Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Book of Common Prayer Collect for Proper 23
The RCL readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.
Imagine being invited to the biggest wedding of the year — think George Clooney’s nuptial’s, or William and Kate’s royal event — and turning it down. Not just a polite “no thank you,” either, but returning the invitation marked “refused” and shunning follow-ups from the host in the rudest way possible.
It just doesn’t make any sense, does it? That is, however, the scenario laid out in the parable Jesus tells in this week’s gospel, and it presents some interesting preaching challenges. The first is helping our congregations understand the historical and cultural context of the evangelist Matthew and how that would have shaped the perceptions of his original audience. The second is ensuring that both the absurdity and the inflammatory nature of the parable come through; it is, after all, a disturbing story! And perhaps our largest challenge as preachers is to convey how this parable speaks to us.
One might, of course, talk about this story as an eschatological warning: on the surface that is simple enough: when the king comes, those who have turned down his invitation will pay a heavy price. Or the story can be presented as part of a larger attempt to explain why and how Jesus as been rejected by some of his fellow Jews — and why that does not justify the anti-Semitism this story and others have sometimes fueled. Those are valid readings and properly fleshed out, might be helpful in some contexts.
Both of those readings, however, risk missing the mark when it comes to helping us connect this strange parable our own lives. One of the most puzzling parts of this parable for me has been the man thrown out for not having on the correct wedding garments. And how could he, given that he was pulled in, off the streets as it were, just for this wedding?
I’ve seen two intriguing ideas about this man and his treatment. Karl Barth argues that the man who is inadequately dressed isn’t taking the nature of the feast seriously enough He put it this way:
“In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”1
In other words, God’s kingdom, God’s reign isn’t meant to be grim and puritanical sort of place. While we must take loving God and our neighbor seriously, with all the attendant implications of doing so, God also invites us — and wants us — to celebrate the joy of the kingdom as well.
A similar notion comes from Sharon Ringe who writes,“Clearly the issue is not the man’s clothing, but rather something else about how he presents himself in this ultimate moment…I am drawn to understand this double parable through the lens of James 2, and the tension between his affirmation that one’s faith can be seen in one’s “works” (by which he means deeds, especially deeds of justice and compassion), and Paul’s more famous affirmation (in Galatians and Romans) that our standing before God depends only on our acceptance of God’s grace.”
Ringe goes on to suggest that James is writing as a corrective to Paul because in the time between the two, Paul’s truly radical message about committing one’s entire life to the gospel has become watered down and its hearers no longer feel compelled to incorporate its message into every aspect of living. She concludes by saying, “Matthew is in the same place that we find James. He affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God’s grace, but he also affirms that for us to be “worthy” of God’s gift requires nothing less than our whole life.”
I am especially drawn to Ringe’s explanation. In a gospel devoted to teaching us what it means to be true disciples, Matthew pulls out all the stops to help us truly grasp what it means to follow Jesus “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” Responding to the invitation to God’s banquet, taking the banquet both seriously and celebrating the joy and abundance it holds for us are all part of what it means to be true disciples.
How will this gospel preach in your congregation? Or how are you tackling another reading? Join the conversation with your questions, musing, inspiration and lack there-of!
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 588, quoted in Jarvis, Cynthia A., “Matthew 22:1-14: Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28, WJK, 2013, 186. Quoted by Lance Pape on WorkingPreacher.org