by David Baer, March 8, 2015
Text: Matthew 22:1-14
What do you do when you’re all set to party, but no one comes? Six-year-old Glenn Buratti of St. Cloud, Florida, was devastated. Glenn, who has autism, was ready for his birthday party, and all his friends from school had been invited. But no one even answered the invitation, and no one showed up at his home on the day of the big party. How does it feel when you’re ready to celebrate, but your guests have left you in the lurch? Glenn’s mother Ashlee got on Facebook and told the world how she felt to see her son so disappointed. Her post took off, and pretty soon other parents, complete strangers, were at her door with their kids, bringing gifts for Glenn. The Osceola County Sheriff’s Department even got in on the action, flying over the house in a helicopter, and the deputies contributed their own money to buy gifts for the little boy. Ashlee marvels at the way people who didn’t even know her or her son responded, though she wasn’t quite sure how next year’s birthday was going to measure up to the standard they set.1 And I’ll be it was a lot of fun—not just for Glenn, but for the kids who came, and for all the adults who teamed up to make it happen. That was a party!
What do you do when you have a special occasion, when you’ve got something to celebrate, and the people you want to share that occasion with can’t be bothered? As long as there have been parties and invitations, which is longer than recorded history, there have been rude guests. Hosts can be rude too—rudeness is an equal opportunity affliction—but in the gospel story we heard today, just as with Glenn Buratti’s birthday, what we have is some rude guests. Jesus tells why he tells this story—to show us what the kingdom of heaven, the new reality God is bringing into the world, looks like. It looks like a party where the A-list guests are A-WOL, and so the host opens the doors to the folks who never expected to be there.
Let’s step back for a second and just set the scene. Jesus is teaching in the Temple. It’s the day after Palm Sunday, when Jesus came riding into town to the cheers of his supporters and the nervous grumbling of the authorities, and then caused a disturbance in the Temple by upending the tables and chasing out the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. This brings Jesus into conflict with the chief priests and elders, and that conflict begins to come to a boil as Jesus tells three stories. These stories are all very similar. They all have an authority figure—a parent or a ruler or a landowner—who makes a request to those under his authority. And in each of the stories, the folks you expect will fulfill the request don’t follow through, and so the ruler’s favor falls instead to folks who were previously unfavored or on the outside. These are all stories about the privileged and powerful having their favored position taken away and given to someone else. What we heard today is the last of these three stories. And the religious authorities must not have liked what they heard very much, because what they do right away is to begin plotting against Jesus, first to discredit him and later to have him killed. So that’s where this story comes in the bigger story of Jesus—it’s a word spoken against a political and religious establishment that’s beginning to view him as a threat.
Now, the story he tells has to do with a wedding banquet. Wedding celebrations in the ancient Near East were lavish affairs. Even for people of modest means, the marriage of a child was probably the single biggest expense of their lives. There would have been not only food, but wine in abundance, and music and dancing. And it wasn’t just one day, as it is for us, but a celebration that could extend for several days in a row. These people knew how to party.
So there’s a king who wants to throw one of these big parties for his son. It sounds as though he has already extended invitations to his guests, so when his slaves go out to find the guests, it’s only to let them know that the party is about to start. Inexplicably, the slaves are rebuffed by everyone the first time they go out. So this time the king sends them out again to tell the guests that this is going to be a really, really great party. There’s a dinner with freshly slaughtered meat, and the king has gone to a lot of trouble. Won’t they come now, and join in the revels?
Now the guests begin to make excuses. One of them has a farm that needs his attention. The other can’t afford to leave his business. But most of the guests go beyond simple rudeness and become violent. They assault the king’s slaves and murder them. The king is so enraged that he puts the party on hold to deliver devastating vengeance against the people he thought were his friends. He swoops down on them with his army, and he puts the murderers to the sword and their city to the torch. (Notice, though, that the story doesn’t say anything about what happened to the folks that were too preoccupied to come to the party, but who didn’t murder anybody. Presumably, they’re still out there.)
The party is still ready to go, though, but there are no guests. What’s more, the king says to his slaves that those who were originally invited were not worthy—they showed themselves not to be deserving of the invitation he had extended. So the king sends his slaves out into the main streets of the town. And there they find all kinds of people—rich and poor, townies and strangers. Maybe they even pick up some of the busy people who were originally invited. It doesn’t matter—the doors are open to everyone. Now the wedding hall was filled with guests.
And I sort of wish Jesus had ended the story there. It’s a good place to stop. We can see that God is like the king hosting the banquet. We have a warning not to be like the folks who ignore the king’s invitation either out of preoccupation or contempt. And we have a wonderful image of God’s abundant generosity, flinging wide the doors to include everybody in the celebration, setting a place for everyone at the banquet. The version of the story recorded in the gospel of Luke ends there. It’s all about filling the banquet hall, and the Lord does that by extending an invitation to the least and the lost.
But Matthew’s Jesus gives us this odd little postscript. The king goes in to check out all of his new guests, and he finds someone who’s not wearing a wedding robe. This guest isn’t dressed for the occasion. And when the king questions him about it, the guest doesn’t offer any answer or explanation. So the king has him thrown out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That seems a bit harsh. After all, didn’t the king’s slaves collect all sorts of people who weren’t expecting to go to a wedding, people who responded to a spur-of-the-moment invitation for food and drink and merriment? And wasn’t it the king himself who wanted it this way? Why in the world is he so insensitive as to criticize the way one of his guests happened to be dressed? And what does this say about the kingdom of heaven? That there’s a dress code, and some really tough bouncers?
On the other hand, the king does seem to single out this one guest. Somehow all the others, in spite of being in the middle of their daily business, in spite of being poor or away from home, managed to put on a wedding robe. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the king himself had these robes provided at the door. All the differences between the guests—the high and mighty and the meek and lowly—would have been erased as they came into the hall and put on their robes. None of what they had been on the outside mattered, because now they were guests at the feast. They were equal. So what would it have mean for you to wave off the free robe? It would have meant you didn’t want to blend in, that you didn’t want to be equal to all the other partygoers. Maybe this man was one of the previously invited guests who went off to his farm or his business, and now he was here, not to celebrate, but to gape and jeer at the rabble that the king had finally assembled. Maybe he was there to mock. Maybe he was just curious. But whatever the reason, this wedding crasher was not there to party. He wasn’t there to join in.
This isn’t just a story about replacement guests. It’s not just a story about God’s wide and generous mercy that reaches out to bring in those who never thought they belonged in the banquet hall—though it is that too. This is also a story about a party where it’s not enough just to show up. You’ve got to live it up
These wedding clothes represent a way of life. God invites us into the kingdom here and now, a place where God’s will is done, where forgiven sinners become forgivers, where there is bread for today and enough to share. God accepts us, satisfies our longings, and invites us to a life of joy and generosity. That’s what this party is all about. And so when you make an Easter basket or bring food for the Center for Food Action, when you help host the Family Promise Shelter when it comes to town, you’re jumping into the great dance. When you treat another person with generosity and kindness, you’re celebrating. That’s what it looks like for Christians to dance and celebrate and live it up at the banquet God is hosting.
The good news is that we’ve got a wedding robe. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that whoever has been baptized has put on Christ, like a fresh garment (Gal. 3:27). If you understand what that means, if you know that the Lord of the universe became a tiny, vulnerable human being for you; lived and taught and healed for you; suffered pain and died for you; rose from the dead and blazed a trail to new life for you; if you grasp the immensity of this gift, then Jesus Christ is your wedding robe, and you have everything you need to leap for joy, to give with grace, and to be the life of this party. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“When no one comes to this boy’s birthday party, deputies save the day.” ClickOrlando.com. http://www.clickorlando.com/news/when-no-one-came-to-this-boys-birthday-party-deputies-saved-the-day/31318410. Accessed 3/6/2015.