Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 12, 2014; 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

“Then [the king] 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 to the wedding banquet.’”
Matthew 22:8-9

It may have been the romantic wedding of the year. September 27th: George Clooney — the Hollywood heartthrob, the man who used to describe himself as “not the settling-down type” — married Amal Alamuddin, a glamorous international human-rights lawyer. And what place, in all the world, did this uber-glamor couple choose for the location of their ceremony? Why, Venice, of course — Venezia — one of the most romantic cities on earth. Canals, gondolas, art treasures, Renaissance architecture.

Movie stars and supermodels arrived for the ceremony in private motorboats. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cindy Crawford, Bono. The boat carrying the bridal couple was named “Amore.” Music was provided by Andrea Bocelli.

It made the cover of People magazine, of course.

This three-day wedding-palooza cost over a million-and-a-half dollars. But the bride’s family didn’t foot the bill. The groom paid for it all himself, dipping into his deeply-padded bank account.

For those who live to bask in the glow of celebrity, the hundred-or-so invitations to the Clooney-Alamuddin nuptials had to be among the most coveted in all the world.

Could you imagine if George and Amal had sent out those invitations, but every single guest replied “RSVP: Regrets”? Why, it’s inconceivable!

Yet, that’s exactly what happens in the parable Jesus tells.

This is no Hollywood wedding, but a royal wedding. The king has arranged the feast for his beloved son and his bride.

As is always the case with royal weddings, only the best class of people are invited — people of wealth and high social status.

The king issues the invitations in a two-step process that was common practice in Jesus’ time. First, the host settles on the day of the wedding and sends out a sort of “hold the date” notice. On the day of the ceremony, preparations for the elaborate wedding banquet start bright and early. Hours later, after the “oxen” and the “fat calves” have been slaughtered and roasted, after the amphorae (or clay jugs) of wine have been positioned around the hall, the host sends out a second invitation: “The tables are prepared; come to the feast!”

Everybody, it seems, has got an excuse. They aren’t particularly good excuses. “One went to his farm, another to his business,” as Matthew describes it. It’s like responding to the George Clooney invitation by saying, “Sorry, George, I gotta work.”

Yeah, right. Matt Damon, Cindy Crawford, Bono — mega-rich celebrities like these don’t “have to work.” They make their own hours.

The same was true of a royal wedding in Jesus’ time. There was no more important place for members of the upper class to be than at the wedding of the king’s son. But not for these characters. What’s going on?

There’s a hint in Jesus’ description of what happens next. They kill the messenger. They “seized [the king’s] slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

This has gone way beyond the biggest social faux pas of the century. These noble guests refuse to attend because they’re in open rebellion. They’ve planned their insurrection for the day when they imagine the king will be least prepared: the day of his son’s wedding.

But not this king. He hasn’t given the palace guard the day off. Their swords are sharpened, their quivers full of arrows. He dispatches his soldiers to the homes of the rebels, where they extort a terrible price. The stone floors of those noble houses run red with blood.

Now, here’s a strange detail. Matthew says the troops “destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” What’s strange about it is that there wouldn’t have been time, in the few hours remaining after the banquet tables had been set, for such an extensive military operation.

Whether the detail about the burning city comes from Jesus’ original oral version of the parable, or whether Matthew inserted it in the written version, Matthew’s first readers — the members of his own Christian community — could only have understood it as meaning one thing.

We know Matthew was writing about the time of a brutal war between the Roman empire and Jewish insurrectionists. In the year 70, that war culminated in the burning of the entire city of Jerusalem and mass genocide of a scale never before seen. Imperial Roman engineers — the best in the world — tore the Temple apart stone by stone. Somehow, they even moved the massive foundational stones. Some of those stones weighed more than 500 tons; we still don’t know the technology the Roman sappers used to move them.

As for the golden treasures of the Temple, the accumulation of centuries of offerings presented by a penitent people, they were hauled off to Rome as booty. The Holy of Holies at the center of the Temple — the sacred space no one but the high priest was allowed to enter, and then only once a year — was desecrated in the most foul fashion. In that dreadful year, more than a millennium of sacrifices, psalm-singing and worship suddenly came to an end. The destruction was permanent. Never again would the Jews have a Temple in which to worship. The Romans left only one wall of the lower course of the Temple in place, as a reminder of the cost of challenging Caesar. It’s known as the Wailing Wall to this day.

The fact that this detail — destroying the murderers and burning their city — breaks up the narrative timeline of the simple parable of a wedding banquet, combined with the world-changing historical event Matthew’s readers had just witnessed, makes it pretty clear that Matthew inserted it into Jesus’ original story.

Those people were devastated, to say the least. Imagine the residents of London, crawling out of their bomb shelters after the blitz, some of them no longer able even to find their homes, because all landmarks had been reduced to rubble. Or, imagine the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, looking around 360 degrees and seeing hardly a building still standing. Imagine these things, and you begin to get the idea of the holocaust Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community had just been through, at the hands of the Romans.

So, what hope does he offer them, in bringing them Jesus’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet, with his own unique plot twist?

The hope is in what comes next. The king instructs his servants:

“Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Matthew’s telling those bedraggled, demoralized survivors — some of them still picking through the rubble of Jerusalem — that there’s a wedding feast in their future. A wedding feast! That happy celebration of the stability of society, the bright promise that one generation will succeed the next, will be fruitful and multiply, will build a better world.

These last-minute guests are not people who in any sense deserve such a feast. They’re not glittering celebrities in designer gowns and pearl earrings. They’re ordinary folk — “both good and bad,” Matthew tells us.

That’s significant — because this banquet is all about grace. The first group of invited guests proved their unworthiness. When it comes to filling the hall with the second group, the B-list guests, the king no longer cares how these people fit into the social hierarchy. He doesn’t care if some of them are riff-raff. It’s all about offering a feast to people who’d feared they would never feast again — who will come willingly but hesitantly, fearing they may suddenly wake up and find they’ve been dreaming.

Now, there’s one other strange detail in this story. Once the guests have been seated, it turns out that one of them stands out from the rest. He’s not wearing a wedding garment. Furious at this breach of etiquette, the king casts him into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the face of it, this sounds terribly unfair. If this guy’s been recruited out of the streets, at the last minute, how can he be expected to have the correct wardrobe? Why, it sounds like recruiting a homeless person off the streets to come to a soup kitchen, then turning him away at the door because he’s not wearing a tuxedo!

This is one of those times, interpreting the Bible, when there’s a significant gap between social practices of the first century and those of the twenty-first. The wedding garment in question is no expensive formal attire. It’s a simple white tunic. Why, it’s very likely the king has a supply of these on hand, for the wedding guests to use. This guy’s problem is not that he doesn’t own the right tunic, it’s that he’s refused to join his fellow-guests in putting on the attire his host had provided him.

Because of that big difference in social customs, maybe we shouldn’t think clothing at all. Maybe we should think, instead, of those little placecards that are arrayed on tables outside the doors of the banquet hall. You know the drill. All the guests are expected to pick up one of these, find their table number and go there — awaiting the announcement of the bridal party, the first dance, the invocation and all the rest.

But what if one of the guests picked up his placecard, looked at the table number, shrugged, and dropped the placecard to the floor? What if he made his way not to his assigned place, but to the head table, demanding that the caterer’s serving-people bring him a cheeseburger and a pitcher of beer?

This is the sort of affront the man without a wedding garment is perpetrating. He has no interest in celebrating, along with the king, the wedding of the royal prince. He just wants to crash the party, to feed his own selfish desires. It would be no wonder if the two biggest, burliest groomsmen would go walking up behind the guy, pick him up by the elbows, and toss him right out the door!

The point is, the king has graciously issued the invitation to a whole lot of people who’ve never had any reason to expect they’d ever be sitting at a royal wedding. All the king demands, in return, is that they accept his invitation with humility and gratitude, and join in the celebration.

It’s a parable, in other words, about grace — and the people who decline to accept such a graceful invitation. All they have to do is show up, ready to enter into the spirit of the occasion. But they don’t. These rebels refuse the invitation. All of them make excuses. So, their places will be filled by others.

What these ungrateful invitees have failed to do is to be present in the moment. Their host says “Now is the time for the feast,” but they say, “No it isn’t. I’ve got a field to plow. I’ve got to count inventory down at my market-stall. I’ll come someday when I’m good and ready — don’t worry. Just not now. Just not today.”

Here’s where the old “Quaker questions” come in handy, as a guide for spiritual discernment. Maybe you’d heard of them before, maybe you haven’t. William Penn used to recommend them to his people, in times when great spiritual decisions had to be made. Here’s how they go:

If not me, who?
If not now, when?

If there’s one failing those ungrateful wedding invitees demonstrate in spades, it’s their stubborn unwillingness to live in the now. Their host has invited them to come celebrate, and there’s nothing they’re required to do but show up, entering into the spirit of the occasion.

But these people can’t live in the now. When it comes to their life of faith, it’s all postponed till the future: “Someday I’ll be a faithful, involved member of the congregation. Someday I’ll help advise the youth group or teach Sunday School or volunteer with Interfaith Hospitality Network. Hey, that’s an impressive Volunteer Village you’ve got over there. I’ve always liked to picture myself joining a cooking team and helping prepare a welcome meal. But not today; I’ve got too much to do. What’s that — you say stewardship season will soon be upon us? You know, I really like the idea of becoming a generous giver… someday. It’s just a little hard right now. Yes, I know I’ve been saying the same thing every year for the past 20 years, but I’m still not ready to try out that sacrificial giving thing. Someday my ship will come in, and you can count on me then, for sure.”

More importantly than any of these churchy activities, though, is the simple act of being spiritually present to God, truly offering ourselves in response to Christ’s invitation to come follow him, as disciples. For many of us, the active practice of faith — through prayer and contemplation, through study of the scriptures and through service to others — is something we’ve long had on the old to-do list. For many — even most — of us, prayer is a lot like exercise: the thing we take such pride in doing, in our heads — in the form of good intentions — but we just don’t log a whole lot of trips to the gym. Instead, we put it off into the future: “Someday, for sure.”

Yet, what if someday is today? What if the whisper you think you heard is really the voice of God? What if the fatted calf has been slain and roasted, the wine of celebration has been set out, and our host is eager to embrace us at the door and say, “You came — I’m so glad!”

There’s an old story about Martin Luther — one of those anecdotes recorded by his students and published in a famous book called Table Talk. One day, at the dinner table, Luther was watching his dog — who was sitting there, as dogs have a way of doing, just staring at him, motionless, hoping for a morsel of food. (Any of you have dogs? We do. And believe me, I’m very familiar with that look!)

Well, Luther observed this common sight, in his own dining room, with several of his students sitting around the table, and had this to say:

Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.

That’s what the host at the banquet — Jesus Christ — is looking for from us, my friends: our expectant, undivided attention. There’s nothing we have to bring to the wedding feast. Our hands are empty. All he wants us to do is to bring ourselves, undeserving as we are. Today — right now — is the party. And we are all invited!

Let us pray.

Here I am, Lord Jesus:
your invitation is in my hand.
I turn it over and over,
I examine it from every side, from every angle.
I look at the creamy paper,
the elegant script.
I marvel that my name is upon it.
I want to say yes.
I really do.
Help me decide how to respond —
in the now.