joy that comes from sharing in these things together. Only this wedding banquet doesn’t begin with warmth and joy. In fact, the king can’t get anyone to come! The messengers go to invite the guests, but they shrug the invitation off. Two of them go back to work while the other seizes the messengers and kills them!
The king responds by sending his troops to those who were invited and destroys the murderers and burns their city. He then calls his messengers and tells them, The wedding banquet is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go out into the streets and invite everyone you see fit to come. So they went, and they invited those whom they found, “both good and bad,” we’re told, and the wedding hall was now filled with guests.
It’s another allegory. God is the king, those invited are the people of Israel. The messengers inviting folks to the wedding banquet of the Kingdom of God are the prophets. The armies that go and destroy the invited guests who killed the messengers are usually understood to be the armies of Rome who sacked Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt of the year 70, which was punctuated by the fall of the temple—an event Matthew argues throughout his gospel was an act of divine judgment levied against the Jewish authorities. And the newly invited guests are anyone who would answer the call of Jesus, be they Jew or gentile, slave or free—as Paul would later put it—male or female, anyone who would come is invited into the banquet of God’s Kingdom. This is what the Kingdom of heaven is like, Jesus says. It’s a place of generous, even frivolous welcome.
And not just here does he say it, but throughout the gospel of Matthew Jesus seeks out and invites unlikely guests to the party—this is precisely the good news he offers: You’re invited. You’re included in what God is up to in the world.
You, the poor, the vulnerable, the forgotten—you’re invited.
You, the prostitute, the tax collector, those with well-earned bad-reputations. This party is for you, too.
You, the meek, you who mourn—you with tears in your eyes and grief in your hearts—yours is the Kingdom of God. This is your party.
You the foreigner, women, children, all who feel lost and alone or anxious or guilty or unworthy, you without a job, you without a home, without a prayer, if you’ve ever felt unwelcome or unloved—this is your party. If this describes you, or has ever described you, this is good news. And yet for the church, this is perhaps the greatest challenge offered to us in the Gospel of Matthew and always has been: are we prepared to throw this kind of party?
As we’ve said these last couple of weeks, Jesus isn’t just speaking to the religious authorities of his day, but also to the church. Matthew always has the church in mind, both the early church and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, us today. So the question for us is: Are we prepared to throw open the doors as wide as Jesus? Or as Allan Boesak, a South-African theologian and anti-apartheid leader, put it: Can we accept a God whose standards of admission are so much lower than ours? A God who’s so…indiscriminately open-handed where we are so self-righteously closed-fisted?
Something I doubt you’ll ever find written on a church sign: We worship a God of low standards! It’s one of the most striking images in the gospels, of these servants of the king going out into the streets and inviting everyone, anyone they find. What kind of party is this? A good question to ask is whether this is a party—in our heart of hearts—we’d even be interested in, one with such a “democratic” guest list. Have you been to the DMV? We must confess there are times we would prefer a certain degree of stratification.
And yet this is how it is with the Kingdom, Jesus says, and so this can only be what we’re called to do as the church: invite any and all to join in to the banquet party of the Kingdom of God—both good and bad, it says. In other words, it’s not our call to say who’s invited or not, we’re simply asked to go out into the streets and invite any and all to come in. Which leads us to part two of this parable, which, again, theologically speaking, is known as a “real booger.”
The king comes down to the wedding banquet already in progress, and notices a man who was not wearing a wedding robe—the traditional garment for such and occasion. And the king says to him, Friend (which is clearly not meant as a term of endearment)—Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? And the man was speechless—after all, he’d just been pulled in off the street! And the king then says to his attendants: Bind him hand and foot and throw him back out into the outer darkness, for many are called, but few are chosen.
Ominous—and a bit heavy-handed. But this isn’t an ordinary party; the allegory continues. The wedding robe here isn’t Jesus makinga case for wearing our Sunday best to church—he isn’t talking about that kind of dress code. The wedding robe expected here is the life of faith: what you bring with you to this party of the Kingdom of God.
Think of it as a white baptismal robe, which today in the church we don as we enter into the waters so we don’t get our Sunday clothes wet, but in the early church, was something they put on as they stepped out of the waters (which, yes, they’d stepped into naked), meant to symbolize the newness of life they’d been raised to walk in. Something like what Paul says in Colossians about “putting on” Christ like new clothes: As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Put that robe on. The message seems to be again directed at those of us who might too readily count ourselves as among the invited guests: Yes, you’ve been invited—yes, yes, yes. But know that this invitation comes with expectation. Once you accept your invitation, know that your life is expected to change. Know that you’ll be expected to clothe yourself with Christ—to put on compassion and kindness like new dress. To wear humility like a new shirt—or maybe a beloved old shirt. Meekness like a belt, patience like a hat. And tying this whole new ensemble together will be love—worn like new shoes, taking you where Christ would have you go.
This is the hard tension of life in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God its found somewhere in between invitation and choice. You’re invited to come and be a part of what God is doing in the world, but the choice to accept this invitation is entirely up to you. And the choice—we must say—is not an easy one. Yes, there’s much at stake—nothing less than your life and the life of the world—and yet it’s also true that this life comes at a cost. And so in the end it may come as no surprise that this story began with a few souls turning this invitation down. And this is where I’ve found myself sitting these last few days. Not with the man caught speechless without a robe, and not with the others who happily joined the party sufficiently dressed. But with those few guests who happened to be invited first but turned the invitation down, choosing instead to go and do whatever it is we do to fill our lives.
And my initial assumption was that they must not have known! They must not have known what they were missing, what kind of party this would be otherwise of course they would have joined! But as I sit with it, I wonder if they actually knew too well what kind of party this would be; what all would be required. Maybe they’d been to this party before, many times before, ever since they were children. Maybe this was a party they’d attend every Sunday for as long as they can remember. And this time they chose something else.
This is the danger, I think for those of us in the church who have always been in the church, and can’t imagine not being in the church, but all the same, find ourselves, from time to time, find ourselves imagining not being in the church: we know too well what a life of faith demands. We know the hard questions it leads us to ask. We know the weight of compassion, and the toll of justice. We know the cost of giving generously. We know how easy it is at times to be overwhelmed with the tedium required to keep an institution running—to pay the light bill, to patch the roof, to consider benefits packages, and missions spending and all the rest of it. At times it’s just too much, taken with our own lives and families and work , let alone considering the sick and suffering of the world—and so at times, we confess, we’d rather choose something else.
And so I wonder what the church has to say to these? Or maybe not the church—maybe the church has already said too much. I wonder what Christ would say?
In fact, I wonder if he would say anything at all, at least at first. And instead would simply gather us around a table—invite us to sit down, just one more time, all together. And take a loaf of bread and break it and look us in the eyes and say, “This is my body…
 Allen Boesak, “Undisciplined Abundance,” a sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, in The Fire Within: Sermons from the Edge of Exile (Capetown: new World Foundation, 2004) 119. As found in Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, from the Belief commentary series.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, 247