Tens of millions of people sat glued to their televisions on April 29, 2011 to watch the wedding of the decade. This was the day that Prince William and Kate Middleton were married. (Ok, just a moment of honesty here…who remembers watching it? Yeah, I thought so. I did too…I’m not particularly proud of that, but it’s true!) There were, of course some people who didn’t need to watch it on television, because they had received one of the 1,900 invitations to be a wedding guest. The crowd assembled in Westminster Abby that morning was comprised of the rich, the famous, the powerful and of course, other royalty. One person who attended said in an interview: “Of course we came. It’s unthinkable to consider receiving an invitation like this, and turning it down!”
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable of a wedding that apparently blows Prince Williams and Kate’s party out of the water. And it’s a story of some intrigue: It involves a king, the wedding of his son, invitations refused, revenge, an expanded guest list, and inappropriate wedding attire.
Jesus tells this parable from the steps of the temple. It is one of a series of parables that Jesus shares. To understand this story, you must understand the context: Jesus is in a confrontation with the Chief Priests and the religious leaders over issues of authority. They are challenging Jesus, and the things that he is saying. The leaders make an accusation, and Jesus responds with a parable that disarms them. With each parable, the religious leader’s anger grows. And the angrier they get, the more intensely Jesus challenges and shames them. Their argument is a religious smack-down.
As we read this parable and we try to figure out what it means for us, it is necessary for us to keep this confrontation in the back of our minds.
It is a difficult parable to interpret. Jesus identifies the king in the parable as “The Kingdom of Heaven,” which is Matthew’s euphemism for God. The king in this parable, however, is not only a kind and benevolent King. There’s another side to him. He violently reacts to people who decline his invitation to the wedding banquet. In fact, they are all killed. The king then invites everyone, both good and bad to his wedding banquet. The story ends with the king discovering a guest who is not wearing a proper wedding garment, and so he orders the guest thrown out into the darkness. And the King’s final words are both unsettling and puzzling, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The king’s reaction to the declined wedding invitations seems extreme to us; and it is. But again, we must consider Jesus’ context, and his audience. This parable was being told in the Middle East. 2,000 years ago, this was a society that was built around ideas of honor, dignity and respect. Saying “No,” to an invitation like this would be an insult to the host; it would bring shame and according to ancient middle-eastern codes of behavior, would force the king to act to reclaim his honor. In this parable, Jesus is telling the Chief Priests and religious leaders that they have insulted and shamed God because of the way they have perverted God’s teaching, and because they rejected Jesus as Messiah.
Now, in a way, we are overhearing a conversation that wasn’t intended for us. But still, there are truths we can learn and elements of this story that we can apply to our lives.
First, Jesus’ parable begins with a party. The king is celebrating the wedding of his son. Jesus is drawing a metaphor here, an image of heaven. Heaven is more than the clichés of pearly gates, golden roads and harps. Heaven is fully knowing…fully understanding…and fully being in relationship with God, in a way that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because of that, it is a celebration. Jesus is promising that we look forward to an eternal celebration of life and grace when we leave this world for the next. But Jesus also reminds us that we are invited to celebrate life and grace, now.
Over and over again, the Scriptures exhort the people to celebrate. Our second lesson today from Philippians reminds us to “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” We are to worship God, and to give praise and thanks for the gifts of love, grace. Every day we receive these gifts, and every day we can live in celebration and gratitude.
Second, when the king’s invitation to the celebration is refused by some, the king expands the invitation to everyone both good and bad. No one needs to be excluded from a life of gratitude and celebration. God invites us: saints and sinners all. Paul writes in his letter to Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This invitation is for all of God’s people.
Third, the King’s subjects in the parable, (and us, in real life) have power to choose how to respond to this invitation. The king cannot force anyone to his wedding banquet. Humankind however, clearly has the power to refuse this invitation.
I read this parable and I reflect on the many times that I refuse God’s invitations to celebrate and live my life in gratitude. Perhaps you might be a little like me.
- There are those times when it feels like my world is coming apart. I can be overwhelmed with worry and concern. God whispers in my ear, “Todd…trust. Have faith. I’ve got this.” God invites me to let go of my anxiety and to replace it with peace, joy and celebration. So often I resist this invitation.
- Occasionally, I get caught up in time. There doesn’t seem to be enough of it. I feel driven by time. My phone beeps reminders, and I’m off to the next thing. I’m always in a rush. I can be destination orientated, not paying enough attention to the journey but too focused on just getting to the next point as quickly as possib God comes, at these hectic moments, and invites me to slow down and celebrate life. God reminds me that even Jesus separated himself from the crowd and went away to rest and to pray. Usually I’m moving too fast and can’t put on the brakes hard enough to accept his invitation.
- Sometimes, when I’m hurt and offended, I’m tempted to hold grudges, withhold my forgiveness, and limit my love. Again, God comes to me and invites me to let go, forgive, and celebrate God’s gifts of love, forgiveness and grace.
- And occasionally, God invites us to step out of our comfort zone, and to step in to something new. To do this takes a level of trust and courage that sometimes can be hard to muster.
My friend…our friend… Pastor Dean Smith…has been given such an invitation. And I must be honest, there is a part of me that wishes he’d said “God, I’m going to take a pass on this one.” But Pastor Dean is faithful. And he, and his family, are both courageous and bold. And I’m going to miss them all.
Who else is going to reprogram the screen on my phone with random, odd names and titles.
Who else is going to wallpaper my office with memes.
Who else is going to hide on my shelves some of the more “unusual” items brought in for the youth garage sale fundraiser. (By the way, just because Dean is leaving doesn’t mean I’m looking for anyone in particular to take on this role. Just sayin’.)
I am going to miss Dean. I’m going to miss walking into his office to bounce an idea off him. I’m going to miss his sense of humor. I’m going to miss conversations about the Twins, or the new Star Wars trailer…I’m going to miss him.
But I respect his willingness to listen to God’s invitation, and to step into something new. I love his desire to serve, and his belief that when you mix young people, a mission and service, you can change the world.
I love and admire, the example he sets, in his willingness to follow God, even to Johnson City, Tennessee. And so, in a couple of weeks, with prayer and blessing, we will send him to answer God’s invitation, and we’ll watch with great anticipation, what God is going to do through the Smith family next. And that, we can celebrate!
You see, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is more than merely coming to church. Discipleship involves saying, “Yes,” to God’s ongoing invitation; it involves following Jesus; and it is responding to God’s love and grace with a life of gratitude, service and celebration.
The king in the parable may have responded aggressively to his subjects who sought to insult him, because that’s the only kind of example that the religious leaders Jesus was confronting would understand.
But, the King of kings and Lord of Lords acts graciously toward us. Every single day, God invites us to the feast and to welcomes us to a life of celebration, love and service. Every single day, we receive this invitation.
Every single day, we have the chance to love, to serve, and to celebrate what God is doing.
Every single day: We receive.
Every single day: We respond.
Every single day: We follow.
Every single day: We celebrate.
May our response be one that honors God, and fully claims the invitation and the place that God has set for us at the banquet table. May we follow. May we celebrate.
Thanks be to God!