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Finding Hope in the Harshness

Matthew 22:1-14 (CEB)

Jesus responded by speaking again in parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!”’ But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them.

“The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’

“Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. Now when the king came in and saw the guests, he spotted a man who wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he was speechless. Then the king said to his servants, ‘Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’

“Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.”

A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

October 14-15, 2017
“Finding Hope in the Harshness”
Matthew 22:1-14

We continue in the Gospel of Matthew this week with another parable told by Jesus in response to the religious leaders who were challenging his authority.

This parable is a story written in a style called an allegory, which is a form of writing in which every character and image represents an idea or a group of people outside of what is being portrayed in the story. Often times with an allegory, the story can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.

Like last week, the setting of today’s story is Jerusalem after Jesus has entered the city and is making his way toward the cross.
This is a challenging Scripture story because the mood of judgment in the parable seems harsh. This is not a cozy Bible bedtime story. It is meant to surprise and challenge and disturb us, perhaps in an effort to wake us up to asking hard questions of ourselves and God.

(Read Matthew 22:1-14)

People have been wondering what clothes to wear since Adam and Eve put on fig leaves back in the Garden of Eden. We have all said at sometime, “I have nothing to wear,” or asked out loud, “What should I wear?” We have all heard phrases like ‘dress for success’ or ‘the clothes make the person.’ We also know that clothes ‘speak.’ They are a form of communication and self-expression. Our clothes make a statement about our culture, our beliefs and our economics.

And then there are the times we buy a new outfit for special occasions. It might be a new Easter outfit or a special outfit for prom or graduation. And then there are wedding outfits. I know that a great deal of time and effort goes into deciding what the bridal party will wear and what the families of the bride and groom will wear at the wedding.

If we are invited to the wedding, we usually receive a ‘Save the Date’ postcard in advance and we do everything we can to clear our calendar in order to attend. And we probably plan what we will wear.

In our story today, a king is hosting a wedding party for his son. Invitations are hand delivered to the ‘A-list’ people by special messengers. Unfortunately, all the invited guests are too busy with other things and give a variety of excuses and also violently mistreat the messengers. The king is angry and retaliates with violence of his own. Then the king sends messengers into the streets, saying, “Invite everyone you find to the wedding party.” And the messengers bring back everyone they can find, “both evil and good,” as guests to the party.

Like other stories in the Gospel of Matthew, these unlikely guests were probably the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the blind, the lame, the riff-raff, the nobodies, and the people who thought they had been forgotten. And, they were thrilled that the invitation was for them also.

I’d like the story to end right there, but our story today takes a hard turn. This same story in the Gospel of Luke does end with the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame being invited to the party. But the writer of Matthew continues by telling about the king noticing a man who was not properly attired for the wedding party. In an almost sarcastic tone that sounds a lot like, “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” the king says, “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” And then the king has him thrown out. And not just shown the door, but given the full outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth treatment.

In breaking down the characters in this allegory story, the interpretation usually goes that the king is God, the son is Jesus, the wedding party represents the kingdom of God, the servants sent to gather the guests and who are rejected and mistreated, represent the Old Testament prophets who were rejected; the burning of the city represents the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans; and the second wave of invited guests are the poorest of the poor…all the kinds of people Jesus spent time with.

The wedding garment was typically a special robe for such occasions that those invited off the streets would not have had. As was customary of the time, the king would have supplied the garments and the guests only needed to put them on for the party. Yet, there was one guest that the king noticed who did not have on that special garment.

Over the centuries, the interpretation of the wedding robe has varied widely. The philosopher Augustine in the 5th century, saw it as a metaphor for putting on love; the German theologian Martin Luther in the 16th century said the robe was faith; John Calvin, a 16th century French theologian called it both faith and works. And the early Christians saw it as the baptismal robe and the belief that our baptism changes us and makes us different.

Perhaps the wedding clothes or robe in our story represents a combination of all these things as a way of seeing God’s presence as a garment around us. Or, perhaps the story is trying to help us think about putting on the ways of God when it comes to how we think, feel, and act about our faith and discipleship.

In our Confirmation class right now, we are talking about faith as a process and that there are three components to our faith and discipleship—Believing, or the intellectual, head side of faith; Trusting, or the emotional, heart side of faith; and the Commitment, or action side of faith. In other words, do we know in our heads that the love of God is for us and all people? Do we live with a heart open with compassion, peace and love toward God’s people in this world? And do we make a commitment and take action to express what we know in our heads and hearts?

To bring in what we heard earlier from the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Philippians, we could ask, are we focusing our thoughts, our hearts and our actions on all that is true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise?

Or, are we making excuses for not intentionally working at growing in our faith and discipleship? And we are great ones for making excuses, aren’t we? Like those in our story, we often refuse the invitation from God in one way or another.
We so often want the safe, soft side of discipleship and we shy away from the more difficult work of intentional prayer, study, and acts of justice, outreach and service that come with this discipleship journey of life and faith.

Like most Gospel stories, even a hard story like this one, comes down to God’s grace and our response.

As a young Lutheran pastor who died for his faith during Hitler’s reign in WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known for his writing about grace and discipleship. He wrote that God’s grace is free, but it’s not cheap. “Cheap grace,” he said “is the grace we bestow on ourselves…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”

There is accountability and responsibility that comes with discipleship as followers of Christ. It’s not enough to call ourselves followers of Christ and then act like we were asleep during the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus showers blessings upon all sort of people and says things like, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world;” and “love your enemies;” and “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Yet, our Gospel story today almost seems like a failure of God’s grace and hope. The king in our story does not seem to be the God of mercy and grace we teach and preach about. It’s hard to hear about the king being so angry at those who refused the invitation that he destroys them and burns their city. It’s hard to hear about the one poor guy who gets booted out of the party for not wearing the proper garment after the open invitation has been extended to both the evil and the good.

I wonder what it was that kept the man from putting on a wedding robe? Was it pride? Was it an unwillingness to hold the values of God’s kingdom? Or was it just bad luck that none of the robes fit? We really don’t know. Scripture says the man was speechless.

The invitation to the kingdom of God is wide open, but is not an “anything goes” deal…there are expectations and responsibilities. One of the places where I see hope, even in the harshness of some parts of this story, is in the understanding that when we have Christ as close to us and as visible in our lives as a garment we wear…when Christ gets that close and we live our faith that visibly, we are changed…our lives are transformed and people notice. That gives me hope.

God invites all to come, just as we are. But we are not left that way. When we can take the invitation of God and the responsibility of allowing God’s love to transform our lives, we will as the Apostle Paul urges us, keep on doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in Christ, and the God of peace will be with us.

This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.