Let me be perfectly honest here. There isn’t a preacher taking on this assigned text today who can tell you (with certainty) what this story means, so let’s just admit it– this is an ugly parable.
The good thing about this and other parables is that they invite us to think. In fact the beauty of so many parables is that they raise (and often do not answer) life’s big questions. So why is it that the churches of yesteryear tried to serve up easy answers?
The church of my greatest imagination would teach less about what to think/believe and more about HOW to think/believe. It’s the questions that draw us into encounter with God and isn’t that the point?
Compared to Luke’s’ more gentle account of the same banquet, Matthew’s version is darker, more violent, and pushes absurdity to the edge. It seems the disciples were remembering the story very differently. Why is that?
It’s helpful to know is that Matthew and his community were caught up in a struggle with their Israelite brothers and sisters about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and, in particular, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. The divide was very charged, which may be why Matthew is at his wits end trying to illustrate the grandness of “the invitation,” casting characters who are indifferent and even hostile.
And here’s the thing we cannot sanitize. Though this is not a Jewish-Christian dispute, Christians have used this parable to drive a wedge between Jews and Christians. Shame on anyone who does this.
That said, if I were to offer a takeaway message from this violent story, it would be that it imagines the divine utopia of bringing all of God’s children together under one roof, once and for all, not despite our differences but because of them! The kingdom of God would be like that kind of place and that kind of celebratory banquet!
But then the parable jolts us by introducing the man who shows up not wearing the right clothes. And of course the punishment for a breach of dress code is outer darkness, right? Of course NOT. That is the absurdity of the metaphor. What if this man’s fashion faux pas has nothing to do with clothing but rather that he either didn’t understand the magnitude and honor of the invitation? He had just been given a golden ticket and he didn’t get it.
Do we? He was offered an invitation to transformation and is cast as dishonoring the invitation and the opportunity.
Even setting the eternal aspects of the metaphor aside, the parable also seems to get at something very human and current. How many of us are part of families with so radically different political and religious world views that it might as well be an afterlife kingdom that could get us on the same page? The simple practice of gathering over a holiday meal feels as though it requires a moderator, like the kind that works political debates.
Truth be told, if left to our own devices it’s easier to hang out only with people that look like and think like we do. Truth be told it’s even easier to get stuck in our own revelation, refusing to be transformed by the possibility that there may be an invitation we’ve ignored.
We live in a world where identity divides us into red versus blue states in this country, where Muslims and Jews are in conflict in Israel and Palestine—a world where ISIS has gone rogue on the peaceful teachings of Islam. It’s overwhelming to live with such strident division.
So as long as we are wondering together, could this Kingdom simile be imagining an invitation to a beloved community beyond even our own imagination?
The hope of such a kingdom is reason enough for Matthew to become overzealous to the point of ridiculous.
Why should we love the stranger? Because God does! Jesus’ teaching was never limited to people who look, act, or think like him. Alleluia.
In the end what we most have in common is our humanity, not our religion, amen?
In the end, whether with our families, our community, or the world got made and loves, how hard is it really to see God in each other?
Looking back at our metaphorical King and Matthew’s attempt at capturing such a grand hope, I think I can understand why the story goes to such an extreme. So it wakes us up! The invitation was and continues to be the most extravagant invitation in the history of the world. No wonder the King didn’t want the banquet to begin until everyone was invited and present. Everyone. No asterisks. No exceptions.
I call that a banquet of possibility– one where we are all invited to take off our garments of suspicion and self-interest, exchanging them for the garments of grace and transformation. Ugly parable? Maybe. Good News? Definitely. May it be so.
Note: this message is heavily influenced by the writings of David Lose, Barbara Bradford Taylor and the text musings of the workingpreacher.com group from Luther Seminary.