The Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Are Your Clothes On?
There are three things to say at the outset.
First, some of parables of Jesus, like this one, can be very tough going and they require an interpretive bridge to get us from the land of their origin to the land of our experience. Constructing that bridge from then to now is no easy task but a necessary one if we are to discern the gospel for our lives today.
Second, parables are deliberately designed to unsettle our normal ways of understanding so that we can hear afresh the News. For instance, the hero of the parable of the Good Samaritan is a religious outsider, while ones we expect to be heroes all fail miserably: the priest, the lawyer, the scholar. Or, take the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s the obedient, good son who ends up refusing to enter God’s banquet, while his lost brother who wasted everything his father gave him celebrates his welcome home. There is always an unsettling aspect of a good parable, so that we can see or hear from a new angle. The problem is most of us don’t want to be unsettled and we certainly don’t want to be disturbed when reading the Gospel. We want something akin to comfort, or perhaps insight on how to live a better, more successful life. Both of these might come to us, although there is no guarantee, except that they will never come without some disturbance. (That, after all, is what the cross is all about.)
Which leads to my third comment. In my experience, it is necessary to be unsettled, even disturbed, to hear the gospel with fresh power to transform my life. I think this is true for all of us, but I’ll let you be the judge.
This parable is actually an allegory, which means that each of the characters and events in the story corresponds to another person and event. This particular allegory details salvation history, from the Christian perspective, in which Israel’s prophets, sent to announce God’s salvation are murdered in successive waves, until the doors are thrown wide open and all the Gentiles, both good and bad, are welcomed into the great banquet where Jesus is host.
First thing the King does is graciously invite all the guests one might expect to the wedding. Alas, with one excuse after another, they decline the invitation. The King will not be undone by he rudeness of the guests; the servants are sent out to bring back the good and bad, until the great hall is filled. All of which conforms to religious history: Israel’s murder of the prophets, Israel’s rejection of early Christian missionaries, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the movement toward a wide-open, mostly Gentile Church.
It’s safe to say at this point that Matthew is asking us to consider something other than a wedding banquet, a miffed King and an odd assortment of guests. The subject is God, the kingdom of God, Jews and Gentiles and what kingdom life is all about.
Let’s take a look at that image of a great hall filled with feasting and festivities. At the end of the day – think now: heaven, eternity, final judgment – the purpose of God is a great party, where all the guests are feasting with joy. This is pure grace flowing from the graciousness of God, who is our host. Whatever other images you carry of final judgment – most of which are very scary –this scene of joyful feasting belongs alongside them.
God wants this feast filled. There appears to be be no limit to the excuses that are offered, the chief of which may be summed up simply as “I prefer life on my own terms and not God’s terms, even if those terms are joyful and just. Thanks for the invite, but I’d really rather be in charge.” The Good News is that the Gracious One who issues the invitation is relentless and will offer it to all, both good and bad.
That the gracious invitation explicitly goes out to everyone, good and bad, brings to mind the irascible Baptist minister, Will Campbell, whose intends to tweak the Church and remind us of its essential purpose. Some years ago in Memphis, plans went forward to open a strip club in a neighborhood. The local Baptist Church and its pastor, which could have been any church but so happens to be Baptist, protested vehemently before the city council. Campbell, who also happens to be Baptist, argued this was just the place for what he called “a whore house, strip joint”: right next door to a Church! Think about it, he said to the church members, Jesus gave you some news to tell the patrons and who knows maybe you’ll have some new people sitting on the pews with you.
Campbell’s role in life is to tweak the church, and the place of strip joints is not the point. What is his point? Perhaps to show how far God’s messengers will offer the gracious invitation to everyone, especially those who are bad, along with the good. Who knows who are truly the good and the bad beyond the most obvious superficial indicators, like the clothes you wear or the degrees behind your name? I have experienced goodness in prisoners on death, and cruelty in people who reside near the top of the social ladder, not to mention in the church. This refusal to divide up the good and bad is essential to the gracious invitation of God. It means that neither you nor I nor the Church is in the position of judging those whom we determine worthy to receive the invitation to join God’s great party. The invitation is to everyone, which is Good News because the line between good and bad runs right through each of us and not just out there.
But here comes the unsettling, disturbing part of the story that is necessary for us to hear the gospel. It has to do with these wedding clothes. They represent a new way of living a disciplined life with others in the community of Christ. The Gracious Invitation includes norms of living in the reign of God. An old line says, “God accepts us where we are but will not leave us there.” That is where the work begins.
The host King is so gracious that one presumes nothing more is involved. Not so. This is the point where confusion sets in and leads to an awful distortion of the Christian life. We are called to live in the paradox of God’s gracious, no-strings-attached invitation to a life of freedom and joy, alongside the necessity of living a new life shaped by the life of Jesus, in community of Christ.
Most of us don’t do paradox well. Either we tilt toward grace so far that a disciplined Christian life is merely one possible option among many others, determined largely by personal convenience, with little expectation of consequences if it is abandoned in favor of something more pleasing at the moment. Or we tilt the other direction, turning the Christian life into such a rigid moral program that grace and mercy are the last terms one would use to describe our lives. The same could be said for the Church which historically has tilted one direction or the other.
Living a paradox – of grace and discipline – requires that we live in the tension of the balance, giving attention to both in equal measure, always keeping our eyes on the Gracious One who invited us into this kingdom life.
Let me close with this gospel song by Charles Singer:
Wait for me Lord: I’m coming!
Wait for me, Lord: I’m getting dressed!
I am clothing my eyes with goodness
to look at everyone in friendship.
I’m clothing my hands with peace
to forgive without keeping track.
I’m clothing my lips with a smile
to offer joy all day long.
I am clothing my body and my heart
to turn towards you,
Lord, whom I love.
Now, I’m ready!
It’s me! Do you recognize me?
I’ve put on my best clothing
for your wedding day.
Imaging the Word. Volume 3. Both Fred Craddock and Charles Singer are quoted here.
Westminster Bible Companion. (Matthew) Tom Long.