Dressed for Church
© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 9, 2011
There is a version of this banquet story in Luke’s gospel, and it is more often read for preaching than Matthew’s edition for some reasons that become obvious if you just read them both.
• In Matthew, the king’s gracious invitation to a banquet is received by a unique method of making a response: the invited guests seized the messengers who sought their RSVP to the king’s invitation and killed them. Perhaps they didn’t like the menu – perhaps they’d already had too much rare beef!
• Luke has no killing of the messengers in his version.
• In Matthew, an enraged king sends troops upon the offending townspeople and has their city burned to the ground.
• In Luke, the offended king merely tells his messengers to go invite someone else.
• Matthew also has messengers inviting the rabble of the street to the great banquet, but unlike the story in Luke, the king in Matthew’s version seizes someone who was brought from the street into the wedding feast and dresses him down (!) for sporting improper attire.
• Luke’s main point is that the gracious invitation of God is extended to everyone, regardless of merit.
• Matthew’s point, it appears, is anybody’s guess.
So what should we do? Read only Luke’s version of Jesus’ parable and pretend that Matthew was silent on the subject? Throw away Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story? I think, if we are willing to read with imagination, we can discover additional gospel truths in the version Matthew provides us, and, in the end, there is good news.
First of all, remember parables are stories, not descriptions of historic events. This is a story meant to teach. Additionally, it is an allegory, in which the characters and situations are meant to represent things: the king is meant to be understood as a stand-in for God, the son as Jesus, the wedding banquet as the kingdom of heaven, and so forth. You can probably figure out the rest just by giving it a little thought.
Both Matthew and Luke bring us the first main point of the story. The first people invited to the banquet refused the invitation, so then the king threw open the doors and invited everyone, “both good and bad” to come in and have a seat at the table. This reminds us of something we already know about our faith, which is that God’s grace is available to all, regardless of merit, that the son in whose name the banquet is offered has come to save the whole world and everyone in it. Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself” expresses this truth about the gospel and this story:
“This is the meal pleasantly set...
this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked the same as the righteous...
I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited...
the heavy-lipped slave is invited...
the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”
For Luke, the story ends there. The grace of God is extended to all sinners equally, “both good and bad” have been invited. Here is how Frederick Buechner sees the scene:
“...the champagne glasses are filled, the cold pheasant is passed around, and there they sit by candlelight with their white canes and their empty sleeves, their Youngstown haircuts, their orthopedic shoes, their sleazy clothes, their aluminum walkers. A woman with a hairlip proposes a toast. An old man with the face of [King] Lear on the heath and a party hat does his best to rise to his feet. A deaf mute thinks people are starting to go home and pushes back from the table...”
In other words, when it comes to inviting every sinner to the banquet, we are likely to be surprised at the cast of characters who will be there in response to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation. But Matthew takes us further into the life of the church as we know it and have experienced it. Matthew looks around his church, filled with forgiven sinners, and wonders how people, so graced and embraced by God, can then come to do the will of God so reluctantly, so grudgingly. Beyond calling people into “the banquet” – the church – as both Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of the parable do, what should happen next, how, then, shall we live? This is where the additional parts of Matthew’s version come to life.
Matthew knew how easily the free and forgiving nature of God’s grace can slide into permissiveness. Once we have received the invitation to salvation which Jesus offers, there is always a temptation to think that we have done everything we can do. Some people think that religious faith is a matter of affirming a certain set of beliefs. Matthew knows that beliefs which do not lead to changed lives are dead in the water. This is the gospel equivalent of the letter of James, which declares that faith without good works is dead faith, as good as no faith at all, or even worse. At least an unrepentant sinner has his faithlessness to offer as a reason for failure to respond to the graciousness of God, he needs to offer no excuses for his bad behavior: he never claimed a religious transformation of his life in the first place. But for believers, the transforming power of the gospel should result in changed lives, or else how will the world see the good news lived out in life?
I once heard about a female seminary student who received an assignment in a theology class to write a paper on the topic of “shame.” Inexplicably, she found the paper was too difficult to write. Personal feelings were getting in the way. One of her professors, with exceptional insight, discovered in talking with her that during the year she had been working in a church with a very charismatic pastor who also abused her sexually. It was difficult for her to write objectively about a subject which was so much a part of her present experience. There isn’t much that holds any church together apart from trust, from a shared commitment to make every effort to live by what we say, to back up what we profess to believe with behavior that seeks to match. That shared trust also presumes that when our lives fall short of our faith, we will confess our shortcomings, seek forgiveness and move on. The effort to match up our lives to our calling should always move us forward. So here, in this woman’s experience, at the center of the trust which a church needs to exist, was someone who violated trust and expected permissive grace to let him off the hook.
I’m not sure that Matthew’s gospel story is declaring that that pastor will burn in hell, but I can’t believe the love of Jesus is so permissive as to say this doesn’t matter. Someone, somewhere must turn to that pastor at the banquet and say, “What? You are in here with no wedding garment of righteousness? Get out!” That charismatic pastor had mistaken Jesus’ acceptance of all people, good or bad, as also condoning all behavior.
The parable is not meant to empower us to sit in judgment on others we deem unworthy to remain at the banquet, but rather to serve as a goad to us to examine our own worthiness, or lack of it. It is not meant to depress us with a reminder that we have fallen short, a fact of which any honest person is only too well aware, but to encourage us to press forward to ever fuller acts of faithfulness. Justification (the free grace involved in being admitted to the feast) is the first step of faith, the step that God takes toward us. The next step is up to us, and it is the process of sanctification, the goal being to aim at a life which is holy as a response to the holiness which has been given us.
When we’re getting dressed for church – in the spirit of this parable – we need to do more than put on our coats and ties, our shirts and slacks, our shoes and stockings, our skirts and dresses. We also need a special wardrobe, a garment that fits us for discipleship in the kingdom, one that Paul described in Ephesians when he counseled believers to prepare a new wardrobe for kingdom living:
Put on the whole armor of God...so that you may be able to...stand firm. Stand firm, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these take the shield of faith...Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved