“Invite Everyone You Find”
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Let me just tell you that story again. It’s a strange one – in approximately 17 different ways – and maybe it will help to hear it again.
Jesus is talking to a crowd, including both his disciples and the chief priests and Pharisees, and he’s telling parables. So, maybe it’s helpful to know a little background: In Matthew’s day, Christians were not an entirely different religion than Jews. Jesus was Jewish – he spent time in the temple, he argued with the priests, he knew the religious system. And his disciples were, likewise, Jewish. The earliest Christians were a sect within Judaism – Jewish people who were trying to interpret their religious landscape to include the amazing story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
So when we find Jesus standing around Jerusalem telling parables – stories with some kind of metaphorical point – he’s not just a preacher on the street corner trying to convert some heathens. Jesus is telling these stories within his own religious community, talking to the priests and his friends, telling stories with symbols and metaphors that he can assume everyone listening already knows. So here we are. Jesus is in Jerusalem, telling stories to the Jewish community.
And this is the story he tells:
The Kingdom of Heaven might be compared to a King, who throws a wedding banquet for his son.
(Oh, right – everybody listening would have known that a “wedding banquet” was code for “how it will be in the end times.”)
The banquet was ready, everyone had gotten their invitations, and so the King sent his servants out into the town to tell everyone it was time.
But no one came.
So the King sent out more servants, armed with the delectable details of the party – the meal is ready! The fattened calf has been ceremoniously butchered and prepared – we’re talking some supremely delicious pit bbq, here. Come on! You’re the guests! It’s a party!
But the guests still refused to come – a few went out to the fields to work, others went back to their storefronts, going about business as usual. No one paid attention to the epic party happening down the street at the royal family’s palace. Except, here’s a weird part, other guests grabbed the messenger servants, beat them up, and killed them.
The King was, understandably, angry. Having had his servants killed, he went into retaliation mode and sent even more servants out to kill the people who had killed his people, and then he set the entire city on fire.
(So, pause, because a city on fire would have meant something very particular to all the readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel: Jerusalem was the center of the universe for the Israelites, the place where The Temple had been. In the year 70 A.D., the Roman army had burned Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the temple. That single act of destruction had and continues to have incredible repercussions for Jewish faith and life and politics, but suffice it to say that here, in Matthew’s Gospel, written not too long after that, including an angry King who burnt a city to the ground would have aroused a visceral reaction.)
So, having burned the city, the King said to more of his many servants, “Okay, fine. No one that I invited to the party is coming. What. EVER. There’s still all this food! My son is still getting married! We’re going to party with or without those people. Go out into the roads and the backwaters and the hidden places and invite everyone you find.”
So the servants did that. They brought back all kinds of people – the text says they brought back both good people and evil people. The party went on.
But when the King came into the banquet hall and saw all those people enjoying his son’s wedding banquet, his glance happened to land on this one guy who was dressed a little inappropriately – he had no wedding robe. “Friend,” the King said, which – in Matthew, calling anybody “friend” signals that something big and problematic is about to happen; it’s what Jesus calls Judas at the last supper when he knows Judas is just about to betray him. The King was NOT attempting make nice with this underdressed wedding guest. Instead, he asked him, “Friend, how’d you make it through the door without the right kind of clothes?”
The under dressed man was speechless. He had no response – remember, he’d been found on the side of the road and randomly invited to this spectacular party. And so the King summoned his servants (that guy had a LOT of servants) and commanded them to bind up this guy, throw him out – into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And then the parable ends with a neat and tidy little aphorism: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
First of all, how often have we heard that little aphorism – many are called, but few are chosen – and in how many contexts? How many of us knew that it originated in such a bizarre biblical parable? It sounds like the tagline for some epic superhero blockbuster. It isn’t. It’s the conclusion of an odd little parable from the Gospel of Matthew about a vindictive King.
Second of all, what in the WORLD does this parable MEAN for US?
There are similar versions of this parable in other gospels. Luke tells the story with absolutely no mention of the angry King – just the command to invite unexpected people who can’t repay the generosity to your feasts.
It’s fairly clear what Matthew meant the parable to convey in the world he was writing for. In a muddle of religious identity, where the temple had been destroyed and Jesus’ followers were trying to figure out where they fit within the ensuing mélange of religious practice, Matthew tells this parable for two reasons: first, he wants to remind the religious leaders of the day that they are ignoring an invitation to something BIG (aka Jesus as Messiah). But he’s also reminding his fellow early church-goers that even if they’ve joined this particular religious movement, there are still some pretty steep expectations placed upon them in terms of what following Jesus is going to mean.
Both of those things make sense in Matthew’s context.
But what does this parable mean for US? Our context is not Matthew’s context.
So, what does this parable mean for us? Which character are we supposed to identify with?
Are we Kings, who ought to be inviting more outsiders to our parties?
Are we invited guests who need to learn the etiquette of a proper RSVP?
Are we unwitting bystanders who get lucky when the invited people don’t show up?
Are we inappropriately dressed, clueless about how to celebrate and about to get thrown out on our rear ends?
Are we some of the legions of the King’s servants who are constantly running to and from the palace inviting everyone we find to this big party, whether or not they come?
There is plenty of good news in this parable, weird as it may be.
But what, exactly, that good news might be for us, together, here and now, is not immediately obvious. In situations like this, I become increasingly grateful fall back on Brethren tradition. Borne of a time of religious tumult maybe a little similar to the time of Matthew, our tradition insists that scripture is best interpreted when sisters and brothers gather together and read the Word together.
We don’t appoint any religious authority to interpret scripture for us. We claim to be “non-creedal,” that is, we have no code of beliefs that anyone is required to sign onto before joining us. Instead, what we’ve got is something much more difficult – no creed but the entirety of the New Testament, as interpreted by the gathered body with the aid of the Holy Spirit.
What that means is that no one – no preacher, no district executive, no bishop, no theologian, no professor – no one is going to swoop in and tell us what this parable means. What it means is that we are responsible for reading the text together, for trusting that God’s good news of salvation and freedom is present, for waiting patiently for the Holy Spirit to show up in our midst and reveal herself to us in even these weird old crazy kingdom stories.
And the great part is, we already know all this! I cannot tell you how many people I have heard tell me some version of this surprised story: “You know, when we started all this pastoral transition process and the beginning was those Vital Ministry Journey bible studies, I could not understand why we had to sit around and READ the BIBLE together instead of just getting on with it already and hiring a new pastor! But then my group started to meet and you know what? I LIKED it! We really clicked, and I really enjoyed reading scripture with those people.”
Just this week, I’ve heard several people talk about how they wanted to do more of that kind of thing – reading scripture together in small groups.
Reading scripture, together, is such a simple thing. And it is so, incredibly, mysteriously powerful.
What did you hear in this parable?
Did you hear and feel convicted that we are to invite everyone we find?
Did you hear and realize that you’d been feeling a tug toward celebration here in this place?
Did you hear and sense God calling us to risk our lives for the good news like the servants in the parable did?
The beauty of this gathered body is that all of those hearings are real, and respected. But the challenge of the gathered body is that in order to practice real discernment, we’re required to share our convictions and our hearings with one another. We get to do the hard work of listening to one another, sorting and sifting through our interpretations together, put them up against all the spiritual and institutional and exegetical wisdom we hold collectively, and listen to what – in the midst of all of that – the Spirit is convicting us to be and to do, together.
I do not know what this parable from Matthew means for us. I’ve spent all week trying to figure this parable out – with Jr. High youth, with Pastor Chris in the office, gleaning the insights from Wednesday night bible study, even resorting to Facebook, and I still don’t know what this parable means for us, today.
But I do know this: I LOVE exploring scripture together. I love exploring scripture with YOU. This is how we listen for what God might be calling us to do – we gather around scripture and invite the Holy Spirit to grant us eyes to see and ears to hear.
Maybe – just maybe – all this richness of scripture – the parables and poetry, gospel and grace, family legends and apocalyptic fables – maybe THIS is one kind of banquet, a feast we’re all invited to. Maybe we ought to RSVP our acceptance, and show up when we hear the reminder to join the party. Maybe feasting on the word is a real thing, and maybe we are in danger of missing out.
The food is ready and the table is set. We are all invited. Let’s rejoice in that abundance and feast, together.