Change We Can Believe In
February 23, 2014
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 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. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
And everyone says, “This love will change you.”
Well I ask: “Isn’t that what love’s supposed to do?”
– “Same Changes,” The Weepies
How far would you go to save someone you love?
Sounds like the tag line for an upcoming movie—one of those domestic thrillers where an ordinary man rises up, discovers his inner munitions expert, and saves his soul: “For love of family, for love of country, Russell Crowe is Dad in the Line of Fire.”
But seriously, how far would you go? What would you risk to save someone you love? Would you risk your dignity? Your job? Your life? Would you say things you might regret later? Might you exaggerate, flatter, cajole, maybe even threaten the one you love in order to shake some sense into them and help them see?
Jesus would. In fact, Jesus did. He did so on the cross; that almost goes without saying . . . almost.
But even before that, in his teachings, especially some of his darker parables, you can sometimes hear the desperation creep in—a desperation born of love, but desperation all the same. There is a reckless quality to some of his words, a go-for-broke urgency that I don’t think we can or should ignore, no matter how uncomfortable his words make us feel.
And this parable does make you uncomfortable, right? It certainly makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I’m ready to get off the bus before the end of line two. The kingdom of heaven is like a king who sent out his slaves to invite all the right people to his son’s wedding banquet? Ewww. I don’t want the kingdom of God to have anything to do with anything resembling slavery. That just puts me off right from the get-go. And the king in this parable doesn’t help any. I mean who does this guy think he is, telling people what to do, where to go, and—perhaps most damning of all—what to wear. Dude, back off!
And if the king is really only a thinly veiled stand-in for God, what’s God doing leveling cities in anger one minute and then totally relaxing his standards the next by inviting the good and the bad alike to his feast, only to turn around again and cast a man into hell for something as petty as violating the dress code? What is going on here? This king comes across, to my twenty-first-century ears at least, as pompous, capricious, and vindictive. He is a tyrant, and if there is one thing we have little to no tolerance for in America, it’s tyrants. If this king is supposed to be God, well, let’s just say this is a picture of God very different from the one of love and mercy I hold dear.
I don’t think the chief priests and the scribes and Pharisees, to whom this parable was originally directed, would have liked it any more than I do. Although curiously, the parts that offend me—and, I assume, you—would probably not have offended them quite so much, whereas the one part I like and I hope you like too—that part where everyone gets invited to the party—well, that would have put them right over the edge.
But in a way, that’s beside the point. The point here is that Jesus is pushing hard, pushing our buttons as surely as he was pushing theirs, risking any number of theological misunderstandings in order to get our attention and make us all an offer we can’t refuse.
So try to hear the good news embedded deep down in this story. Don’t let the details bog you down (that is, don’t treat the messenger—in this case, the parable—as poorly as those first guests treated the king’s slaves), but try instead to hear the invitation being held out to us all, and take it seriously. Forget everything you’ve been taught to think about absolute rulers, as an American citizen, and try to understand that back then, in the first century, to be invited to the table of the king would have been a great honor, an honor you would have been crazy to refuse.
Take a moment and let that sink in. Know that whatever Jesus is asking of us this morning, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel initially, know that on some level we are being honored with a tremendous gift. For to be invited to the feast of a king would have been an amazing opportunity, as great an event as winning the lottery, and the very idea that you might refuse it because you had better things to do—as the first guests did—would have been ludicrous. There was nothing better to do. (There was no American Idol or Friday-night football back then, nothing). To ignore the honor of this invitation would not have made any sense at all.
But to abuse that honor and throw it back in the face of the king by killing his messengers—forget ludicrous, that would have been suicidal. It would have been as grave an insult as one could commit, an outward declaration of war against the king if ever there was one.
And yet, that’s pretty much what had happened in the context of God’s relationship with his people Israel. Jesus’ meaning here would not have been lost on his initial audience. Jesus was asking the leaders of his faith to take a step back and acknowledge how God, the king, the supreme power in the universe, had been trying to break through to his people for centuries through his messengers the prophets: men like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah.
He had told them over and over again that what he truly desired was not a life of flawless ritual observance but a life of kindness, justice, and mercy, not perfect temple attendance but rather attendance to the needs of the weak and vulnerable in their midst. In plain English, God doesn’t care if you are very religious. What God really cares about is how you treat others.
And yet his invitation to do justice, love kindness, and walk with humility, his commands to defend the widow and the orphan, feed the hungry and uphold the oppressed, had fallen on deaf ears. God’s prophets had been spurned, some even beaten and killed. And those people who had set themselves up against God and ignored his invitation had indeed suffered. Those first guests mentioned in the parable, whose city was destroyed by the king, are a thinly veiled reference to the Israelites who lost Jerusalem back in 600 BCE and were killed or carried off into exile.
So Jesus, in today’s parable, is warning the keepers of the faith back then—and by extension us right now—not to make the same mistake as our common ancestors, even as he is letting us know the good news that, in spite of all we have done to spurn God’s love and turn a blind eye to injustice, God has not given up on humanity. Indeed, God has thrown open the doors, laid a feast, and is willing to welcome all: the good, the bad, and the ugly; the chief priests and the tax collectors; the scribes and the lepers; Jews and Gentiles; Pharisees and prostitutes—to welcome any and all who are willing to come and help bring his kingdom to earth. God’s gracious invitation is open to everyone. We are all invited to show up and live lives of compassion, justice, and mercy.
The men Jesus was speaking to that day might not have liked this news very much. In fact, I’m pretty sure they hated the idea, but at least they would have heard the message that it is never too late to change our ways—as all the guests in the parable would have changed their clothes for the wedding—and enter into the kingdom.
All the guests, that is, except for one. Right?
What are we to make of that poor fellow, the clueless wonder who wanders in at the end of the parable and gets thrown into hell? If God’s kingdom is open to all, truly open to all, the good and the bad, why does it matter what he’s wearing? If the feast is truly laid for everyone, why can’t he stay?
The answer is remarkably subtle, so subtle I almost missed it. Initially I thought it all boiled down to the idea that the invitation to heaven (God’s kingdom, salvation, the feast, whatever you want to call it) is free and open to all as long as you are willing to change. The unfortunate guest wasn’t willing to change, so he had to go.
I figured that unless you repent, clothe yourself in Christ, and resolve to act with love and justice and mercy, as the prophets directed, then you cannot come into the kingdom of God. I was all set to paraphrase Bonhoeffer and say that although grace is free, it is not cheap, and that somehow you must alter your behavior in order to merit it—that great love comes with great expectation. In fact, that is pretty much what I said the last time I preached on this, and that may well be the point.
But there is something about that interpretation that sticks in my craw. Somewhere, buried deep down
in that way of thinking, is a quid pro quo that, in my mind at least, has no place in the kingdom of God. Somehow I think, even as good as that sounds, that the gospel, the good news, is even better than that.
So here is what I think Jesus is really trying to say to us all. I think he’s saying that the feast is ready now. I think he is desperately trying to show us that every moment matters, that every single decision you make in this life has the power to either lead you deeper into heaven or throw you farther out into hell, not some time in the future, but right here, right now.
This invitation Jesus is holding out to us is not a free ticket to heaven someday, on the condition that we eventually change. No, I think the invitation is to change now and in doing so experience heaven right now. That is why his message is so urgent. It’s not the one leading to the other. The change itself is heaven. The kingdom isn’t somewhere else. The kingdom of God is within you.
I don’t know if that makes any sense, so let me give you a few examples:
How many of you have had the pleasure of working with Take and Eat? Well, the hope you feel for humanity as a whole when The Next Barn Over donates all the produce, the tingle of delight you experience when you secure an incredibly good deal on the meat, that feeling inside of you when you work together to prep the meal, or that love that wells up inside you when you place it, still warm, in the hands of one of our recipients, that connection you feel in that moment, seeing and being seen by someone who might otherwise be forgotten, that’s heaven…now.
When you find the grace to forgive, reconcile, and restore relationships, that is heaven.
The joy you feel when you give of yourself to help someone else…
The exhilaration you experience when you give voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power…
The freedom you feel when you confess…
The fullness you experience when you fast so another can eat…
The courage you find within as you reach out to hold someone in her grief…
The peace you feel when you live your life with intentionality…
The awe you feel in the face of love…
The sense of accomplishment you feel when you raise a wall on a Habitat house…
That is heaven, so why wait? My friends, you are invited to enter into it right now. Sure, there is also a place you’ll get to go to when you die, and I have no doubt we’ll all eventually find our way there, but understand that what Jesus was offering them in that very moment—and, by extension, what Jesus is offering you and I in this one—is the knowledge that every moment holds within it the opportunity to change into heaven right now. The shabbily dressed man hadn’t done it. He was present in body, but not in spirit. And that is not just what Jesus wants of us, that is what Jesus wants for us. This is not a threat, but an invitation, an honor, an opportunity, a gift. You do not have to live the way you have been living a moment longer, if that living is what’s keeping you outside the kingdom of God.
So don’t leave today thinking that God’s gonna get you if you don’t change. Don’t walk away from this parable shaking your head and wondering where God gets off placing all these conditions on his unconditional love. If there is any small part of you left asking who this king thinks he is, telling you what to do, then take a moment and turn it around.
Consider, if you will, who this King would be if he didn’t.
Try to hear the urgency born of love that beats within the heart of this parable and receive his invitation as the gift that it truly is. Embrace the truth that the opportunity to change, the opportunity to become less self-centered and more generous, kind, and loving; the opportunity to forgive and seek forgiveness; to live for justice and practice kindness; is the greatest invitation you could ever be offered. It is the supreme privilege of your humanity, and it is yours for the taking, right now, by nothing less than the grace of God.
People of God, the feast has been laid. All is ready. Let us seize the invitation and rise to the occasion.
O Lord, you hold your invitation out to us, but the temptation to delay, the temptation to busy ourselves with other things, the temptation to deny your call, is ever present. Help us, Lord, to come into your light right now. Give us the courage in this very moment to be born anew in your love. Grant us grace, that we might claim our place at your table this day and forevermore. Amen.
Rev. Sarah Buteux