Some Party...

[audio]This is a dialogue sermon preached with Susannah Morris at Candler's Cannon Chapel today. I've broken it up for easier reading (Susannah is first).

Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is one of those passages that reminds me that Jesus didn’t come to make me happy.  You often say when you preach on parables that we’re unwisely tempted to find a one-to-one correspondence between the parables' elements and our own familiar ideas and relationships. I definitely agree with you, but in this parable, it seems that the king represents God. But the king is mean most of the time!

First he takes revenge on the murderers of his slaves. This is where I start to get uncomfortable, because though I think that God is just, I don't think that God's justice manifests itself in murder. But the king doesn't stop there. He burns down the murderers’ entire city! It's not fair that people who are simply at the wrong place at the wrong time suffer because of the murderers’ crime.  The clouds of doom momentarily dissipate--everybody else gets invited to the banquet--and I get comfortable again. But then the king kicks out the poor guy who forgot the dress code!

As I think the parable over, it's the slaves who most echo the God we know in Christ. The slaves, sent out into the world as apostles, bring the good news of the banquet. They keep inviting people to the banquet, with an overwhelmingly negative reception. They're ignored, mistreated, killed.  And ultimately, the slaves gather everyone, absolutely everyone, at the banquet. Doesn't that sound much more Christ-like than the king? It’s ironic, because the slaves were the lowliest people around, but they seem to play the most important role in the parable. (Of course, the slaves are sent by the king, my least favorite person, weakening my case. So I guess I’m forced to admit that I have to see God in the king, after all. Darn.)

I'm also having a hard time with the last sentence: "For many are called, but few are chosen." I envision the kingdom of heaven as a table where God's grace redeems and welcomes all. But the parable seems to say that some people are going to share the fate of that one poor guy and be cast out.  That’s not an idea I can accept.

Maybe I’m just trying to domesticate God and have a faith that lets me sleep soundly at night.  I don't know.  But if we take this parable as our model, the kingdom of heaven doesn't seem like a very nice place to go on vacation…let alone a vision I want to see the Church strive for. So I guess my overall reaction is, “What was Jesus thinking?”

I think you're absolutely right about how tough this parable is. It came up in the lectionary on Sunday and it's pretty tempting to choose to gloss over it, to preach on the Exodus text and golden calves and the like. In many ways it calls into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about God’s character. If God is most fully revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then we know God as compassionate, merciful, suffering, healing, embracing. Those aren't the words that spring to mind when we see this "king".

I’m also used to reading parables that differ from the "real world" experiences of similar situations. It would have been the rare Samaritan to show such compassion; few fathers in the ancient Near East would have welcomed back their Prodigal Sons. And yet, here in this parable, the king acts in a way we are familiar with: showing not only anger, but revenge, as you said, and then this problematic ending of an invited guest getting punished for apparently not having the proper attire, possibly because he couldn’t afford it. Where's the compassion for the poor in that?

But I find this parable challenging in a more fundamental way, something that you touched on in your reaction: we all tend toward domesticated visions of God. We do our best to create God in our own image of what and how we want God to be. While I have great distaste for triumphalist theologies that trumpet God's warring ways and power without first deconstructing them in the context of the cross, it’s also tempting to go the other way toward a soteriology of “happily ever after."

What is the meaning of judgment if all are redeemed? What is the purpose of repentance if forgiveness is the end result no matter what? What is the role of sin and grace when we all get our own vision of ninety minutes of heaven, reunited with loved ones, listening to the old hymns we grew up with, hanging out with all the people that we really, really like (and somehow not with any of the people we don't)?

There are touches of this story that remind me of other things that I might want to gloss over, the kinds of things that make parents nervous about teaching their children the stories of faith. Jesus flipped over those tables. He didn’t bring peace, but a sword. And at the center of our faith? There hangs a cross; not a bloodless cross, either. Suffering is part, a crucial part of our story. There is violence at the heart of our redemption; the only necessary violence, I would say, but violence nonetheless.

But let me ask you a question that comes out of your comments: is there a difference between the idea that God's grace welcomes all and is sufficient for all and the idea that all will say "yes" to that grace offered to them, that all will ultimately accept the invitation and take part in the feast? Is there a place for judgment in the grand story of God’s mercy?

As I grew up in our church, you said each Sunday that you prayed we found it a place of welcome and of challenge as we grew together in Christ.  Well, here’s where I wish you’d suspend the “challenge” part of that for a while and do the pastoral thing again.   

I struggle with your statement that violence is at the heart of our redemption.  At the same time, though, I see your point.  The joyful shouts of Easter Sunday can’t muffle the jeers of the crowd, the thud of the hammer, and Jesus’ final cry of abandonment on Good Friday. 

We’re a people of Good Friday as well as Easter Sunday.  We’re swallowed by the whale with Jonah, sinking in the water with Peter, blinded on the road with Saul.  But Easter Sunday does still come; the tomb still is empty.  Jonah prophesies to the people of Nineveh.  Peter becomes the rock, the foundation, for God’s house. Saul receives a new name and joins this revolution we call “church.”

I’m also reminded of a book by Peter Brown called The Cult of the Saints.  It deals with early Christian practices involving devotion to martyrs, which were pretty wild.  Brown talks about how people entered the presence of the martyr’s remains to find healing from supposed demon possession.  It apparently wasn’t a pleasant sight.  People writhed in agony before the reliquary, howling and groveling on the ground. 

But those same people believed that God was deeply at work in those moments of agony.  Through the spirit of the saint, the Christians believed that God was enacting judgment.  But here comes the twist: that judgment took the form of a dialogue.  The people believed that the saint, intermediary between God and human, unyieldingly questioned the person’s spirit until the demon fled.  The result of that judgment, that dialogue, was restoration to the community.

Did those early Christians walk away the same from the divine encounter?  I don’t think so.  Their voices were hoarse from crying out loud to the God who hears all prayers.  They were exhausted from the struggle of wrestling with the God who won’t let go.  They were humbled from the glimpse of the God who lowers the mountains and raises the valleys.

They were broken from that encounter, but blessed.  By sharing that moment of pain with God, they drew closer to God than they could have fathomed.  And through God’s act of mercy, they also drew closer to one another.  God restored individual and community.

So, back to your question: what is judgment if we’re all forgiven anyway?  I think our fifth century sisters and brothers have something to teach us here.  Though we don’t share their ideas about demon possession, we have our own demons: self-absorption, arrogance, greed, anger, indifference, fear.  We too stand before God as broken people.  But maybe they were right.  Maybe God’s judgment takes the form of a conversation throughout our lives.  And it’s not a cozy chat over coffee.

It’s a scorching conversation, one where we have to come to terms with the truth that we continually turn from God.  One where we see that we ought to be the guy in the parable kicked out of the banquet.  But I think we underestimate God’s power if we believe the conversation ends there.  Even in our greatest awareness of our brokenness, we receive the sacrament, and hear these words of hope: “Marthame, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.  This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”  We receive the bread and the wine, realizing that we are already God’s guests at the banquet.

Because the last words of the conversation are words of grace: “I have searched you and known you…Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” 

And God invites us to live as people constantly transformed by that conversation. 

You know, that lone wedding guest continues to disturb me. One theory I’ve heard is that, in the first century context, the proper wedding attire would have been handed out at the entrance. This was a royal wedding, and to enter into the royal courts, you needed to be dressed accordingly. It was the man’s choice not to accept the robe. Instead, he intentionally set out to offend the king and mar the celebration. So, this would imply, there is more to the banquet than just accepting the invitation. We must do so willingly, showing our devotion to the one who invites us. But if the point of the parable is to show the king’s mercy, where the worthy guests have already been replaced with the unworthy, what does this man represent? The idea that grace isn’t cheap?

The banquet doesn’t require our perfection; it requires our presence. In the parable, it is the good and bad alike that are invited to the banquet in the end. Even so, you’re right: judgment tells us that we should be sent into that place of outer darkness. But mercy is sitting right there at the table as well with a stake in the conversation. And, I believe, it is mercy that takes us by the hand. It is grace which leads us out of this parable and into its sequel, one which stands firmly on this side of the cross.

And in this parable of the kingdom, our parable, as we gather for this feast, for this great wedding celebration, we know we may not deserve to be there. As this man is cast out, we worry that we might be next. But then we notice something startling: the one in tattered robes is…the bridegroom. It is the king’s son. The one we celebrate is the one who takes the punishment for us. There is no need for us to be sent away.

The invitation is before us.

God invites us to live into the grace that makes us both guests and servants at the banquet.  No, not all of us—any of us, actually—accept that invitation.  But one day, though, God’s work will be complete in us, and our lives will fully bear witness to the feast we share together.

The table is prepared.  Let us keep the feast. And may it fill us to overflowing.