Scripture can be found here...
I saw an article a few weeks ago intimating that Emma Watson, who is best known for playing Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies, is dating Prince Harry. I am not ashamed to admit, I got pretty excited thinking about this little bit of news. Watson is not only a fine actress, but was also recently appointed the UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador. I listened to her inaugural speech, and I was incredibly impressed. And then… there’s Prince Harry. Through all their ups and downs, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Royal Family. Emma could be just the tonic for them. And if by chance there were to be a royal wedding, maybe I could manage to get up ridiculously early in the morning to watch it live, like I watched the fantasy wedding of Charles and Diana in the summer of 1981.
Sadly, royal weddings don’t always turn out as we would hope them to. And that thing about Emma and Harry? Only a rumor. But I have to admit, the story Jesus tells today takes the royal wedding to new levels. This is just awful. There is a preaching guru whose work I love, and who I regularly turn to for inspiration and help when a passage is particularly difficult; he writes regular, encouraging epistles to people like me that begin, “Dear Partner in Preaching.” His article on this passage? It’s called “Preaching an Ugly Parable.”[i] Not one preacher I know, who is preaching this parable today, is happy about it.
We have a king, and he invites many guests to his son’s wedding. In the ancient world, a wedding was a two-part affair: first, you had the betrothal, the signing of the paperwork between families smoothing out all the details—dowry, etc. Then you had the bride being brought to her husband’s home, where they would establish their new family together. This was the part that was celebrated with a great feast.
And if it were a feast given by a king… well, you can just imagine that this would be the most desirable ticket in town. The invited wedding guests are most likely Very Important People. Imagine if you were one of those VIP’s. Imagine—Emma and Harry invite you to their wedding banquet. You, in Buckingham Palace! It would be quite the deal.
So, the king sends out his slaves to remind all the guests that, today’s the day! Come to the feast.
Inexplicably, irrationally, almost impossibly… the invited guests don’t come.
But the king is undeterred. He wants the guests to come to the feast! So he sends his slaves again. And again, the invited guests turn down the invitation. They say things like, “I really need to go get my car washed.” Or, “Gee, I think I need to get an early start on my taxes.” Their excuses are pathetic. Insulting, really. Their level of disrespect for the king is astonishing.
This is an inexplicable rejection of the invitation of a very important person, to experience what would surely be his lavish hospitality and generosity. This alone would be bad enough. But to top it off, some of the invited guests actually torture and kill the slaves who have been sent to remind them of the party to which they’ve been invited.
So the king retaliates—you know, like kings do. No sooner are the pictures of the people who have been killed on TV and the Internet than the bombing raids are dispatched, and not only are the killers killed, but their entire town is destroyed. Burned to the ground.
The same as it ever was.
But this is a parable, from Jesus the storyteller, so… we are going to be like those proverbial kids on Christmas morning, digging through the proverbial pile of manure, confident there is a proverbial pony in here somewhere.
The king decides to send more slaves, this time, to bring in people off the streets. Everyone is invited—the good, the bad, without distinction. The bag lady, the church lady, the guy selling fish and chips from a cart, the gang member, the insurance representative, the streetwalker. No VIP’s here. The regular people.
This is where the parable, for a few moments, starts to sound like Jesus. “People will come from east and west and north and south to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Yes. Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome.
It’s all going so well, all of a sudden. Is this it? Have we found our pony?
Then we begin to wonder… was Jesus having an off day? Was he really ticked at someone? It gets very, very dark. Suddenly, one of these just-invited-people-off-the-streets catches the attention of the king, and not in a good way.
“YOU. Hey, YOU!” The king addresses the guy. In the gospel of Matthew, when someone calls someone, “friend,” it’s not actually friendly. It’s more like, “buster,” or “pal,” said in a slightly menacing way. “Hey, pal, how did YOU get in here, wearing THAT? Where is your wedding robe?” And before he can say, hey, I was just selling fish and chips… be is hogtied, and ejected, and thrown somewhere where it is very, very dark, and very, very sad, painful, and full of weeping and moaning.
WHERE is our pony? By which, of course, I mean, where is our blessing? It’s got to be here somewhere.
When in doubt—or when backed into a dreadful corner—it always helps to look at the context. And what we find, if we go back and have a look at the previous chapter, is informative. Jesus IS ticked off at someone. It turns out, we have wandered right into the middle of a pretty awful family feud. All through chapter 21, Jesus is having run-ins with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders of the people, the Pharisees—in other words, all the religious elites. The beginning of the chapter tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, in which the people are hailing him as the son of David, the Messiah. Jesus then goes into the Temple, where he turns over the tables of the moneylenders. And it’s all downhill from there. The religious authorities challenge his authority. And then… Jesus starts telling parable after parable, and they are all parables with targets.
The targets are those who are getting it wrong. The targets are those who have turned religious faith and practice into a contest with impossible demands and innocent victims. Jesus says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). Matthew tells us, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (Matt. 21:45-46).
Then, Jesus tells this parable. “Try comparing the kingdom of heaven to this,” he starts out.
We have a king, and he invites many guests to his son’s wedding.
The king in the parable, in fact, looks a lot like King Herod, who was known to “invite” people, and then to force them to attend. People didn’t necessarily want to go to Herod’s parties. He threw the kind of parties where people ended up beheaded… as you may recall in the sad tale of John the Baptist.
The invited guests don’t come. In fact, the Greek says, “They were not willing to come.” [ii] Which, once we understand the allusion, and who exactly is in Jesus’ sites, is completely understandable. That they kill the messengers may be signs that a rebellion is brewing. One scholar says, flatly, “This is a people who do not desire their king’s lordship.”[iii]
The king retaliates, as the kings of this world always do. He lashes out with violence that punishes guilty and innocent alike.
Then he sends his slaves to invite the regular people. And once we realize the real nature of this king, we start to wonder: is it generosity that prompts this commandeering of guests, or is it a desire not to be embarrassed by an empty banqueting hall? Of course, many of those invited are hungry enough for a decent meal that they show up.
And then… the king sees someone who is not properly dressed.
You know the rest. The seeming generosity of the wedding banquet has cruel and arbitrary requirements attached.
Some have described the kingdom of heaven this way, Jesus is saying. Some have described it as having a violent, angry king, who says, in essence, “Accept my generous gift of grace, because I love you so much—and if you don’t I will throw you into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus is mirroring back to the religious authorities the vision of God’s reign they are offering God’s people. It’s ugly, and Jesus is having none of it.
What Jesus is having… and what you and I are offered… is an invitation to the table. And what Jesus is banking on is that the experience of God’s welcome table will change us—deepen us, soften us, open us to an encounter with the living God. The kingdom of heaven is like a feast—that, at least, is true. A splendid feast which we do not prepare ourselves, but which we are served, and to which all are invited and all are welcome, and where we do NOT have to worry about proper attire. In our baptism we have put on Christ. That is attire enough for us. We are enough. We are welcome. This is our pony. This is our blessing: Grace, love, welcome—this is all God’s doing, not ours. And Jesus has strong words for anyone who tells us otherwise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] David J. Lose, President of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia; “Pentecost 18 A: Preaching an Ugly Parable,” October 6, 2014. http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/pentecost-18-a-preaching-an-ugly-parable/.
[ii] D. Mark Davis, “The Kingdom of the Heavens vs. the Kingdom of a Human King,” Left Behind and Loving It Blog, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html.