Sunday, October 9, 2011


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.” (Matthew 22.8-9)

Courting Danger

A couple years after Nintendo launched its game system, I bought one for Walt, thinking it the perfect birthday gift for him and a fun diversion for us. When I asked the clerk to recommend a few games, he handed me one based on The Lord of the Rings and something called “Grand Theft Auto”. I wasn’t so sure about his second choice. But he promised we’d love it, saying it was the season’s bestseller. We didn’t. The complicated controls made us feel old and inept, and we were unnerved by the graphic violence. Worst of all, the winning strategy directly opposed what we’d grown up with. Instead of avoiding danger—steering Pac-Man clear of Blue Meanies or watching for snakes that might kill Frogger—the game aggressively courted danger. Reaching the next level required players to wreak mayhem on whomever their avatars encountered. Appearances were deceiving and the rules seemed to shift with the developers’ whims. After giving it our best shot, we lost interest. Lack of dexterity, intuition, and ability to stomach the violence made the experience too unenjoyable.

Revisiting Jesus’s wedding feast story in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.1-14) may affect us in the same way. It’s very complicated, particularly if we’re accustomed to navigating the parables with ease. It’s not at all intuitive; the rules appear to change on a whim, as though Jesus makes them up as His story develops. And (in Matthew’s version, that is) it’s extremely—one might even say, gratuitously—violent. The tale is three-tiered, with each level introducing new characters, all courting danger to various extents, some to the degree we’re temporarily shut out of the story. We can’t conceive what provokes their rash behavior, and it's hard to rationalize the violence it causes. So wrestling with this parable is neither pleasant nor easy. Yet giving up on it too quickly will end with us missing one of the Gospels’ most fascinating, illuminating experiences.

An Open-Door Party

Here’s the story. Level One: A king invites the crème de la crème to his son’s wedding feast. Once everything’s set, he dispatches messengers to gather the guests. But they don’t come. So he sends a different group of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, “It’s time to show up.” Neither the momentous occasion (a royal wedding) nor the king’s trouble and expense—not even the honor of being invited—fazes the guests. Some offer piddling excuses: can’t get off work, can’t leave the farm, etc. Others attack and murder the messengers, inciting the king to order his troops to kill the killers and torch their city.

Level Two: With the feast on the back burner, the king tells his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find.” (v8-9) They fan out across town and invite randomly chosen strangers—“good and bad,” verse 10 says—to celebrate the prince’s marriage with the king. Since Jesus scoots through this part of the story rather swiftly, never describing the guests’ response to the invitation, let’s fill in the blank with how we’d react. Our first thoughts would turn to why we shouldn’t attend. We’re not dressed for it. We don’t fit in that crowd. We won’t know how to act. We haven’t time or means to buy a suitable gift. Some of us, the “bad” folks Jesus mentions, might suspect we’re being duped; it could be a sting operation to lure us into a police trap. Having heard of the king’s temper, we probably worry about offending him once we’re there. So accepting the invitation is, in itself, courting danger. Do we dare? Absolutely. It’s an offer too grand and glorious to refuse.

Level Three: Either the king gives the impromptu guests time to dash home and change into customary wedding attire, or he outfits them once they arrive. In any case, everyone’s dressed to the nines and having a good time when he spots one guest in casual clothes. He confronts the man, asking, “Friend”—Jesus uses a sarcastic term more like, “Hey, buddy”—“how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (v12) The man doesn’t reply. It’s tempting to imagine he shrugs, as if to say, “I heard you were giving an open-door party and thought I’d check it out.” More likely, he’s dumbstruck because he’s caught enjoying the king’s kindness without honoring his wishes. The king sentences him to a fate worse than death, binding him over to “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v13)


After taking us through this gnarly, harrowing scenario, Jesus sums it up with a daunting moral: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (v14) In light of whom He’s talking to (the disciples and Pharisees) and when He’s speaking (a few days before he’s arrested and executed), the parable breaks down easily. The king is God; the son is Jesus; and the invited guests are Israel’s religious establishment, which preaches exclusive right to divine favor but has a history of persecuting prophets sent to corral their behavior. The servants who take to the streets are apostles ordained to invite outsiders—estranged Jews and pagan Gentiles—to God’s table. They’re heralds of inclusion. And what of the imposter? We can see him one of two ways. Perhaps he’s a presumptive guest, possibly one who initially turned down the invitation, whose inflated sense of self as the king’s “friend” misguides him to believe he’s above honoring his host’s wishes. Or maybe he’s just a fool who abuses the king’s hospitality by refusing to change in a manner befitting the occasion. Either way, confusing the king’s grace with license to ill spells his doom. Like the no-show corpses buried in their city’s cinders, all the imposter can say is, “I was called.” His disregard for the king’s stature and standards deprives him of any right to number among “the chosen.”

Now comes the hard part, when we ask how Jesus’s story speaks to us. And make no mistake, it delivers an extremely profitable, potent, and pressing message. As with nearly all His parables, Jesus prefaces this one by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Thus, the story reveals how many who hear God’s call become casualties of self-imposed arrogance and ignorance. Some let obsessions with security and success keep them from the feast. Some give way to intellectual pride that rouses hostility to God’s invitation. Some presume insider status that exempts them from God’s expectations. Some exploit God’s grace by foolishly ignoring what’s asked of them.

And where do we fit in all of this? It comes down to choice. Do we join untold masses who are called but don’t show up? Worse yet, do we delude ourselves to think we’re doing God a big favor by showing up? Or do we override hesitations and feelings of inferiority to accept the open invitation to sit with other chosen guests—good and bad—at God’s table? When we put it like that, the stunning “Aha!” that ends Jesus’s story is inescapable. God does the calling. Choosing, however, is left entirely to us.

Dear God, we couldn’t more thrilled and delighted that You’ve invited us to Your feast. Nothing in this world could keep us from being there. All we ask is that You show us how to please You and be worthy of Your calling. Amen.

God calls everyone to the feast. Being numbered among the chosen is up to us.


Sherry Peyton said...

Well Tim, I was one who avoided this parable because I just couldn't seem to untangle the violence from the offer, and especially the vengeance upon the one who came but didn't "dress". I had every hope that you would write on it, and untangle it, and you have!

Indeed, there is so very much for us all to ponder here, for just being the "new" invitees should give us little to "hoot" about. As you point out so well, our reasons for coming, and how we see ourselves, and especially what we do with the invitation will lift us to God, or we will condemn ourselves by our own stupidity and arrogance.

Much thanks for straigtening out this parable for me. I could get up to the guy who didn't dress, and then got confused. :)

Tim said...

Sherry, I had superb help with this when our weekly Bible study group spent last Tuesday evening taking the parable apart and putting it back together. The group has been working on the parables in advance of their Sunday appearances and one of our colleagues sat down last Tuesday, sighed, and said, "Matthew's parables are so violent--they should be R-rated!"

Once we got through mayhem and bloodshed--reminding ourselves Matthew wrote his gospel soon after the Temple fell (70 CE) and had an urgent, somewhat prophetic agenda in calling for Jewish conversion--we were like you, asking, "Who is this fella in the street clothes and why does he get treated so horribly?"

And there's so much conjecture around his identity and what his crime represented, I stuck with two of the more easily explained possibilities. Here are two more, though, that add different distinctive twists to the story.

Some have suggested that the impostor's sin is not answering the king, rather than dressing down. Had he simply explained why he wanted to be there, it's entirely possible he would have been welcomed and outfitted like the other guests. (Another point I didn't have room to dwell on: it's been said that rich hosts like the king typically provided wedding attire for their guests, much like fancy restaurants sometimes provide ties and jackets for under-dressed patrons.) In this light, the man's silence sentences him--his lack of confession, failure to trust the king's generosity, perhaps pride to admit he didn't own finery himself are his undoing.

Now fasten your seatbelt for the fourth take. Some liberationist theologians turn the whole story inside out, proposing Jesus casts Himself as the unsuited guest--dismantling (sorry for the pun) the whole myth of appearances and propriety, assuming His right to sit at the table without kowtowing to religious custom and law. If that's the case, then the king really is a tyrant who would prefer to have the upper crust at his table, but settles for the hoi-polloi to save face. That Jesus feels free and comfortable to dine with this crowd, yet at the same time will not conform to the host's expectations, makes sense--as does the "Friend, how did you get in here?" question, as the Pharisees had to feign respect for Jesus as a rabbi, even as they were plotting to oust Him. Then, of course, the binding and tossing into darkness foretells events due to unfold any day.

And though a big part me finds the last reading very appealing--it sure takes the heat off God by shoveling the villainy on an earthly figure--I struggle with the absence of any epilogue presaging the resurrection. During this period Jesus's death predictions always come with the promise He'll rise on the third day. That this goes missing here puts a big question mark on the whole interpretation for me.

The bottom line still remains the same no matter how we conceive the ill-suited guest, doesn't it? The response to the invitation makes the difference. This morning our pastor put the decision like this: Will we live our lives grasping for grace--playing the Me! Me! Me! game? Or will live lives from grace--accepting our "chosen" status as a gift that enables us to offer grace to others. That shook me, because in the end it really isn't about getting into the party, it's about how we live and what we do after the party's over.

I hope I've not re-confused you--just thought you might find these other possibilities as intriguing as I did.

Blessings, dear friend,