Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A) . October 9, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Parable of the Wedding Feast
What do you make of today’s Gospel? It’s a prickly one, no doubt about it, complete with a raging king who sends out his troops to burn down a city and later commands his attendants to bind an unfortunate man without a wedding robe and “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” [Matthew 22:13]. What are we dealing with here? What is this story trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven? For goodness sake, where’s the Good News?
When I went rifling through my commentaries, I was interested to read that the parable of the wedding feast is more like an allegory than a parable. As an allegory, each part of the story points to something outside the story, to historical persons and events. If the king hosting a wedding banquet represents God inviting us to share in the divine life, then the first group of servants to call people to the feast represents the Hebrew prophets. The invited guests refuse to come, just as Israel ignored the prophets, so in the parable the king sends out a second wave of servants, who represent the early Christian apostles and missionaries. Again the invited guests refuse to come, and many of the king’s messengers are mocked, ignored, and even killed, just as many of the early Christians were similarly mistreated and martyred. As Matthew saw it, the consequences of refusing God’s invitation were terrible. In the parable the king destroys the murderers and sets fire to their city – a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in 70 A.D., which Matthew interpreted as God’s punishment on Israel. Finally, the king throws open his doors to everyone, good and bad alike, just as the early Christians eventually opened their community to the Gentiles and called everyone to the feast.
So far so good, I guess – by reading the parable as an allegory, we can tie it to its historical references; we can match each aspect of the story to a corresponding event and see how Matthew makes sense of salvation history. But the parable is more than a summary of past events – it’s a story about you, a story about me.
Take, for instance, this business about the king – that is, God – inviting guests to his son’s wedding. The Bible often uses wedding imagery as a way to express the complete and intimate union that God and God’s people will experience at the end of time. The Bible sometimes depicts the bridegroom as God; other times, as in this parable, the bridegroom is Christ. Sometimes the bride is the whole community of the faithful, and sometimes it is the individual soul. But however the wedding metaphor is played out, the point is that at the end of time, God will draw us – and all creation – to God’s self. That is where everything is headed. In that time out of time God and God’s people will be completely and joyfully united. As Isaiah envisions it, God will make the enemy city a ruin. Oppression will come to an end. “The palace of aliens” – or, as some readings have it, “the castle of the insolent” – will finally be destroyed. And then, says Isaiah, God’s reign will begin with a feast. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” [Isaiah 25:6]. When that day comes at last, death will be no more. Sorrow will end. Poverty will cease. Human beings will no longer destroy each other in war, nor continue to hurt the earth and its creatures. “On that day, says the Lord,” (and here I’m quoting the prophet Hosea) “on that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband’ and I will take you for my wife forever” [Hosea 2:16, 19].
It’s a beautiful vision, a powerful vision that can give direction to your life and to mine, a vision that can fill us with joy. And just as the king in Matthew’s parable sent out messengers inviting guests to the banquet, so God is sending messengers to us today. Who are the messengers that speak to you of God’s hope for the future, of God’s possibilities for peace and social justice on this dear earth? Are we listening to the messengers in our midst, to Bill McKibben and Jim Wallis, to Wendell Berry and Desmond Tutu, to “Granny D” and Joanna Macy and Terry Tempest Williams – well, you probably have your own band of trusted messengers that inspire you with holy possibility!
And what messages are coming to us that we’re missing? It’s not only – or even mainly – well-known, public people who bring us news of God’s kingdom, but the poor, the forgotten, the person on the margins. Maybe it’s the homeless man on the street, the annoying fellow who plays really bad music. Are you going to pass him by without a glance, feeling irritated and guilty, or are you going to slow down long enough to greet him and to look him in the eye? You stop for a moment to speak to him, maybe you even share a joke together, and my word, what’s this? It turns out he’s got a wedding invitation in his hands.
Or maybe God’s messenger comes as a young mother from Brazil who cleans restaurants from 11:00 at night to 4:00 in the morning and then shows up every week at 9 a.m. to clean your house. She barely speaks a word of English, but her hard work and devotion to her family speak volumes about the dignity of the poor and the need in this country for a decent living wage. She too loves Jesus, just as you do, and in the quiet joy with which she goes about her day, you wonder if she hasn’t learned, as St. Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians, “the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” You wonder if she hasn’t learned, as Paul did, “[to] do all things through him who strengthens me” [Philippians 4:12-13]. You wonder if she isn’t inviting you into God’s kingdom.
God’s messengers include the famous and the hidden, and not to listen to messengers like these – to shrug hopelessly and to say that we have to settle for being alienated from each other, that we have keep living driven, restless, distracted lives, that we have to make peace with poverty, that we have to condone destroying the earth, that we have to tolerate an endless succession of wars – to say all this is to turn away God’s messengers and to refuse God’s wedding banquet. Like it or not, the parable is clear: the invitation is urgent. The banquet is ready – you’ll notice that the word “ready” shows up three times in this passage. There’s not a moment to waste. The food is hot. The time is now. We’ve been invited to the feast – are we coming or not?
But lest we feel too complacent – lest we mistakenly believe that all we need to do as faithful Christians is to accept God’s invitation and just show up in church – Matthew adds the unsettling parable of the man without a wedding robe. The king comes in to see the guests, and spots a man without the clean, white garment that is the proper dress for a wedding feast. The king apparently looks kindly at him and gives him a chance to speak. “Friend,” he says, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” [Matthew 22:12]. But the man is speechless; he can make no excuse. And so off he goes in chains – not just out to the streets but into hell.
The point? God’s door is open to us but we cannot presume on God’s grace. God’s overflowing, endless, patient, self-giving generosity comes to us as gift, but it comes with responsibility, too. The parable doesn’t care a bit about the clothes we wear to church or anywhere else; what does concern it is the spirit with which we come before God. Like the man in the parable, every day we too have a chance inwardly to wear the white robe of our baptism, so that our baptismal vows truly become the framework that guides our lives. Every day we have the chance to let our lives be shaped and formed by the disciplines of Christian community.
So it’s worth asking ourselves: are we practicing what it means to give generously, to listen respectfully, and to speak honestly and with love? And with what garment do we clothe ourselves when we come to worship? In what spirit do we arrive to share in the Eucharistic feast, that foretaste of the ultimate wedding banquet between Christ and all creation? Do we come to church wearing the garment of expectation? Do we come with the garment of penitence and humility? Do we come with the garment of sincerity, with the garment of reverence? (1) Getting the family organized on a Sunday morning – especially if you have young kids – is no small feat, and sometimes we probably slide into the pews feeling more harried than anything else. But still, if we can, it’s good to take some time before the worship service begins – maybe the night before – to examine our lives, to reflect on how we have and have not responded this week to God’s invitations, and to prepare ourselves for the feast.
Everyone is welcome. God’s banquet is ready. The joy is ours.
(1) William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, revised edition, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,