Most of us like a good wedding reception. People tend to be happy, hopefulness is in the air and good friends and family are enjoying being with one another. In first century Palestine the wine would be flowing. Yet, just like with many weddings, something unexpected occurs. This event is no different and we get various odd twists and unexpected guests.
One of the uncomfortable plot-lines is the note of judgment. Judgment as understood here is not condemnation, it is more like a wake-up call. All through this parable we have alarm clocks going off, events that are there to startle the hearer and bring about the possibility of seeing in a new way. This parable challenges us to wake up and understand that God is not about business as usual. As always, parables are offered to unsettle something in us, get us to take note and thereby make room for God.
Note also that the parable is one of grace. Grace is something we find hard to believe or even sometimes allow. Do you remember the reactivity when the Amish community in Pennsylvania forgave the shooter of their children in the tragedy at their school? I am aware of some who are horrified that we pray for all in the massacre in Las Vegas, including the shooter. Doing so is hard, to be sure, but it is faithful. We are so very afraid that someone somewhere is going to get something she or he doesn’t deserve, especially if we know how hard we work and believe ourselves to be deserving. We may know in our heads the theology that “we are justified by God’s grace through faith,” but we often live as if we are justified by our own merit and what we contribute. Surely, we must have to do something!
Listen to Frederick Buechner in his little yet grand book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. People are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” Our own catechism says it well: “Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved.” Scandalous.
We come now to the first note of grace. God wants to celebrate. We have a God of the party and we are invited! It is a party in honor of his son, (think Jesus here!), and today this Eucharist is a party, a celebration, in honor of Jesus. But now the alarm goes off. Why? Those invited in a free act of kindness can’t bother to come! So a second invitation goes out. The dishes are ready and hot—there’s a sense of urgency, but he invitation is made light of as they have things to tend to at the farm or business. They made excuses. We make excuses. God hears more excuses than a State Trooper.
The world, then and now, is full of folks who don’t know a good thing when it is right in front of us. Free grace, dying love, extravagant acceptance – it’s all absurd. It’s too good to be true. I wonder. What are we running from? The best thing ever offered is God’s banquet where all, no exceptions, are invited to the table. Maybe it’s because some part of us doesn’t really want to be transformed and set free. It’s scary to trust such all-encompassing boundless love. So we cling to our insular worlds, stick to what we think we already know, self-justify and believe that if we’re just kind to others and behave ourselves we’ll get to the party. The danger of course is that we turn Christian life and faith into a minimalist moralism that never transforms anyone.
Here’s the kicker. God still invites, still pursues, as the second alarm clock goes off and the invitation is offered to those on the streets – the societally outcast and despised. Apparently, God doesn’t play by the rules! The hall is then filled with guests who have come for God-knows what reason, including those who would not be on our list of the deserving. Think here any person we would prefer not to see at our own dining room table, even as God invites them to his banquet table. This is the part of the parable that is supposed to offend our good sensibilities of societal categories. The message is this – one is saved, that is included in the banquet, by accepting the invitation, no matter who you are or what your life history has been.
Now we come upon one more wake-up call. The guy without the wedding robe appears. Very odd. We have to presume that others were given one to wear, nevertheless, here he is attending the party. The king wonders how he got in and he is kicked out, but note – no one is kicked out who wasn’t first in. God’s grace tells us that the invitation is our way to God’s party, not our track record. Yet the truth is that we are given free will and we can, if we want, refuse the gift of the robe of acceptance and turn down the invitation. God doesn’t force us to show up and we get the point that for a follower of Jesus, complacency is not an option.
St. Augustine has said that we are to “love God and do anything we want.” His point is that in loving God, everything we do will be shaped by that love. The way we live life then becomes an act of thanksgiving for the grace given, not a way to earn God’s acceptance of us. Our responsibility as the Church is to do all we can to make God’s banquet available to anyone and everyone just as it is for us. Take a seat. Let us keep the feast.