This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Transformation Invitation.


Matthew 22.1-14.

I.
Jesus is teaching in the Temple during the last few days of his earthly life, and his parables are getting more and more severe.  He is apparently deliberately inciting the anger of the religious and political authorities.  And his critique will get even more pointed and explicit in the coming couple of chapters. 
This parable is about a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son.  Those who were originally invited refuse to attend.  The king sends out his slaves to personally invite them a second time, this time providing details of the spectacular menu for the banquet.  But the original invitees are too busy.  Some of them even abuse and kill the messengers!
What is going on here?  The king is God, and his son is Jesus.  But who are the originally invited?  Why do they not want to come to a great banquet?  Why would they be so annoyed at the king that they go so far as to commit murder?
The subtext of what Jesus is saying has to do with the leaders of his own people.  These are the folks who knew themselves to be the chosen people.  If God was ever going to have a banquet, they knew that they would top the guest list. 
In our context, who is most likely to assume they are God’s closest friends?  Who proclaims most loudly that they are the tightest with God and that they will be translated directly into heaven when the “rapture” comes?  Who seem to automatically believe that in any coming heavenly banquet with God’s Son, they will be the first invited?  Well, I’m afraid it is usually different kinds of Christians who make these assumptions today... even some Presbyterians!
And there is some justification for this assumption.  Like the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day, many Christians pride themselves on being good people.  They go to church regularly and frequently, supporting it with their time, talents, and money.  They lead the respectable, upright, exemplary lives.  They are the acknowledged leaders of the community.  They are successful at work and at home, with stable, beautiful, decent families.  They have investment portfolios, they own their own homes, they have life insurance, and they can afford the occasional vacation.  They don’t make political trouble, usually supporting the ruling parties.  And they are often very patriotic, even to the point of equating their religion and their nation.
Why then, when the invitation finally comes to the event for which they have been waiting all their lives, do they refuse it?  Why do they not flock in pride and gratitude to the king’s palace?  Why do they not drop everything and do whatever they can to get to the king’s banquet?  Why are they apparently so angry with the king and the king’s son, that they do not show up at the banquet?

II.
We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t say in the parable why the invited folks don’t want to attend.  Maybe they were upset with the person who is not mentioned in the parable at all, which is the bride.  Maybe they did not like the woman the prince had chosen to marry.  Maybe he had chosen someone not like them, but someone of a lower class, someone they considered a sinner, someone not up to their standards.  Maybe this choice, or something else, revealed the king to be different from what they wanted and expected.  We don’t know.
But we do know that this is one of the main things people complained about with Jesus.  He was hanging around with the wrong people.  He was associating with sinners.  He was forgiving them.  He was not exhibiting a loyalty to the establishment, their State, their economy, their morality, their values, or their preferred status.  Maybe they felt that since the king and his son had shown such disloyalty to them, they could reciprocate with their own show of disloyalty.  
But we do know the excuse they gave: work.  They have farms and businesses to attend to.  They have more important things to do than attend this banquet.  They do not have the time for a king who doesn’t support them and their view of things.  The king had become less and less of a priority.  It gets so that anything takes precedence over the king.  I can’t come to the banquet because my kid has soccer practice, or I don’t want to miss House on TV, or I have to wash my hair.... 
And they also express their disgust and disappointment with the king by abusing and even killing his slaves who have been sent to invite them to the feast.
These slaves, of course, represent the prophets whom God sent to call the people back to God and to God’s Law; and who were often rejected by the leaders of the people.
Neither do we have much regard for the prophets sent to us.  We’ve seen a few killed, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others.  But mainly we marginalize and trivialize them.  At most we will honor them and their memories... while carefully avoiding putting into practice anything they talked about.
The king’s response to this rejection is rather violent.  Jesus says that “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”  Clearly this looks ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem, about 40 years after Jesus speaks those words. 
But this shows us a side of God that we would usually prefer to leave out of our New Testament.  In Jesus Christ we know that our God is not a God of death and punishment and destruction....  But... let us never forget that it remains possible to reject God and to cut ourselves off from God and thereby to draw down upon ourselves definite consequences.  God does not suspend the laws of nature — including the laws of political and economic nature — to suit us.  God is love.  But to separate yourself from that love is to attract back from the world what you send into the world.  If you do acts of idolatry and injustice, violence and exploitation, destruction and murder, then that is what you will receive.  If you live by the sword, Jesus says elsewhere, you will die by the sword.

III.
When it is rejected, God’s love can turn into an annihilating wrath that consumes everything before it.  This is what happens to the people in the parable who refused to celebrate the wedding with the king, who were too busy, who abused and killed the king’s servants. 
It happened literally 40 years later.  And it happens over and over again in history as generation after generation reject the commandments of the God of love, and choose to live instead in hate, fear, anger, violence, injustice, and corruption.  Empire after empire, regime after regime, system after system, kingdoms and republics, dictatorships and democracies... they all fall, they all collapse.  They all flourish briefly, sucking whatever energy they can out of people and the earth, and then crumble into dust and fire.  And if Jerusalem, God’s holy city, was not exempt from this fate, having been leveled not once but twice, how much more will every other earthly system or order be liable to destruction?  If Israel was not exempt, no one is exempt.
In the parable, the king then invites the second-string people to the banquet.  The king says, “‘Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
If the original guest list doesn’t show up, then the king invites everyone, “good and bad,” interestingly enough.  It is now a radically open invitation.  It is not reserved just for the chosen, just for the believers, just for the good people.  Now the banquet is open to everybody.  The king rejects his original friends, who had rejected him.  Now he is willing to accept anyone as friend.  Everyone is invited to the banquet.           
But this blanket invitation does not mean that standards are thrown out the window.  It does not mean that this broadly inclusive gathering, hauled in like fish in a net, gets to set its own agenda.  For it is still the king, and it is still the king’s banquet for his son’s wedding.  Being invited to this banquet is a big deal.  It is a humbling experience to be responded to with deep thanksgiving.  It is a tremendous act of grace and inclusion, where people who were nobodies have been made into somebodies through no act or merit of their own.  People who were once lost are now found. 
One does not come to this banquet unless it is in profound awareness of the honor involved.  You need to come clothed in your loyalty to the king, and endued with the virtues the king requires, and dressed in the garb of a new, transformed, forgiven, redeemed life.  You do not come still wallowing in your profiteering, your exploitation of others, your use of threats and violence to get your way.  You do not come in arrogance and superiority.  For to do so would be another way of rejecting the invitation and dissing the king.  The response to the king’s invitation, whether you are on the original guest list or the revised guest list, is transformation.  This invitation makes you a new person.  That’s why the establishment rejected it, and why the outcasts accept it.  To come to this banquet is to be made new.  Redeemed.  Changed.

IV.
That is always what the banquet, the Kingdom of God, is about.  It is about bringing people from one way of life, characterized by greed, violence, fear, anger, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness, to a way of life that reveals love and forgiveness, peace and joy, goodness and humility.  This new way of life exhibits the virtues that Jesus lifted up in the beatitudes and that God outlines in the Ten Commandments. 
This Kingdom of God was not meant to be something we only inhabit at the end of time or when we die.  God clearly intends it to be reflected, anticipated, and instituted here and now, in the living relationships of contemporary people.  Perhaps we do not experience the total fullness of this banquet until the end, but we do begin to know it and celebrate it in this life.
I think the church, the gathered community of believers, is meant to be the place where the Kingdom of God begins to break in and spread among us.  When Jesus is talking about those who work or refuse to work in the vineyard or who attend or refuse to appropriately attend the wedding feast, I think he is talking about the church, in some form.
When we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we announce it as “the joyful feast of the people of God.”  It is a small token or anticipation of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus often represents as a banquet.  In a sense the sacrament defines us, and the values of Jesus Christ, expressed and remembered and embraced in the sacrament need to become the values embodies in the church.  His life — his love and healing and humility and peace — needs to inform and shape all we do together in the church. 
That’s what it means to show up at the feast wearing your wedding garments.  It means to come together at the Lord’s command and to say with our voices and with our actions: “We are yours!”  

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