It is painful to imagine that a loving forgiving God would allow someone to wind up in outer darkness.
The hard news of today’s Gospel is that God will let us choose the darkness. God will let us miss the feast.
But the great good news is that God bends over backwards to have us at the table.
As we heard in the passage from Isaiah, the ultimate promise for God’s people is “a feast of rich food, a feast of well aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow.” Abundance.
Throughout the Bible, the God of the Passover meal and manna, the God of loaves and fishes and the Lord’s Supper and water turned into wine invites us to feasts and dinners…a series of parties, culminating in the “marriage supper of the lamb” in the book of Revelation. (Rev. 19:9).
But some of us refuse the invitation and others of us show up without investing our hearts.
This morning’s Gospel combines two different parables that continue the theme of last Sunday’s Gospel: God’s desire for relationship with us and the importance of our response. Matthew connected Jesus’ parable of people invited to a wedding banquet with a different parable of a man who hadn’t prepared properly to be at a wedding banquet—perhaps because both stories explore God’s invitation and the hearers’ response.
Ignoring for a moment the man without the wedding garment and setting aside our anxiety about our own presence at the banquet, let us use the first parable to consider how much God wants us there.
In Matthew’s allegorical version of Jesus’ parable, those who were originally invited, those who were the obvious guests for a party hosted by the king, were re-invited when they couldn’t be bothered the first time. Faced with a second invitation, those invitees made it absolutely clear that they refused to attend the party.
Only then did the king become angry and say that the invitees were “unworthy.” For their worthiness did not rest end upon who they were or their economic circumstance or how they had lived their lives up to that point. The king longed to have the original invitees at his table until they absolutely refused him. Their lack of worthiness was simply due to their unwillingness to say yes to the king.
And so the king sent his servants out into the streets and they brought in “all whom they found, both good and bad.” Without screening for level of sinfulness or knowledge of Scripture or appropriateness of lifestyle, the servants filled up the hall with guests. The king welcomed them all, good and bad.
That’s where the first parable ends.
Who are we like in this parable?
Have we entrusted ourselves to the hands of our host?
Or are we still trying to be worthy of God’s invitation? Trying somehow to earn our way into the banquet, rather than simply accepting that we belong?
Perhaps we are ignoring the request, busy with our business, trying to get our life in order or live out some dream. Do we think the invitation is optional? Do we imagine that another will come along?
God’s feast is the only feast that really matters and through God’s grace our place cards await, now, if we accept the invitation.
And saying “yes” implies meaning yes, which leads us to that other parable of the man who went to the wedding party, then was thrown out.
But first, let me tell you about a meal that is served each Sunday in downtown Washington.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Church of the Epiphany on G Street has served breakfast on Sunday mornings after the 8 am service. On my first visit to the parish, in the early 1980s I enjoyed a delicious meal with a group of ten or twelve elderly parishioners. We drank coffee and orange juice and ate scrambled eggs, bacon and toast served on the church’s china plates. A few years later, the 8 am parishioners began inviting a couple of the homeless men from the streets of downtown to join them for breakfast.
This morning, downtown at Epiphany, there was breakfast as usual. A handful of parishioners enjoyed a pleasant meal with about 140 hungry guests—men and women who live in homeless shelters or on the streets of Washington. Everyone had scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, applesauce, biscuits and grits served on china plates. A gracious group of volunteers, both parishioners and people from the streets, served coffee to those seated at the breakfast tables.
In contrast to so many soup kitchens and feeding programs, anyone can have breakfast at Epiphany and will be treated with respect. However, if they fight or are abusive they will be asked to leave. There is an expectation of an attitude that comes with accepting hospitality at the banquet.
And that is the point that Matthew is making with his second parable about the man without the wedding garment.
Since this is a separate parable, the man without the garment was not necessarily one of those invited in from the masses on the streets. Even if he were, it would be counter to everything else we know about the gospel message to imagine that Jesus would care so passionately about an outer piece of clothing.
But God does care about our hearts and through other gospel stories, like the one in which the woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, we know Jesus appreciated the ancient Near Eastern rules of hospitality. So given the level of the king’s outrage, we can assume that the hearers of Matthew’s parable understood better than we can how the guest had seriously insulted his host.
To compound the problem, when the king asked the man about his garment, the man made no effort to communicate with his host. The king addressed the man as “friend,” but the man “was speechless.”
God will engage with us endlessly as we struggle with what it means to live a life of faith, but we must actively embrace God’s invitation to be in relationship.
We must put on our baptismal garment.
In today’s parables, no one was kicked out who had not been initially included by the king. God bends over backwards to get us to the banquet table. The choice is ours—to say yes and to mean it.
In a few moments, when we gather around this banquet table, only God will know whether we are simply going through the motions or whether this is, for us, a moment of accepting God’s invitation to the feast.