The King’s Party, the King’s Rules

A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 23a: Matthew 22: 1-14

There is one Blacksburg resident who has made an appearance in more of my sermons than any other.  Now, I use the term “resident” loosely, because, you see, this person was actually homeless.  His name was Teddy Henderson, but most people just called him Teddy.  In fact, it wasn’t until he died three years ago that I and many others actually knew his last name.

I preached a sermon about Teddy when he died.  In another sermon, I mentioned the memorial service held in his honor at the public library, another place he frequented, the memorial service his wife and daughter attended, telling us how Teddy had been MIA from their lives for so many years.

And going back many more years, I preached an entire sermon about the time when Teddy “crashed” the service Christ Church was holding one Wednesday night to install me as the new campus minister, service with Bishop Powell in attendance.

I’m not sure Teddy had come to join us in worship or to wish me well in my ministry.  Teddy had come for the dinner afterward.  When I arrived at the parish hall, there stood Teddy with a big plate of food.  It was not my proudest moment, the moment I saw first Harvey Taylor and then Hilary Camblos engaging Teddy in conversation.  I just wanted him to eat and go his way.  And then Hilary did something even more unexpected – she invited Teddy to sit with her and some of the other Canterbury students at their table.  This was not my idea of how to attract new students. But both Hilary and Teddy taught me a lesson that night, one that I never forgot.

“The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” We’ve heard parables like this before, Jesus – the landowner and his son; the wealthy merchant and his stewards, and so on.  Last week we heard one of the most disturbing parables Jesus ever told – that of the landowner and the wicked tenants.  So this parable fits into the pattern nicely.  A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he sends his servants to call everyone who had been invited to come to the banquet.  But these A-list guests make light of the invitation, ignore it, or in some cases abuse and kill the kings servants.  That should sound familiar.

But then we hear these shocking details – in his rage, the king sends troops to destroy the guests and burn their city.  Wow!   Is this king overreacting or what?  But then we hear a happier note – the king still intends to give the banquet, but now the servants go into the streets to invite everyone they find – the good and the bad.  This king is determined to have a party, no matter what!  This is a happy scene – the unworthy are suddenly invited to the banquet and thereby made worthy.

But then it seems, when all is happy and the banquet is going well, this king loses his mind again!  He finds a guest not wearing the proper wedding garment, and the king orders him not just to be thrown out, but tied up and cast basically into hell!  Jesus then ends this parable with these familiar, ominous words – many are called but few are chosen.

Now, I hope most of you have been paying enough attention over the past few weeks to know that Jesus was not scolding people who came to the synagogue wearing sweat pants instead of their best tunic, just as the previous parables about the landowner and the tenants weren’t about resolving real estate disputes.

The king in these parables is God.  The tenants are the Jewish religious establishment of Jesus’ day.  The messengers are the prophets, including John the Baptist and Jesus himself.  In this parable, perhaps more than in any other, the king is furious and bent on revenge.  He is enraged at the rejection of the original guests, so much so that he has their city burned.

Details like that should remind us about the context of when this gospel was written.  Most scholars agree that Matthew was written down sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Roman armies burned the Temple and much of the city in the year 70.  The destruction of the Temple would have been a painful memory for most of Matthew’s original audience.

The writer of Matthew is making a rather strong indictment of the religious leadership of Jesus’ day, and his own for that matter.  They had rejected God’s servants – John the Baptist and even Jesus were killed by this very group of the religious elite, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was seen as a judgment on them.  Matthew’s writer puts the words in Jesus’ mouth as a prophecy, yes.  But by the time this gospel was written, Jerusalem was a smoking ruin, and the population had been scattered.

So it’s not hard to see the parallels – the original guests reject the invitation and they are judged.  Jesus came to the religious establishment in Jerusalem to call them back to God, they rejected and ultimately killed Jesus, and now they have been judged.  The invitation then goes to unlikely, everyday people – “the good and the bad,” as the parable says.  They are invited to the wedding banquet, and they come.  These could be seen as the outcasts from Jewish society or even the Gentiles which by the time the Gospel was written were discovering this new faith of the followers of Jesus.

But what about this one guest?  Is there a parallel?  Who is he?

Weddings are major events in most every culture, with each having its own peculiar customs and morays.  The wedding culture of Jesus’ day was demanding as well.  If an important person were having a marriage in their family, the whole community would have known about it.  Preparations could take weeks.  In the case of this parable, it was the king throwing the party.  The expectations were even higher.  When the time came, everyone was ready.

Everyone was ready, that is, except this one miserable guest who shows up not wearing a wedding garment.  We’ve heard parables like this before – the foolish virgins who let their lamps go out and aren’t prepared when the bridegroom arrives late at night.  These foolish virgins are locked out and can’t get into the wedding banquet at all, because they were not prepared.

So it is with this unfortunate guest – he comes unprepared, and the king knows it.  He even has nothing to say when the king confronts him.  Weddings are a time for celebration, and the king wants everyone to celebrate with him at the wedding of his son.  The king is the king – he is free to do what he wants to do.  It’s the king’s party, and his rules are the only ones that count.  We’ve already seen what his temper is like, so is it a surprise that he loses it when he comes across this guest who has managed to get into the banquet, wearing attire that suggests he’d rather be someplace else.

Now, this is not about getting dressed up for church.  For me, this parable is more about how we prepare our hearts for worship.  Do we come to God prepared, with a sense of expectation, with hearts and hands opened, ready for what God wants to give us?  Or do we come with our minds made up and hearts closed?  Would you come to the altar rail with a newspaper in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other?  You can do that at home, and be much more comfortable, I’d say.

When we come to church, it expresses something about who we are – we are needy people.  We should come here hungry.  We need something from God, and often from each other.  We need community.  We are hungry for that connection.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.

When Teddy came to church that night long ago, many, including me, said, “Eh, it was only to get a free meal.”  But isn’t that why we should come ourselves?  If Teddy came hungry and let it show, I think he was the best dressed person in the room.  Was Teddy worthy?  Perhaps not in the world’s eyes, but to God, Teddy was the exact kind of person that should have walked through that door.

Teddy wasn’t a beggar at the feast – he was an honored guest!  It is those who come to God with pride and self-satisfaction first that need to go and change their clothes.

While it certainly is bad news for the people of Jerusalem, I think this parable should also remind us that God sees our hearts.  God knows if we are truly prepared for worship, true worship.  God has invited us, the unworthy, to his banquet.  Let us prepare our hungry hearts to receive, and let us wear the wedding garment of celebration.  Amen.

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