SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2011, THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Let me tell you a story . . . .

Those six words seemed to be on Jesus’ lips all the time as he walked through Palestine during the three years of his public ministry because his primary means of teaching was parables, and parables are stories.  What the proverb was to Solomon, and what the fable was to Aesop, the parable was to Jesus.  Parables are essentially comparisons -- “this is like that.”  It’s what my grandmother would call “putting the hay down where the goats can get it.”  Jesus would take something familiar to his listeners and use it to explain something less familiar.  John Claypool said three things typified the particular genre of literature that Jesus used to teach is that the images Jesus used in his parables were “always familiar and drawn from everyday life.” [1]  A landowner hiring day laborers to work his fields.  Seed sown along a path.  A shepherd caring for his sheep.  Jesus’ listeners knew about these things, so he used them to convey meaning about deeper issues with which his listeners weren’t as familiar.  Second, Claypool says, the stories Jesus told had intriguing plots, which drew people into the stories and lowered their defenses to hearing the truth of what he was saying.  And lastly, there was the “element of surprise.”  Parables always start out as portraits of other people, then bang, they suddenly turn into mirrors the listeners see themselves in.  This is what Claypool wrote in his book Stories Jesus Still Tells:

This is how Jesus worked the miracle of reconciliation again and again.  People would come to him in all degrees of panic, fear, and anger.  Yet instead of confronting them head-on and driving them deeper into their defensiveness, he would . . . . defuse their anxiety by saying, “Let me tell you a story . . . .”  Then, drawn in by the narrative and with their defenses down, the listeners would see the story as a mirror, and its light would make their personal darkness visible.  In this way, parables became events of revelation.  Profound things began to happen to people at the deepest levels of their beings.[2]

That is precisely what’s going on today in Matthew 22 when Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Feast.  It’s a pretty familiar parable, found not only in Matthew but in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus wants to explain the kingdom of heaven, so he says “Let me tell you a story,” a story about a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son and sent out servants to bring in all the invited guests.  So let’s look at the story and ask two questions:  First, what do we learn about the nature of God?  And second, what do we learn about ourselves? 

First, the nature of God -- If we took a survey on Charles Street this morning, asking everyone we saw what they thought God was like, I’ll bet you one answer would be very prevalent.  Some say God is like a big judge up in the sky, looking down on us with his big notebook, making little marks in columns for every deed we do that’s good and every deed that’s bad.  That’s the picture I had of God growing up, that of a rather harsh task master who rewards the good little boys and girls and punishes the bad.  We even used to sing a little song: 

Oh be careful little eyes what you see,
Oh be careful little eyes what you see,
for the Father up above
is looking down in love,
so be careful little eyes what you see.
 

That song messed me up.  I mean really, Be careful little eyes what you see?!  What if my little eyes glimpsed something bad in the car on the way home from church?  What could I do then?  And I guarantee you that didn’t sound much like a father looking down in love, watching for my every misstep. 

But the God Jesus describes in this parable -- and the king is most certainly the God-figure in the story -- isn’t anything like that, is he?  His kingdom isn’t a strictly regimented place where little boys have to constantly guard their eyes and ears and always do the right thing.  No, it’s like a party.  In fact, think of the best party you can imagine.  Now multiply that by infinity.  Remember what we read today from Isaiah:  On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples -- a banquet of aged wine; the best filet mignon; lobster on every plate; foie gras (I’m not even entirely sure what that is, but it sounds ritzy); tables of cakes and organically grown vegetables and every delicacy you can imagine.  And there are no tears at his party, no sadness, no disgrace, not even death.  And God wants us to share in that with him.  That’s the nature of the God of this parable.

Second, what do we learn about ourselves?  We learn that we are all -- every one of us -- invited to the party.  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.  (Matt. 22.10)  Admittedly the invitations to the party go out in waves.  There’s a first wave that doesn’t accept the invitation, and it’s important to see there are two different ways to RSVP “no” and refuse to come to the party.  One group simply paid no attention; “they went off -- one to his field, another to his business.”  The other group responded violently, seizing the king’s servants and even killing them.  But either way, they found themselves outside the feast.  Now all of us probably know people who have absolute disdain for God and who want nothing to do with him, but the violent rejection of God probably isn’t the response we’re prone to. 

The more jarring image to us is the people who simply didn’t have time for the king.  Back in 1997, Bill Gates gave an interview to Time magazine where he said:  “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient.  There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[3]  But just because we’re here on Sunday, that doesn’t let us off the hook.  This week I was in Vermont for my annual clergy covenant group retreat, and one of the guys mentioned that he is always telling his parishioners that if they want to see where their heart really are, all they have to do is look at their pocketbooks and their calendars.  Are we starting to see ourselves in Jesus’ parable?  Given how we spend our money and our time, does it seem like we are accepting God’s invitation into his kingdom, or are we turning away to our fields and our businesses and our families?  All of us are invited into God’s feast, but when we chose anything else over him, even good things, we reject the invitation and keep ourselves outside. 

One last point:  Jesus has one last surprise in store, and it’s the last guy in the parable, the one who comes to the feast but finds he’s not dressed for it.  When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.  “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”  The man was speechless.  Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  (Matt. 22.11-13)  Remember -- Jesus used familiar images in his stories, and the practice of the day would have been for the host of the feast to provide wedding costumes for all his guests.  So what’s the deal with the guy who slipped in with his own clothes?  All of us instinctively know we can’t stand before God in our own dirty clothes.  Adam and Eve cast about for fig leaves, right?  And the prophet Isaiah said All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.  (Isa. 64.6)[4]  So it can’t be that we just have to be good enough to survive divine scrutiny.  Even our righteousness is like filthy rags.  The guest list for the feast is filled with both the good and the bad, but the key is that if we want to come to this party, we have to let the king dress us.  We can never do it ourselves. 

That’s the most surprising part of the parable.  Jesus told this parable during the last week of his life, after his entry into Jerusalem.  In just a few days, Jesus will be taken to the Praetorium where he will be beaten and stripped.  (Matt. 27.27-31)  Jesus, God himself, was stripped so that all of us -- the good and the bad and the greyest of us in between -- might have garments to wear to stand before his father.  All we must do is accept our acceptance, and let the king dress us for the heavenly feast. 

Let’s pray -- Thank you, God, for being a God of such lavish hospitality, for preparing the richest feast imaginable and then inviting us in to join you.  Forgive us for choosing other things -- our fields, our businesses, our families, our diversions -- instead of wholeheartedly choosing you.  Now, as we come to the Holy Eucharist, a foretaste of the messianic wedding banquet, please clothe us with the spirit of repentance, clothe us with forgiveness, clothe us with the righteousness of Jesus, and let us come into your kingdom. 

Amen.


[1] John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables, rev’d 2d ed. (Boston, Mass.: Cowley, 2000): 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Time, vol. 149, no. 2 (13 January 1997).

[4] The account of the great wedding supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19 says there will be a great multitude who stand in the place of the bride, and “fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear (fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints).”  (Rev. 19.8)  There is no contradiction, however, between Isaiah’s image and Revelation’s.  The former refers to acts done do earn righteousness before God, while the latter are acts done in gratitude for having already been made righteous by God.