The Gospel reading is a tough passage to explain. During this week I have read several commentaries to understand this particular text. I receive biweekly Christian Century magazine which also has commentary on the Gospel lesson for today. It states “If you wrestle with this Matthean parable through the night, it’ll leave you limping by morning.” While this teaching occurs as Jesus travels to the cross, we worshippers are still a long way from Holy Week observances. Our minds are on football games, Oktoberfest fun and Halloween costumes. We’re having too much fun to gnash our teeth. But the odd gift of the lectionary is that it does not give us the freedom to avoid difficult scripture, nor does it give us total control over passages that refuse to be tamed by a preacher’s own interpretations. To make things even more challenging, we are presented with Paul’s glorious hymn of praise in Philippians. How do we always “rejoice in the Lord” who casts an invited guest into the outer darkness?1
Let’s see what the words of Jesus in the gospel have to say to us this morning. “The kingdom of heaven is like this” Jesus says. “A king invited his friends and relatives to his son’s wedding feast. The Greek word in this text is not just wedding ceremony, gamous, but wedding feast, epoisen gamous. The wedding feast lasted for several days, probably seven days. Following Eastern custom, the king sent out his servants at the time of the wedding feast to tell the guests that the moment had arrived; they should be in attendance. But to his surprise at the appointed time not many invitees came to attend the party. He shows patience and sends a more pressing invitation. “Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves, are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But, these people made light of it. They turned down his invitation and went off to business as usual. They had made other plans.
1 The Christian Century, October 4, 2011. P.20.
When the King’s first invited guests refused his invitation, he did what many coaches on sports teams will do; he shifted the lineup that was on the field. When a coach believes that the players in the game at any moment have lost their energy or their focus or their desire to win, the coach does not just concede the game to the other team, but is more likely to bench those who were playing and put somebody else in the game instead. God has the authority to bench those who refuse to answer God’s invitation for service. What does the king do? He invites all the neighborhood losers to the party. They come from the local bars and back alleys and boondocks of the city. The house is full, bustling with guests and the king comes to welcome them and to have good time.
The king notices there is one guest who is not wearing the right clothes. The custom was that the king provided a beautiful festal robe, kittel, for each guest to wear. The kittel is a white robe that looks like a bathrobe. It is a garment worn at Passover, too. (Rev. 19: 1, 21:8, Rev. 19:8.) In this way nobody needs to be ashamed of their rags, and nobody had any right to be proud and show off their designer dresses and Gucci shoes on the red carpet. This gentleman pushed his way in without a wedding garment. “I am fine in my tattered blue jeans.” His attitude is, “Who cares.” No doubt this guest thought his own clothes were good enough. But in fact, he stuck out like a sore thumb. When the king noticed him he asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man had no answer to that so he was, therefore, thrown out into “outer darkness, where men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
Now the question is how can we understand this failure of grace in what seems to be an amazingly open party of God? This parable has much to say to us. It reminds us that the invitation of God to follow him is the invitation to a feast as joyous as a wedding feast. It is true that the door is open to people of all conditions, but when they come they must bring with them a willingness to seek a life that responds to the love which has been given to them. Grace is not only a great gift offered to us by God; grace is a grave responsibility. Dietrich Bonheoffer calls grace without responsibility a cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…grace without discipleship, grace without the cross and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Over the centuries sermons have been preached on this parable with the message that only practicing Christians are saved—everybody else is toast. Imagine that an active member in a congregation has just heard that sermon. She has tears in her eyes. She hears the judgment loud and clear. Her son-in-law is a self-proclaimed atheist and her granddaughter is unbaptized at age six. It turns out that she loves a lot of people who are going to hell. How can she be happy in heaven without them? She can’t imagine rejoicing in the Lord under these conditions. She can’t imagine her sweet grandchild in hell.
The grandmother herself has accepted the invitation of Jesus and has put on Christ. Now after sermon she rises up with the rest of the congregation to recite Apostle’s Creed (BCP 120). As she comes to say “he descended into hell” she stops to think what this means. For her at that moment she has her aha moment. It has been always difficult part of creed for her to understand. Now she has an epiphany that before Jesus was raised from the dead, he went to retrieve those who had not heard the gospel through no fault of their own. Jesus went to get those casts into outer darkness and bring them into the kingdom with him. If she was clothed with Christ, she reasoned, she was called to be like him. She got up and said to herself, “She would pass up heaven in order to comfort her grand baby in hell. She would descend into hell as Jesus did. She left church convinced that day if we truly live a transformed life, we can’t stand by and feast while others starve and burn. That just isn’t Jesus way.2
The parable ends with a missional challenge. How are we going to descend into places of hell where people spiritually die from the wages of sin. Where children die of hunger and disease. A world where there is injustice and so much economic disparity because of human greed. The challenge to us is: Will we be partners-in-mission with Jesus to bring the good news? “The wages of sin is
2 Christian Century, October 4, p.20
death, but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). This is the message that has mesmerized the world; “For God so loved the world … that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The call of the Gospel to us is: Will we be Jesus’ missional agent to invite others to God’s party to celebrate. Why?
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia
Resources used and quoted from for this sermon:
Tom Wright. Matthew for Everyone Part Two
Klyne R. Snodgrass. Stories with Intent
Douglas R. A. Hare. Interpretation- Matthew
Michael Green. Matthew Today
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Feasting on the Word, Year A. Vol. 4.
The Christian Century, October 4, 2011