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“Get In Here!”

Date: March 13, 2023/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

March 12, 2023 (3rd Sunday in Lent)

Get in here!

Matthew 22:1-14

Awhile back, a friend of mine who lives in the Netherlands invited several friends to her home for a dinner party.  So she’d know how much food to make, how many places to set at the table, how much wine to buy, she asked the people she invited to RSVP by a certain date.  None of them did.

She was left wondering whether anyone would show up, and she didn’t know what to do next. 

Should she assume no one would be there and make a regular meal for just her and her husband?  If so, what if the people did show up, and she had nothing to feed them?  Or should she go ahead with her plans as though everybody she invited would attend?  If so, what if nobody showed up?  Or what if only two or three of the ten or so she’d invited arrived, and they were seated at a table set for twelve?

All of this stress and consternation could have been avoided easily, if the people who’d been invited has just tossed her a quick e-mail or text saying, “Yes, we’ll be there!” or “No, sorry, we can’t make it.”

But then we have the additional problem of people sending in their RSVPs, saying they’ll be at the party, and then not turning up, presumably because they got a better offer.

I’m not exactly Miss Manners, but it seems to me that if someone is planning to go to the time and effort to prepare a feast for her friends, the least those friends can do is let her know whether or not they’ll be able to come to the feast—and then, if they say they will, they should, unless they have a compelling reason, like coming down with a flu.

I’m not going to go down the road some have taken, in which those of us who are older look down on those who are younger and proclaim that they’re Doing It Wrong and the breakdown of society is inevitable.  For one thing, I remember the same things being said about my generation three decades ago; and quite truthfully they’ve been said about every generation when they’re young.  There are actually Sumerian clay tablets in which somebody is lamenting the younger generation—thousands of years ago.  And somehow we’re all still here.

But this RSVP thing sort of bugs me.  It seems like the Golden Rule ought to apply:  If you were throwing a dinner party, how would you want your guests to treat your invitation?  Would it be okay with you to prepare a potentially expensive dinner for a dozen people, and not know how many might show up?

No, most likely you’d want them to send in their RSVPs, so you know how many steaks and how many bottles of wine you need to buy.  So if you’re invited somewhere, you should treat the one who invited you as you’d want to be treated if you were having folks to your home for dinner.

Of course everyone knows that things come up:  I could, for instance,  enthusiastically accept your invitation, but get rear-ended on the way over.  But if that happened, while I’m waiting for the tow truck (assuming I’m not seriously injured and on my way to the hospital), I could call or text the host and let them know what’s going on.

With that said, though, I’m pretty sure that, even though it might be irritating, failing to RSVP or flaking at the last minute aren’t capital offenses.  That’s just one of many details in this parable that are hard to swallow or just plain don’t make sense.

Why would servants be killed just for inviting people to a party they don’t want to go to?

And then there’s the actions of the king:  in the midst of preparation for the feast, he drops everything to raise an army and go fight the people who’ve turned down the invitation.  It’s not like such a campaign could be planned and carried out while supper’s cooking.  Remember this was before we had telephones or the ability to strike targets from the air.

Of course we know parables aren’t necessarily accurate representations of how the real world works, but this kind of detail can trip us up.

In Luke’s version of the story, the people who were brought in after the original invitees said no were poor, disabled, homeless—probably couldn’t afford a wedding garment, so why would one of these be penalized for not having one?  Not only that, but it doesn’t look like they were given any time to go home and change, even if they did have something suitable in their closets.

Then there’s one detail that really bothers me—especially now, after the Holocaust, or the Shoah, which is the Hebrew name for it.  That’s the violence against those who chose not to attend.

I understand the irritation of having people not show, or not RSVP, for a dinner party—but the death penalty, and destruction of their city?  (To be fair, the king only attacks and kills the ones who not only refuse to accept the invitation but also kill the messengers, who probably represent the prophets God had sent over the years.)  It’s not a story about real life, but it’s problematic all the same.

Matthew was writing from the depths of a family feud between Judaism and early Christianity in the aftermath of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce.  There was grief and blame on all sides.  Many scholars tell us this parable is Matthew explaining that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s rejection of the Jewish people because they didn’t accept Jesus, and viewing the Christians, by his day a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, as replacing the Jewish people in God’s favor.

And many who’ve understood it this way, down through the centuries, have used this text—and many others—as justification for mistreating Jewish people.

But after Hitler’s atrocities, it was brought home to us just how horrible the consequences of that interpretation of scripture can be.  Yet it’s pretty clear that this is what Matthew was trying to say in the first part of the parable.  So how do we find good news here?

We have to start by remembering the context—the family feud that erupted after 70.  We have to do this so we can avoid the misuse of passages like this one—and the one at the end of Matthew where the crowd accepts blame for Jesus’ death[1]—to justify discrimination and attacks against Jewish people throughout history.

I don’t think we have the luxury of imagining this is a problem we left behind in 1945, either.  Maybe it’s because the people who survived the Shoah and those who liberated the camps and saw what happened there are now quite elderly, if they’re still living at all, so the memory is no longer fresh and firsthand.  Many Jewish people living right here in the United States have been saying recently that they’re not sure if they’re safe, even here, in light of things like those people in Charlottesville back in 2017 marching with torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”

“Never again” means just that:  even if we don’t remember the Shoah ourselves, we must learn our history and stand up when we start seeing it trying to repeat itself.

So what do we do with a passage like this one?  Do we have to say that if it’s in the Bible, in Matthew’s Gospel, that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s judgment on the Jews, we have to accept that and behave accordingly?

Knowing that there’s no conflict between people where hurt feelings and inflammatory rhetoric run higher than they do in a family feud, we might be able to put the details of this story in perspective.  Matthew and his community of Christians, many of whom were Jewish, were breaking away—or being pushed away—from Judaism, at the very same time that Judaism itself was in crisis because of the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew must not be interpreted as saying that all Jews for all time are culpable for Jesus’ death or that they are to be considered eternally damned because their ancestors chose not to follow Jesus while he lived among them.[2]  (And even if they were eternally damned—which I don’t believe—that’s between them and God, and Matthew absolutely does not endorse Christians doing violence against Jews or anyone else because we consider them on the wrong side of God.  The parable of the weeds among the wheat[3] makes the point that our attempts to deal with those we consider unrighteous have a way of doing more harm than good.)

We also need to leave Luke out of it for now.  It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly when more than one Gospel tells the same story, because we’ll usually like one version better than another, and when we read the other one we’ll always have the one we like better in mind.

When Luke tells the story,[4] he tells it from a different point of view from Matthew’s, and he records it to get his own point across.  One of the main themes of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus came for everyone—not just the respectable people, but also, maybe especially, the outcast, the poor, the people no one else loved.  So when Luke tells the story of the wedding banquet, he makes sure we understand that the ones welcomed in after the first invitees bailed include the outcast, the poor, the people no one else loved.

But the main theme in Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets—that he is the promised Messiah and the way God’s reign will be ushered in. 

If we read Luke’s details into Matthew’s version, we’re likely to assume the people brought in are what Luke describes—the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame—and that they do not have the proper clothing for a royal banquet.  That leads us to ask why such a person, having been invited in, would then be cast out for wearing the wrong clothing.

Some commentators have said that at this kind of feast in Matthew’s day, the host would provide the proper clothing for any guest who didn’t have it.[5]  I suppose it’s sort of like what you see in old movies sometimes, where people go to a fancy restaurant and the maître d’ tells them they need to be wearing jacket and tie—and then goes back to a closet and brings out a jacket and tie for the improperly dressed diner to wear.  (Does that actually happen?  I’m not really one to frequent the kind of restaurant that might have this kind of dress code.)

If that’s the case—if the guest mentioned in the parable had been given a robe to wear—then he doesn’t really have an excuse.

What point is Matthew trying to make?  This detail doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the family feud that may have prompted the first part of the story, which makes it that much more puzzling.  But I think this is actually where we fit into the text.[6]

In the Bible, especially in Revelation, but not just there,[7] the “day of the Lord,” the day in which all is set right and God’s Reign is fully realized on earth, is described as a time when all are invited to a great banquet.  It’s often envisioned as a wedding celebration.

Those invited in, both good and bad, are able to sit at that feast because the king chose to open the doors to them.  It’s a gift; nothing in their lives or their social standing has necessarily earned them the right to be there.

However, Matthew, like James in his letter, wants us to understand that there are certain behaviors, certain ethical standards, expected of those who become Christians.

In this story, the invitation to the banquet is extended to “both good and bad.”  In Matthew’s point of view—like in Luke’s—having the morals and ethics straight isn’t a requirement before we enter the church.  A person wouldn’t have had to own a wedding robe to get into the banquet.  “Come as you are,” the servants would have said.  “The king will have the right thing for you to wear.”

So the wedding robe represents our new life in Christ—and keep in mind that in the early church, newly-baptized Christians were given a new, white robe to wear, symbolic of that new life.  The wedding robe is “You shall love the Lord your God with everything you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The wedding robe is “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

If we accept the invitation to the banquet and refuse to wear the provided robe, what are we saying to the king—to God?

Why do you suppose this man wouldn’t wear the robe?  Is he just at the feast out of some sense of obligation, but determined that he will not enjoy himself?  Does he think that his old clothes—his old way of living, his old way of talking and walking and acting—are good enough, and don’t need to be changed?  Does he fear that the new robe will look silly on him, that his friends and kinfolk might make fun of him?

I don’t know.  The text doesn’t say—and neither does the man.

The king makes his inquiry without any malice; he calls the improperly dressed guest “Friend.”  And the guest is speechless.

I’ve always assumed that speechlessness is because the man knows he has no excuse for not wearing the robe; he doesn’t defend himself because he cannot.  But what if, as Robert Farrar Capon says, he actually refuses to speak to the king?[8]  What if his speechlessness isn’t because he’s been caught and knows there’s nothing he can say that will make it right, but is actually a refusal to have even the most rudimentary relationship with the king who invited him to the banquet and provided him a robe to wear?

Maybe anything he’d said would have been better than nothing.

When it finally comes down to it, the king wants this man to be his friend, as he has called him; but the man for some reason doesn’t want any part of that.  The king means nothing to him; he was doing just fine on his own, in his own old clothes, thank you very much.

Is it possible that sometimes we are this wedding guest?

Sometimes we assume we’re doing fine, and God is basically irrelevant to us.  Or—although we sure can’t assume our Sunday worship service is actually the great banquet Matthew describes in his story—we’re really only here because someone made us come, or it’s a habit, just the thing we do on Sunday mornings.  The rest of the week, we live the way everybody else does; and quite frankly, we’d be just as happy sleeping late, or golfing, or at the lake, on Sundays like everybody else does.

We might be at the banquet today, but come Tuesday nobody’s necessarily going to know it by the way we look or act.

When—not if—we’re asked why we have not put on the garment of new life that God has given us, a garment decorated with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love, how will we answer?  Will we answer at all?  Or will we just turn away and refuse every offer of relationship God extends to us?

[1] Matthew 27:25:  “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”

[2] Paul, in Romans 9—11, puts the relationship between Jews and Christians, as well as between Jews and Christ, in a different perspective.  The upshot of his long argument is that God made a promise to the Jews, and God doesn’t break promises.

[3] Matthew 13:24-30

[4] Luke 14:15-24

[5] Eugene Boring, in his commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible, says there is no historical evidence that this was the case.  However, if the wedding garment is seen as representing the new life we have in Christ—solely a gift from God—and if we assume this king is meant to represent God, it’s not entirely out of line to imagine this king providing the clothing, even if that doesn’t hold true in actual, historical reality.  (And, as we’ve seen, a fair number of details in this parable don’t conform to actual reality.)

[6] We ought not, however, flatten this story such that we think it offers guidance about how people should dress for church.

[7] See Isaiah 25:6-8.

[8] Capon wrote three books on Jesus’ parables, which have now been combined into one volume under the title Kingdom, Grace, Judgment:  Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.