I remember receiving an invitation to a banquet once. It came on fancy cardstock and was beautifully engraved. I was invited to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse for a sumptuous meal of fillet mignon, cooked the way only Ruth’s Chris can do it, with my choice of all sorts of tasty side dishes and even two complimentary adult beverages. The dress was business casual, and all I had to do to redeem my invitation to this wonderful meal… was to spend a few minutes after supper listening to a sales pitch for some lakefront property in South Carolina. Such a deal.
I attended another banquet once, on top of Monteagle at my alma mater: Sewanee. The food was good, though it wasn’t quite the hand-cut fillets I could have had a Ruth’s Chris. It was all locally sourced and sustainable. It’s the new “Episcopal thing,” I guess. In any case, the University had pulled out all the stops: the rather drab ballroom had been transformed into a wonderland of light and texture and color. A small string ensemble served up a steady diet of Brahms, and Mozart and Boccherini. It was absolutely lovely. And to cap it off, the keynote speaker for the evening was none other than Rowan Williams, eminent theologian and the former Archbishop of Canterbury. What an evening it was… and the real purpose of my—of all of our—being invited, was to prepare us for another invitation we would soon be receiving in the mail: the invitation to participate in the “Stronger, Truer Sewanee” capital campaign, aimed at helping propel the University of the South to the “next level” of its academic and growth potential. And the School of Theology was to be a significant beneficiary of this campaign… with new scholarships, new endowed professorships and physical relocation to a newly renovated facility in the center of Campus. It was a big initiative, and one that, unlike the South Carolina lakefront development, I chose to make myself a part of. “Stronger, Truer Sewanee.”
And then there’s the banquet that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel parable. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2). This is a pretty loaded introduction, don’t you think? By this point in Jesus’ ministry, there were lots of folks wondering out loud if he was the foretold Messiah, sent by God to save his people from their enemies, and bring fire and apocalypse to the unfaithful. But no one wanted to go off half-cocked. No one wanted to commit until they were sure that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth… (Can anything good come out of Nazareth?)… was the real deal. And so, they waited… listening… leaning in… hanging on Jesus’ every word… every nuance… waiting for some hint of what was to come. And the chief priests and Pharisees had an additional problem: not only did they not want to “back the wrong horse,” and thus become apostate themselves, but they also had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo until the last possible moment before the Messianic apocalypse… you know, their privileged livelihoods and their places of honor in the Temple and synagogues. And Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in currying their favor or cutting them any slack whatsoever. Ever since he had entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and cleansed the Temple a few days earlier, Jesus had been preaching and teaching up a blue streak… about the fate of trees that fail to bear fruit… about prostitutes and tax collectors going to heaven before “posers” and the pseudo religious… about “wicked tenants” who killed the son of the landowner in order to steal his inheritance… and about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone upon which the unrighteous will be crushed and broken to pieces. And for all their faults, the chief priests and Pharisees were smart enough to recognize that Jesus was talking about them. They were trees that had failed to bear fruit… they were the posers… they were the wicked tenants… and now they were the ingrates who refused the king’s invitation to his son’s wedding banquet. And being called out in this fashion made them mad… killing mad. But perhaps some of them were smart enough to hear and take note of the fate of those who killed and mistreated the king’s messengers: they themselves were destroyed and their city burned. And of course, all that happened about 31 years later… the Jews were driven out of Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed. As Jesus foretold, “Not one stone was left standing upon another; all was thrown down” (Matt 24:1). Was it God’s vengeance that Jesus was talking about? I don’t think so. Even as Jesus predicted the fate of the city and its inhabitants, he mourned their loss: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he lamented, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37). So whenever I get all up-in-arms about the way the chief priests and Pharisees treated Jesus, I remember that Jesus loved them to the end, and gave his life for them as much as he did for me.
And so now we come to the end of the parable. We are the people from the “main streets” of the city, folks on the “B-list” who received late invitations to the feast. And I think it’s important that we remember that… we were called to fill spaces left by “trees that bore no fruit… posers… wicked tenants… and ingrates.” On one hand, I’m glad to glad to have been invited to the banquet. Very glad. But I’m mindful of those who came before… the mistakes they made… and the price they paid. And lest you think I’m talking exclusively about the Jews of Jesus’ time… I’m not, in any way, shape or fashion. I’m talking about folks, whoever they may be, and whenever they may have lived, who failed to answer God’s call. These are the folks who looked at the banquet invitation and said, “No thanks.” Or came to make an appearance, and then quietly slipped out the back door. Or the ones who, like the man without the wedding coat, came to eat, drink and be merry but who was indifferent to the purpose of the feast.
Many are called, but few are chosen. Sounds tantalizingly exclusive… doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that there is no limit to the number of feasters that can be accommodated at God’s “Kingdom Banquet.” And I’m pretty sure that the guest list is open to all sorts and conditions of folks. It has less to do with their adherence to any particular faith tradition and more to do with their simple faithfulness to the one who called them. That’s what God wants most, you know: to be at-one with us… in the most basic, fundamental sense. And that requires one thing only. One thing. Forget all of the “shoulds and oughts.” Forget behavioral and “purity” codes that were established for a worthy purpose in antiquity, but which may have outlived their usefulness in the present day and time. Forget any feelings of spiritual or religious superiority you may harbor in the dark recesses of your heart. Forget everything… except to love and be loved. Both God and neighbor. That’s all. If you do this, all of the rest will take care of itself. But you’ve got to show up… to be chosen.
So, everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet. Christ Jesus is the bridegroom, born to reconcile and restore unity between God and the church. The table is set, and all are invited. The kingdom of heaven awaits. Come hungry… and bring a friend.
FURTHER EXEGESIS: I was approached by a parishioner after worship on Sunday who wished I had talked a little more about the man in the Gospel parable who had been “bound hand and foot, and cast into the outer darkness… where there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth,” all because he had failed to show up for the banquet in proper wedding attire. I had mentioned in my homily that this fellow might have been an archetype for those who came to the King’s banquet to eat drink and be merry, but who were indifferent to the purpose of the feast. But that explanation wasn’t enough, it seems. How could a God of love who wants most of all to be at–one with us… be so quick to condemn and punish someone who was, at worst, guilty of being a “party crasher.” And that’s a fair question.
So, I’ll offer you some thoughts in this regard based on a close reading of Scripture. First, some background: the parable of the wedding banquet only shows up in two of the gospels, those of Matthew (22:1-14) and Luke (14:15-24). And only Matthew includes the bit about the fellow without a wedding coat. So, apparently, Matthew had a point he wanted to make. What might that be? Drilling down a little further, you may remember that Jesus addressed the man without the coat as, “Friend.” Sounds deceptively chummy, doesn’t it? And, sure enough, in the original Greek, the word ἑταῖρος (hetairos) comes from ἔτης (etēs), which means “friend” or “fellow.” But hetairos may also mean “different” or “other” (think hetero–sexual). And here’s where it gets interesting: this word, hetairos, only crops up four times in the New Testament. All four occurrences are in Matthew’s gospel (11:16, 20:13, 22:12 and 26:50), and in all cases, it’s Jesus talking… and he’s not being chummy. He’s speaking to (or about) an “other.” In fact, in Matt. 26:50, Jesus is talking to Judas, who had just betrayed him: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Given other references in the Gospel narrative to Satan having “entered” Judas either just before the Last Supper (Luke 22:1-7) or during it (John 13:27), I wonder if the “other” Jesus was really addressing in his conversation with both Judas and the improperly attired wedding guest was his old, old, friend: Satan… the deceiver… the destroyer… the enslaver of worlds—his adversary since the dawn of creation—the ultimate other. You might recall that it was Satan’s rebelliousness and tendency to breed sedition among the angels that caused his expulsion from heaven, “down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit” (Isa. 14:15). Sheol… the Pit… the very thought makes me shiver. It’s likely a pretty dark place filled, I expect, with sounds aplenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And so, what if… what if… Matthew’s Jesus was describing at the end of the parable is nothing less than the King of Heaven pausing after the consummation of the wedding feast, the final reconciliation between God and the church, to finish a work begun at the dawn of creation: Satan’s final expulsion from the world, once and for all, and his return to his home in Sheol? Satan was the ultimate party crasher, after all—just ask Adam and Eve.
What do you think?