19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 15, 2017
Matthew 22: 1-14
Law and Gospel. That’s what Lutheran preachers are famous for. We believe that Scripture comes to us as law and gospel. The Law calls us to account for failing to live as God’s people. It wakes us up to God’s order for our lives, and how that affects those around us. But since we are not able to really live by even the first of God’s laws, about loving God first and foremost with heart and soul and mind, the Law drives us to the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of God being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Even in the Hebrew Bible, God changes his mind, forgives even the worst. The Gospel is the word of grace.
I used to think of Law and Gospel as being two different kinds of Bible passages – one that accused us and showed us how we fail and one that gave us the promise of God’s abiding love and grace. But as Jesus tells these stories to the public and points them toward the church leaders of his day, I have come to another understanding. What if Jesus’ story could be both; both Law and Gospel. You’ve probably heard the adage that preaching the Gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Bishop David was quick to remind us last week that the story of the workers in the vineyard and their horrendous treatment of the Landowner’s servants and son might sound different to you if you saw yourself as the landowner than it would if you saw yourself as the workers. Jesus has another one of those stories for us today. Whether you hear this story as one of mercy depends on who you identify with in the story.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Wow! What an honor to be invited to the King’s banquet for his son! But that’s not the reality. After disrespect and drama from the elite, the King reaches out to anyone and everyone to come and celebrate. Everyone who comes in the door is a recipient of the King’s gracious invitation. Not one of them has earned the honor. The guy without the wedding garment is kind of confusing. If you were just coming off the street, how would you expect to be dressed in something wedding-worthy? Or is the point that if you try to come to the King’s banquet and don’t see yourself wrapped in his mercy, you will not be accepted.
It’s important to remember that parables are not allegories, where each person and thing stands for something else. They are meant to lay out an idea alongside of the idea you’re trying to connect, so people see themselves in the story not just hear you describe something more abstract. Jesus is the ultimate preacher, spinning a story that makes total sense as you’re getting into it, and then has a barb at the end that makes you realize that who you identify with in the story might make you the bad guy. Matthew’s gospel is especially hard on the church leadership, leading interpreters to believe that he is also chastising the leadership of the church in his own day for becoming arrogant and full of themselves at the expense of the rest of the community.
Jesus is moving closer and closer to his death at this point in the Gospel. The division between how he is accepted by the church leadership and those on the margins of society becomes more and more apparent. Church leaders have made up their minds to get rid of him, but the people who are ‘the least’ have come to love him. Jesus does not sound meek or mild in these parables, and they make me, with my comfortable assumptions about my station in life, very uncomfortable. But I have come to love this story for several reasons.
First, it imagines life with God as a banquet. What a wonderful way to think of the life of a Christian. We often feel so oppressed by all we have to do and be in the world; to earn our place as God’s people. Give our time and talents – at least 10%. Love and help our neighbor, be kind even when we’re crabby. Be respectful, cultivate peaceful relations. Even keeping up a prayer life seems like one more thing we need to take care of. Instead, imagine your everyday life as a party that you’ve been invited to unexpectedly and undeservedly? Imagine the privilege. All you’d have to do would be to say thank you, and join in the dance that included everyone. That’s certainly a different vision of what it means to be saved! It’s about life now, not only about what happens when you die.
Second, it reminds me that I am at this party because of God’s grace and mercy. All of us are here by God’s invitation. Not one of us is in a position to judge another believer or look down on anyone who struggles to know and be faithful to God. Our job is to support and encourage everyone who seeks to know God better and live the life of banquet grace. Our words and deeds flow from the gratitude we have for the love God has already shone for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
“Many are called but few are chosen”, says Jesus. This story tells us that God’s invitation is always out there, calling us all into a life of love and joy, of grace and fellowship. There are people who choose not to come. The church has not always been very good at extending that invitation without making it sound exclusive and burdensome. Thank God we have another chance to be the church. I for one want to un-tell that exclusive story and spread the word of banquet grace instead.