A sermon on Matthew 22: 1-14 by Nathan Nettleton
How many of you saw the movie Pulp Fiction? What about the Blues Brothers? In away this parable that Jesus told reminds me a bit of those two movies, because the violence and bloodshed is exaggerated to such a ridiculous extreme that it becomes impossible to take seriously at a literal level. And this parable is all the more bizarre because exaggerated violence, almost played for laughs, comes in the middle of a story that is essentially about grace, about the generous love and mercy of God. So what on earth could it mean?
When Jesus says that this story is like the Kingdom of God, he doesn’t mean for us to literalise it any more than he does when he says the Kingdom of God is like a woman kneading yeast into bread, or the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or the Kingdom of God is like an embezzling accountant. He’s saying “Here’s a good story, listen in, I’ve spiced it up a bit, and like every good story there is truth here, and it might help you understand a little more of the Kingdom of God.”
Now, into the story. Once upon a time, there was a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. We can probably assume that he prepared it for his soon-to-be daughter in law as well, since wedding feasts usually involve two people, but it doesn’t actually mention her.
It’s easy to forget while sitting seriously in church, how often Jesus talked about parties and went to parties. John’s version of the Jesus story begins with Jesus whipping up some more Grange Hermitage so a wedding party won’t fizzle. We have accounts of Jesus at parties at Matthew’s House, Simon”s house, Mary and Martha’s house, Zaccheus’s house, just to name a few. Then there are the party parables, like this one and the one for the prodigal son. Then there is the last supper, which Jesus said was the fore runner of the party to end all parties, the big marriage supper of the lamb of God. In Jesus all the world is invited to party.
The Kingdom of heaven, he says, is like a party. The King wants everybody on the guest list there, because he’s celebrating, he’s happy, and he wants to share his happiness with everyone else. And so when the time came near, he sent his servants out to let the guests know that it was ready.
At this point things begin to get a bit complicated. The invited guests won’t come. It doesn’t say why. Maybe they were preachers who hadn’t finished preparing their sermons. Maybe they’d just had a new modem connected and were itching to surf the net. Maybe they were corporate high fliers and they’d only been in the office for eleven hours so it wouldn’t be the done thing to leave yet. Maybe they were just like most of us, so used to the mundanities of our lives that we don’t recognise a good offer when we see it. Rather watch reruns of Melrose Place than get down and party.
Too many people have become so adapted to the punishing routines and relentless depletion of their lives that they’d sooner accept a God who devours them than a God who feeds them.
But Jesus doesn’t give up. The King is not deterred in his desire to throw the biggest and most enjoyable party for his son, so he sends out more servants. “Tell the guests, the party is ready. The lamb’s roasting on the spit. The caviar and smoked salmon’s on the crackers. The Moet Chandon’s on ice, and the glasses are chilled. Let’s party.”
Here’s where Jesus begins to overstate his case for effect. The guests not only ignore the messenger’s but they grab some of them and kill them. Of course it sounds excessive, it’s supposed to. We of course would be so much more polite. “Oh I’d just adore coming to another one of your wakes.. I mean parties, but I really must fill in my tax return next Saturday night.” The polite fob-off. That’s more our style. But Jesus wants demonstrate just how offensive and unbelievably dumb these kill-joys were. So they don’t just forget to RSVP, they murder the messenger.
Now the story really goes Pulp Fiction. “The King was very angry,” Jesus says. And how! “He sent his soldiers who killed those murders and burned down their city.” This is no country club snub. This is crossing them off your guest list for good. Dead debutantes, slaughtered socialites, bullet riddled tuxedos, bloodstained Marianne Hardwick originals. Things got ugly.
It is of course an over blown picture of the King’s anger. You’re not supposed to take it at face value. If the spit roast is ready the King is not going to tell the chef to hang on a moment while he just wages a war and burns down a city. But Jesus exaggerates it for a purpose. Take a look for a moment at who these country club corpses are. These are the people who were first on the guest list. The people you just had to invite. They’d been to all the right schools, lived in the right streets, drove the right cars, wore the right designer labels. The people whose presence at your party would ensure that it made the social pages.
But for all their style, they lacked one thing – trust, or gratitude, or grace – depending on how you look at it. They were too busy worrying about how they looked to trust the King’s party throwing ability. They only wanted to be at parties that were good for their image. They didn’t have the grace to accept an invitation just out of gratitude at being accepted and wanted as they were at the party. And so trusting in their own stylish image, they join Jesus’ growing list of right people who ended up wrong, winners who lose.
They are the pharisee at the temple congratulating himself on not being like other people. They are the older brother sulking in the dark because he’s too good to party with his prodigal brother. They are the good conscientious religious right-thinking do-gooders who spat the dummy when a grateful sex worker let her hair down and poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.
They are all of us who think our good deeds and clean living are more than enough to get us into the King’s house, should we ever have an evening free to go; and that the king is so good-natured and senile that he won’t take offence if we happen to not show up.
I think Jesus makes the king’s response so over-the-top violent and horrible to emphasise just how utterly wrong we are if we think we can trust either our own goodness or God’s mild-manneredness to get us out of the consequences of rejecting the invitation. Jesus is hammering home just how much is at stake with this invitation. It’s life or death. We are saved from eternal destruction only by our attendance at a party that is already in progress; a party paid for by the death of God’s own son. And since God gives everything as gift rather than reward and asks of us only our trust rather than payment, outside this free party there is absolutely nothing.
Which is why Jesus says the king now moves to party plan B. There is going to be a party no matter what. The kings sends out his servants saying “The party is ready but those I invited were too up themselves to come, so go into the streets and invite everybody you find.” And they went onto the streets and invited (get this) both good and bad alike. Jesus adds that just in case anyone wasn’t getting the point yet!
Both good and bad alike. Everyone coming to the King’s party. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re invited to the King’s party. Bag ladies, old men with long paper bags sticking out of their pockets, young kids with backwards baseball caps and spray cans, plumbers with overalls soaked in sewerage, bleary eyed clubbers who haven’t yet been near a mirror this morning to see what they did to themselves last night. The king wasn’t about to let a little rejection from the Toorak social set keep him from having a good time. Jesus says, with a great sigh of satisfaction, “And the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
But Jesus is on a roll here and there is one more twist in the plot before he’s over. The matter of the bloke who got in but then got booted out for not wearing the right clothes. What’s that all about? I think we’re misreading it if we think this bloke got the boot because he couldn’t afford the right garb. Because remember this king has brought in every imaginable drop-out from the streets at short notice so you wouldn’t think there’d be a tuxedo among them. I reckon the King has said, “Hey, a party’s got to look like a party. What the heck, it’s only another twenty thousand bucks; tuxedos and cocktail frocks for everybody!”
And so when they’re all seated the king surveys the scene, and he can’t believe how good everyone looks. I remember when Margie and I got married I hardly recognised some of our friends from the House of Hope all scrubbed up and trussed up and ready to party. One older woman in particular. I’d never seen her in anything other than a smelly threadbare tracksuit that was held together with safety pins. And there she was in a very elegant dress, heels, her hair and make-up done specially. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a bigger transformation than Margie in a wedding dress!
And so this king is surveying a whole wedding hall full of such transformations. And only one guy stands out from the crowd. It messes up the whole scene. “You turkey, what are you doing in here without a tux?”
And the guy was speechless. Not surprising really. I mean what can you say? You’re there by invitation. You’re there as the king’s guest to party at the king’s expense because the king wants to have a good time and asked you to join him. The whole shebang is pure grace – absolute gift, no strings attached. There is no good reason to refuse the invitation, and even less reason to turn up and then spoil it by refusing to party. You can’t get kicked out of the Kingdom of God unless you’re already in, and insiders only get kicked out if they turn up their noses and decline to participate.
Even then, the guy could have probably changed his tune and stayed, but he just sits there sullen and speechless. Perhaps it might have been different if he’d at least found his voice and blurted out something like, “I’m not going to put on a borrowed tuxedo and fraternise with a bunch of dead-beat nobodies like this lot.” Or “I want to be accepted for who I am and what I’ve done, not just because someone put a silly monkey suit on me.”
If he’d said anything at all the king may have said something reassuring, “Shut up and have a glass of Dom Perrignon. You’ll like these people after you’ve had a couple of drinks. Mellow out, have some caviar. The whole thing’s free. Just enjoy.”
But he just sits there, in silent, sullen desperation, and even though he was an insider, he ends up on the outside; once again in exaggerated fashion, bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness. Judgment falls down like thunder on those who bring it down on themselves by rejecting the way out of it. Hell is where we are when we will not accept that we are accepted. When we stand outside clutching our own goodness, our own petty little virtues, our miserable little airs and graces, while the party rages. Hell is for the sweet, good, well groomed silent majority who play it safe and cherish their dignity rather than risk the party.
But we can’t end on such a down-beat note. The main point of this and all the party parables is this: “All is prepared, the time is now, come to the party. Everything you need will be supplied, there is no charge, it’s all free. All you need is the desire to have a good time and the willingness to come right now. So come on in and party. It just wouldn’t be the same without you.”