This is not a pretty parable, in fact, I don’t know that any of the parables of Jesus are very pretty. Most of them are absolutely terrifying, and they serve as powerful warnings to all who are brave enough to read them.
Our parable this morning starts out innocently enough; a grand wedding reception is planned. And right away, as Jesus tells the parable, we learn that it is a parable about the Kingdom of God. And in this parable there is a king who is having an awesome wedding celebration for his son. If this wedding was taking place in Hollywood, this would be an a-list wedding. Anyone who was anybody would have been invited. Media coverage would have been huge, and facebook would have been all atwitter. This is a royal wedding, and those who have been invited have received a high honor. This is definitely a not to be missed event.
And so as the time nears, the king sends out his servants with the message: Now is the time. Come and celebrate with me and my son. We are ready for you. But inexplicably, in spite of being previously invited to this grand event, no one seems interested in attending. And to add to the mystery, no excuses are offered by those who have been invited, it is just that they don’t show up. And this is of course, inconceivable to the king, and quite baffling to boot. The invitations have been sent, why aren’t they coming? What is going on? How come no one has responded to this once in a lifetime event? What gives?
But as baffling and as mysterious as it is, the king will make one more attempt to gather in his recalcitrant guests. And so he sends a second delegation of servants to the invitees, but this time, with a bit of a pleading message. In the message we can sense the confusion and the disappointment that the king is experiencing. “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” Can we sense the desperation and the loss that the king is experiencing? He doesn’t know why his guests refused to answer his invitation the first time, and there’s a sense of urgency in his second invitation. Please come. I’ve done all this work for you. The meal is ready. I want to celebrate with you. If you don’t come now, all will be for naught. The food will spoil. Please, please come. I want you to be with me, I want to share this wonderful event with you!
And this time, some of the invited guests begin to offer some pretty lame excuses. I’ve got to wash my hair, I’ve got stuff to do around the house. I’ve got a business to run. I’ve got a farm to tend to. Instead of simply ignoring the invitation like they had the first time, the invited guests made light of it. They boldly indicated that they had better things to do than to attend some old king’s wedding banquet. The invitation meant nothing to them.
And completely unexpectedly, some of the invited guests responded with violence. What is going on here? Why not just keep on making excuses that are totally lame, and get on with one’s life? If there is no interest in the king’s invitation, why resort to violence? If they don’t want to come, why don’t they just stay away? As we saw in last week’s parable though, God’s messengers have been the victims of God’s people throughout all of history, beginning with Moses and continuing on into our present day. And so even though it is unexpected, some of the invited guests seize the messengers, mistreat them and kill them. The message to the king is abundantly clear. There are some who will not only refuse to receive the invitation, but they are also willing to resort to violence to prove that they will not receive it.
In last week’s parable, after sending two delegations of servants and messengers, the landowner sent his own son, believing that the wicked tenants in the vineyard would respect his son. And, as we saw last week, that didn’t work out so well. The wicked tenants seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
In this mornings parable, the king does not send his son to re-invite the guests to the wedding banquet, he sends, instead, an army. The king is enraged. Disappointment and loss has transformed itself into wrathful anger. Two delegations of servants and messengers is plenty enough in this parable; grace has reached its limit, and justice will prevail. It may seem extreme and perhaps a bit far-fetched that a king would react this way over a spurned invitation and a bit of violence against his messengers and servants, but it stands as a stern and stark warning to all who would take God’s invitation lightly, whether it is by simple refusal, lame excuses or especially violence. No good can come to the one who refuses God’s invitation. This parable makes that terrifyingly and abundantly clear.
But herein lies also the great and glorious mystery. In spite of the refusals, the lame excuses, and even the violence perpetrated by the a-list invitees, the wedding banquet is not canceled. It will still go on; it has been planned since the dawn of eternity. There is nothing that will stop it. The a-list, however, has been abandoned. They have proven themselves to be unworthy. And so now the invitation is extended to anyone who will show up. It does not matter to the king. He sends his servants out into the streets, and he tells them to invite anyone they can find to the wedding banquet. The goal now is to fill the wedding hall with as many guests as will come.
And the wedding hall gets filled, but none of the new guests resemble any of the original a-list invitees. This new bunch is a rag-tag assortment of tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners and street people, with a smattering of some decent folks, precisely because the invitation went out indiscriminately. If we’re curious these are the kinds of people who responded to Jesus while he conducted his ministry here on this earth. For the most part, the a-listers spurned him and stayed away. But more than anything else, this is a broad expression of God’s grace and mercy, once again. As we saw last week, after losing two delegations of servants, and even his own son, the landowner continued to lease out his vineyard. This week, after a display of righteous wrath and indignation, the king opens up the wedding banquet to anybody, good or bad, who will respond to the invitation. The goal is not to compile a list of guests who will attract the attention of the fawning social media, but rather to have a wedding celebration regardless of who shows up.
And I think this is sometimes where we mess up a bit. A popular misconception is that the Christian church is loaded up with a-listers; that we’re all bright and shiny examples of holiness and righteousness, and that we haven’t got much use for tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, street people and other social misfits. And maybe we like it that way, and maybe we’d really rather have it that way. It is certainly a tidier way to conduct operations. But as long as we intentionally or passively perpetuate that misconception, God’s invitation will not go out, and the banquet hall will not be filled as God intends. God’s new way is to invite anyone who will come regardless of whether they are good or bad.
The last bit of this parable is the most terrifying of all. The party is in full swing. The newly invited guests are enjoying the meal, but mostly they’re basking in the new-found grace that the king has extended to them. Actually, they’re reveling in that grace, and so should we. This is a celebration after all, to which we all have been invited at the very last minute, by the most awesome king in the universe.
And quite wonderfully, the king is mingling with his guests. Which is one of the most wonderful and most frequent promises in all of Scripture: I will be with you. This is something that the a-listers missed out on, of course, because they spurned the king’s invitation. They made it clear that they did not want to be with the king. But as the king mingles, he notices a guest without a robe. Apparently none of the other guests has noticed this. And I suspect, that because it is only the king who has noticed it, that it is only the king who knows. To the other guests present, this guest must appear to them, to be, in fact, wearing a robe. As far as they are concerned, this person is just another guest enjoying the party, apparently indistinguishable from all of the others.
But there is something amiss that only the king notices. And so the king becomes confrontational. “Friend, how did you get in here without a robe?” An interesting characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel is that whenever the word “friend” appears, it never is. And this is clearly the case. And the guest has no answer, because there is no answer to give. The parable teaches, rather bluntly, that even tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, street people and other social misfits must undergo some sort of transformation before they can become true guests of the king at his wedding banquet. This guest without the robe, is clearly an impostor, and is judged accordingly. The guest is expelled from the banquet. This frightens me beyond all imagination. It makes me think.