St Matthew’s, Bloomington—Matthew 22:1-14, Isaiah 25:1-9
While in seminary, most future clergy take at least one class in something called homiletics, which is the craft of preparing and delivering sermons. In many of these classes, students are encouraged to think narratively when crafting their sermons, that is to make each sermon like a story—not simply to tell stories from the pulpit, but to arrange what they want to say according to the elements of a good plot, as most of us learned in high school English classes; namely, a situation, followed by complications in that situation, followed by a crisis of some sort, and, finally, a resolution. Of course, really good preachers manage to hide all this from their listeners, most of whom would simply say, “It held my interest.”
Today’s gospel reading is a parable, told by Jesus. A parable, by definition, already is a story, and this one is particularly rich in the amount of detail it provides. So I’m not going to try and improve on Jesus! In this sermon, we’re just going to go with the flow, and map pretty closely to the shape of the parable. The plot of the parable will be the plot of this sermon.
The occasion is a royal wedding. The king’s son is getting married. It’s a grand occasion, a really big deal. The king has spared no expense in arranging for an over-the-top celebration, the social event of the decade. The invitations are already long since sent out and the RSVPs received. Everyone has had ample opportunity to “save the date.” The story begins with a customary personal “day of” reminder. Without the technology for instantaneous communication that you and I take for granted, the reminders are delivered personally by staff members of the royal household. The invitees, of course, are the A-listers, the cream of society … the socially privileged.
Now, we might want to say a little bit about who Matthew’s original readers probably were. Leaving aside the question of who may have been within earshot when Jesus actually told this story, or something like it, who were the first people to encounter it in written form? Most likely, they were Jews, Jews who had become believers in the risen Christ, who were following him as the promised Messiah. They lived about 40 or 50 years after Jesus had walked the earth, so we’re talking about second-generation Christians. For us, it would be like Jesus was someone who was around in the 1960s or 70s. They still strongly felt their Jewish identity, and wanted to consider themselves part of Judaism, but their relationship with the larger Jewish community had grown increasingly tense over the years. Everyone still considered them to be Jews, but there was a great deal of heartburn around them, because most of the Jewish community, particularly the leadership, did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah.
So when they read this story, these folks would immediately, and correctly, identify the king who gave the wedding feast with God. The first set of servants who were sent out to deliver the day-of reminder notices about the banquet would have been understood to represent the prophets of the Old Testament. One of these prophets, of course, was Isaiah. So it’s understandable that the lectionary today gives us an Old Testament reading from Isaiah, a reading that describes a great banquet, a magnificent feast, at which there is overflowingly abundant food and drink, and at which all the guest have put any grief or sorrow or regret behind them, and know only consolation and joy.
So if those who deliver the final notice that the banquet is ready are the Old Testament prophets, what does that make the A-list invitees, those who had already saved the date and sent in their RSVPs? Well, these folks represent the people of Israel, the Jews, those who had all the advantages of the Covenant, the Law and the Prophets. They are the privileged one-percenters among the peoples of the world. Their job was to receive the blessings God had bestowed on them, and then pay it forward, to become a blessing to the rest of humankind.
All of a sudden, though, there’s a rash of last-minute cancellations, which is not something that any party-giver ever likes! They give various excuses, any one of which might have sounded plausible on its own, but when everybody seems to be in on it, it starts to seem suspicious, like when all the teachers in the same school or all the police officers in the same department call in sick on the same day, which happens to be in the middle of collective bargaining negotiations. The King smells a rat, and is understandably livid. He orders the complete destruction of the city where the ungrateful A-listers lived. His soldiers reduced it to smoking rubble. This little detail is certainly going to ring a bell with Matthew’s readers. They are going to remember—a memory that is rather fresh in their minds, actually—they are going to remember the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans, and they’re going to see a parallel. The implication here is that Israel, by and large, has squandered their elite status, their historic privilege, by rejecting Jesus as the promised Messiah, and that God has judged them harshly.
So, what happens now? Well, the party must go on, so the king sends out a second set of royal household staff members. They go out and finds B-listers, those who had not been socially prominent enough to get an original invitation. This strategy works, and enough of these B-listers come to the wedding feast to make it a proper party—the hall is filled. Let’s remember, though: They had no status that entitled them to an invitation. Their presence at the party was strictly a privilege, not a right, offered gratis, free of charge, by the King.
So, how are our early Jewish-Christian readers going to decode the B-listers? Well, they’re the goyim, the Gentiles, those not privileged, those who are without the advantages of the Covenant, or the Law, or the Prophets. In other words: Us. Remember: the B-listers have no claim of entitlement to any part of the party. It was all gravy. They did nothing to earn the high status that the A-listers had squandered. Christians enjoy the advantages of the New Covenant, not because we’re inherently superior to the Jews, or deserving of anything in our own right, but purely out of God’s free grace.
So we need to be careful about getting presumptuous about our status. And this leads us to the concluding section of the parable. If we dwell too literally on the details of the narrative, we may be overcome by sympathy for the poor fellow without a proper wedding garment. He got up that morning without the slightest inkling that he would be invited to a royal wedding; it was all very spur-of-the-moment. Can’t the king cut him some slack for not being able to find his white bow tie, or whatever it was? But we need to not let ourselves get lost in those weeds. It distracts us from the point, which is that even the B-listers needed to pay attention to basic social decorum.
So, who does this guy represent in the interpretation of the parable? He’s a DINO—a “disciple in name only.” He represents all the Gentiles on whom God has shed his grace by including them in the privileges of the Covenant, but who approach the banquet casually, flippantly, with a blasé attitude of indifference, not at all mindful of what has been undeservingly lavished on them.
Disciples in name only. They’re all over the place. They’re all over the church. They sit in pews on Sunday mornings. They are those who have accepted the invitation to the banquet, but have done nothing other than show up, who don’t even realize what they’re receiving. Jesus warns us in this parable to approach the heavenly banquet with purity of heart. This can refer either to final version of it, the one described so movingly by Isaiah, or, it can refer to the interim surrogate for the heavenly banquet, the foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb, which we call the Eucharist. How often do we show up at the Eucharist with an attitude of blasé indifference? How often do we present ourselves at the altar in a state of mental distraction, or with an attitude of entitlement, presuming upon some “insider” status that we think we have?
There’s a part of our Prayer Book that most of us never see or hear. It’s called the Exhortation. In days of yore, when the Eucharist was celebrated relatively infrequently by Anglicans, it was common practice for the parish priest to read the Exhortation on the Sunday before the sacrament was to be offered. Listen to this snippet:
For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. Examine your lives and conduct … ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.
This describes the proper wedding garment in which we are to clothe ourselves as we approach the Eucharistic banquet. So, come to the party, come to the banquet. Your invitation, which is your baptism, will get you in. But let us all show our gratitude by not being DINOs. Rather, let us put on a proper wedding garment. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.