Many are called, but few are chosen, Pentecost 22, Proper 23 – 2008

[RCL] Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Our gospel reading is one of those stories from the Bible that makes you want to call for a time out or an instant reply. In fact, if the parable was a football game, at least one referee would throw his yellow flag high in the air. He wouldn’t be calling “failure to wear proper equipment” on the man tossed out of the banquet. Any fair referee would spread his arms wide to signal “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The parable would come to a halt and the referees would confer, talking about how the guest discovered out of uniform was bound hand and foot and cast into darkness. The king is in clear violation of the rules of sportsmanship.

Yet kings have never been ruled on by referees. The king in this parable does as he will, punishing a last-minute guest for not being properly attired. There is no one to cry foul in the parable. We are left scratching our heads, as this is Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven. Why does God’s kingdom sound unjust?

We begin by acknowledging that Jesus’ parables always catch us off guard.

They are meant to do so. Jesus creates stories that pull you in. You cruise along, listening to Jesus’ story, watching the scenery of the parable as you ride by. Then Jesus slams on the breaks, turns the wheel hard to the left, and you find yourself driving straight into oncoming traffic. Jesus’ stories have a way of getting you turned around, seeing things from a different angle.

Jesus begins with images we understand at once: a king is giving a wedding banquet in honor of his son. As thoughtful Christians, we immediately see the parallels. As this is the Kingdom of Heaven, then the king is God the Father, and the Son being honored is Jesus. Easy enough to follow so far.

The king sends servants out to personally encourage those who have been invited to the banquet. The guests refuse. The king makes the offer more tempting by giving the servants a description of the party. The guests make light of the offer, and one goes to his farm, another to his business, and Jesus tells us, “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

This starts to sound like Jesus’ teaching in a parable that occurs at the end of the previous chapter in which a landowner planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower. But at harvest time the tenants refused to give his servants the produce. After some attempts at sending servants, the landowner sends his son, whom they seize, throw out of the vineyard, and kill. This earlier parable tells of God sending the prophets who were beaten and killed and then God sending his own son who would also be put to death.

The parable for today as well as the one that precedes it fit with our understanding of salvation history – God comes first through the prophets and then through Jesus, and some people reject both. Despite the offers, many choose not to attend the wedding banquet, which is the end-times feast Isaiah promises in our Old Testament lesson.

The king gives an invitation, which is so like Jesus. He says, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Everyone is invited into God’s kingdom, even those who were previously outcasts. All is well until the king bumps into an improperly attired guest and remarks, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The wrongly dressed guest could have answered, “Your servants practically dragged me in off the street.” The man gives no reply.

Then we get the ending that makes us wonder where Jesus is coming from. The king tells his servants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is when the flags get thrown on the play. The whole scene needs to be reviewed. We look at the instant replay and see the moment everything changed. Jesus said, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

The parable at that point comes to mirror Jesus’ teachings on judgment. Later in this same week before he dies, Matthew writes of Jesus teaching that the Great Judgment will be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Those who took care of the least will be placed on one side. Those who did not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and so on, are placed on the other. Judgment falls on those who did not care for the needy.

In the same way, the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven from today’s reading is a picture of the coming judgment. If we focus on the weeping and gnashing of teeth, we miss the grace of this parable. The king gives a free invitation to the wedding banquet. No one has to earn his or her seat at the table. Both the good and the bad are encouraged to come into the feast.

Guests to a wedding feast were not expected to provide their own attire. They would be given robes on entering the banquet hall. The invitation was open. The feast was an unearned gift, and so was the necessary clothing. For the first Christians, the parallel was baptism. The early church placed robes on those coming out of the waters of baptism. The white robes were an outward sign of the inward grace of being clothed in Christ. Candidates for baptism were washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb as Jesus’ righteousness covered their sins.

As the wedding banquet is the judgment at the end of time, the robe expected of the guests was this baptismal robe. The grace is that the guests, both good and bad, did not have to provide the robe. The king wants the man to explain how he is improperly attired after having been offered the garment needed for the feast. He was given the team jersey for the Kingdom of Heaven and refused to wear it.

It wouldn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ teachings to decide that the point of the story is that we already have our baptismal robes and therefore can afford to be smug. No guest to the wedding banquet should enjoy seeing others who were invited failing to join the feast. The cost of the free gift of grace was too high for us to feel self-righteous and to show no concern for others.

The gift is to see that even after having his gracious invitation rudely rejected, the king continues to invite others to the banquet. The feast is not reserved for the perfect, but for those willing to be perfected by the generous offer of the host to cover our imperfections with his own robes of righteousness. Far from making us arrogant, this is cause to be humble, knowing that we neither deserved nor earned our invitation.

But as the last line, “Many are called, but few are chosen” hangs in the air, we also see that those who have been robed in Christ are to live into that new life of grace. Having been perfected in Christ does not give us license to continue unchanged. We are to respond to God’s call by conforming our lives ever more closely to Jesus’ life.

The parable may sound offensive on first reading, and we may be tempted to call a foul. But sports analogies miss the mark. In sports, you have to earn your place on the team by your own merit. To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you just have to receive the gift freely offered and then live into the life to which God has called us.

Written by the Rev. Frank Logue
The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia. Email: frank@kingofpeace.org.

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