October 15, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: We remain in Isaiah, but jump twenty chapters. Here the Lord of Hosts will prepare a banquet for all people. Death will be no more and all tears will be wiped away. The people respond by saying that “this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation.” Matthew’s Gospel follows directly after last week’s. Jesus, still addressing the chief priests and elders, continued to describe the kingdom of heaven. Here a king prepared a feast for his son’s marriage. But many who were invited did not come. The king then sent his servants to bring them to the wedding, but the invited guests mistreated and killed the servants. The furious king then sent troops to kill the guests and burn down their town. Then he instructed his servants to go out and find anyone and invite them. They did and the wedding hall was filled. But the king noticed one of these guests was not dressed in a wedding garment. The king asked him why he wasn’t properly dressed and the man had no answer. The king then demanded that this man be bound hand and foot “and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” Jesus concludes by stating: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Wedding parables fascinate me. I’ve attended countless weddings, presided at dozens, and been the groom at one. Couples on their 50th, or even 60th anniversaries can still tell me about the day they married. They tell good stories and generally have nothing but good memories.

But when I speak with couples preparing for marriage they often speak in great detail about anxiety. They’re not anxious about being married, they’re anxious about getting married. A few years ago I heard the term “marriage industrial complex” and I still laugh about it. But beyond the laughter I find truth in the expectation that the couple are supposed to make this day absolutely, completely, stunningly, epically, perfect for everyone who attends.

And so they (and/or their parents) spend obscene amounts of time, money, and energy ensuring that the wedding day will live on in the lives of everyone they know. They work long hours to make certain the seating chart at the reception is perfect, the food is exceptional, and the best man’s toast makes Shakespeare jealous.

But what about wedding guests who just see this life changing event as just another Saturday afternoon? After all this work do your guests disappoint if they only remember that they should have chosen the chicken over the steak? And what about the invitations that required only that the guest check two boxes and drop the (stamped) invitation in the mail?

Years ago when I prepared couples for marriage many of them expressed frustration over guests who they expected to attend but hadn’t returned that card. Sometimes the couple would call the guest who would say: “Of course I’m coming. Did I really need to return the card?” But others didn’t call and it was assumed they’d show up but they didn’t. That stuck the family with paying for a meal that nobody would eat. They hoped that someone on the waitstaff would benefit and take the meal home, but there was no guarantee.

Clearly we can all identify with people who rudely ignore a generous invitation. But what if the event Jesus described was more than a wedding? We’ve been reading from Matthew for a few weeks and it’s probably time to give some context. All the Gospels describe how Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time, for Passover. This is the journey that will end with Easter, but not before the Last Supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus described the kingdom of heaven because he knows the clock is ticking. And while he appeared to be debating the chief priests and the scribes, I suspect he is really speaking to everyone else, those not fortunate enough or wealthy enough to be a chief priest or elder. And yes, once again Jesus is setting up the rich to show that the poor are closer to God.

It’s not much of a stretch to see the chief priests and elders as those who couldn’t be bothered to attend the wedding of the king’s son. Like many of the rich and powerful today, they probably accepted several invitations only to choose the ones that advanced their wealth and power. They always looked for a better deal and saw no value in keeping their promises; they cared little for the collateral damage their selfish choices created.

And I’m guessing that we all cheered a little when the king then decided against wasting the oxen and fatted calf by expanding guest list: “[G]o to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” The poor will benefit by the arrogance of the rich. The last shall be first.

But this Gospel doesn’t stop here. That would have been too easy. The next event has puzzled me for years: “When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding garment.” The king asked him how he gained entrance without a wedding garment and the man fell silent. Enraged, the king demanded that this man be thrown out into the dark. Jesus concluded by declaring that many are called and few are chosen.

So what’s up with this poor guy who was invited to a wedding when the servants went out looking, only to be humiliated by the king because he wasn’t properly dressed? For years my image of this scene didn’t make the king look good. Was he really justified in throwing this guy out only because he didn’t begin his day by packing his wedding garment in the hopes of being invited at the last minute to a wedding?

Call this a guess, but I suspect most preachers this weekend will ignore this part of the Gospel, and to be fair this is easily done. Several times during the liturgical year we are given a long form and short form of the Gospel. This week the short form of the Gospel excludes the passage where the king ejects the man without the garment.

OK, I can’t do this. I can’t ignore a line from Scripture that doesn’t make sense to me. I have to know. In my research for this Gospel I found an interesting explanation for this. I often look to Bible commentaries to provide some background and the Harper Collins Study Bible normally gives me just the context I need. It suggests that a man invited to a wedding off the street would not be expected to have a wedding garment at hand. Instead, this commentary suggests that this man snuck into the wedding. He was, in a sense, a metaphor of someone who wants to be included but doesn’t want to do it honestly.

Still with me? Virtually all of us who have chosen to follow Jesus and become Christians recognize that discipleship demands that we order our lives in ways that choose humility over power and generosity over greed. We know that we should not aspire to be one of the “chief priests and elders” because they chose to be served instead of choosing to serve.

Instead we should choose to serve others. Jesus tells us that our aspiration to be one of those who were chosen from the crossroads isn’t a reward but pathway. The man who showed up without a wedding garment should not be seen as someone who wasn’t prepared but instead as someone who wasn’t committed. He was thrown out not because he wasn’t dressed right but because he showed up hoping to be treated as a chief priest or elder.

Perhaps he was a member of that first group who didn’t show up and didn’t find a better offer. Or he was someone who aspired to become a chief priest or elder and saw this as a path toward his goal. In any case he was thrown out for his hypocrisy.

I believe he was bound and ejected because he never cared about the bride and groom, or even the king. He was bound and ejected because he didn’t see this wedding as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven but instead he saw this wedding as a way of building himself up, of advancing his own brand.

And he clearly had never listened to Jesus. Today’s Gospel ends with the charge that “many are called but few are chosen.” Last week Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the kingdom of God would be taken from them. Two weeks ago they were told by Jesus that they would be in line behind tax collectors and prostitutes. And three weeks ago Jesus announced that “the last will be first, and the first, last.

Those in power spent these last few weeks not understanding Jesus. They didn’t understand (during Holy Week) that Jesus proclaimed a dramatic new kingdom. Their quest for power blocked their ears. Let us pray it doesn’t block ours.