“Get Your Act Together: Accepting God’s Invitation” Matthew 22:1-14 Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
March 24, 2019
The pastor was giving a children’s sermon, where every week the children anticipate him making a new point about Jesus. This particular week she begins by holding up a stuffed squirrel and asking, “Do you know what this is?” Silence. The pastor asks again. Silence. Finally, one little boy is bold enough to shyly raise his hand and offer, “Gee, I know I’m supposed to say Jesus, but it sure looks like a squirrel to me.”
Sometimes we are stuck between what we imagine we are supposed to think, and what we actually think. This especially happens in the world of faith and church. On the one hand, we all carry with us the weight of tradition – not only whatever we have been taught our whole lives, but what people have been thinking and teaching and believing for hundreds and thousands of years. We are never independent from those things – even though sometimes we might wish to be. On the other hand, we our own have the questions, thoughts, struggles, and beliefs. A lot of times, part of growing in faith is experiencing a conflict between the heritage we inherit and the paths we travel today. Sometimes we think we’re supposed to see Jesus, when all we see is a squirrel. And sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.
Something like that is going on with today’s scripture text, I think. Today’s scripture reading is not an easy reading. Jesus tells a parable about a king who sends invitations to his son’s wedding. Those invited decided not to attend, and some even roughed up and killed the king’s messengers. Then the king got so mad he sent an army to kill them and he burned down the whole city. Then he has his slaves invite everybody they can find to fill the place, after which the king singles out a man in the room without a wedding robe and has him bound hand and foot and thrown in the darkness for his lack of preparedness.
Yeesh. “The Word of the Lord”?
There is a long-standing interpretation of this story. It has been taught a certain way for generations and generations. In this interpretation, the king Jesus talks about is assumed to be God. Those who reject the initial invitation are those who rejected Jesus in his lifetime. Since he this story while surrounded by religious leaders who are questioning his authority and plotting to arrest him, this interpretation often holds that he is accusing those leaders of being those who ignore God’s call. But things are good for those who accept the call – they come to a wonderful feast! And the lesson is that the kingdom of heaven – which is Jesus’ way of talking about what the world is like when we let God’s ways rule – the kingdom of heaven is like a party for anyone and everyone, including you and me and people we don’t like, because God is gracious and invites us all in. And then the last bit about the man bound and thrown in the darkness, well, that’s supposed to remind us that it’s not enough to simply show up but that we need to always be working to live in a way that honors God’s will for ourselves and the world. [i]
So the plan today was for me to preach the story this way, and to explore the conflict between people who often pay lip service at best to God’s invitations and a God who holds us accountable for poor choices. Certainly there’s plenty to explore there. But there are some difficult details in the story that messed with my plan for this text. The king that’s supposed to be God in this story rules by incredible force and violence, killing people and destroying a city for a failure to turn up at a wedding, only to later send someone out to be tortured. It takes some gymnastics to make that a nice story about being welcome to the feast and trying your best to live right. To be clear, I think those conclusions are right and based on the whole witness of scripture. But as an interpretation of this particular story, it smoothes out a lot of rough edges and I’m no longer sure it offers the best path for us today.
There’s another way to read this parable in which the king in the parable is actually just that – a king. In this reading Jesus is contrasting the kingdom of heaven with the way this king rules. After all Jesus’ audience would almost certainly hear of a king and think of King Herod, who was known to be particularly petty and violent, especially when it came to his own wedding invitations which is an interesting thing I learned this week.[ii] (As it turns out, rulers being angrily offended at refused invitations continues to this day, if you remember a certain flap about a championship basketball team not accepting a White House invitation, but I digress). The kingdom of heaven is found not in the raging and violent king but in the man who arrives at the king’s party but isn’t pretending all is well, the man who is bound and thrown in the darkness to suffer. After all, Jesus is telling this parable in the Temple in Jerusalem, and people with lots of power are there, plotting for a way to arrest him. In just a few days Jesus will stand before a Roman judge named Pontius Pilate, and in Matthew’s story he doesn’t say a word in response to Pilate accusations before he is bound hand and foot to the cross, where he will weep and cry out to God in despair. This may not be how we want to see Jesus, but this is how Jesus wanted us to see him: willing to take on his people’s suffering if it meant igniting a movement to relieve that very suffering.
So, we have a conflict. There are two main ways to read this story: one with the weight of long tradition, the other offering a very different perspective. Is this a story about a wedding feast to which all people are invited, a joyful feast where we are called to be our very best selves? Or is it a story about an outcast savior who defied a tyrant, calling us to focus not on a king’s wedding feast but on those cast out for refusing to celebrate the violence of the powerful and privileged. Is it both? Neither?
You are invited into this conflict at least in part because I decided to go a different direction in the sermon long after the service was planned and bulletins printed, so today in worship we are hearing multiple perspectives on today’s text. But I actually think that’s how we should operate; not with me packing everything nicely for you but rather with me inviting you into this messy conflict so that we can all learn better how to navigate these conflicts in our own lives.
While I respect the long tradition of interpretation that focuses on the joyful feast to which God invites us, I’m learning towards the newer interpretation. But I’ve decided not to make a case one way or another. Hopefully you can trust that I’ve done my research and spent time with the Greek and prayed and read commentaries and all that – and if you want to dig in more my sources will be posted online with the sermon and I’m glad to send you stuff. But I won’t tell you what or how to believe. Your questions are yours, your journey is unique, and I can help but I can’t do it for you. Your faith journey is your responsibility.
It may not be about this story for you – at least not usually. But I imagine that at least for many of us in this room, there are parts of the tradition and heritage we carry that don’t sit very well with us today. This is true for us as individuals and as a congregation. There may be aspects of who we have been and the faith we have shared that no longer seem to be life-giving today. There are things your parents taught you about faith that don’t seem to fit anymore; things you’ve heard at church whether ten minutes or 60 years ago that don’t seem to hold up to the reality of daily living; beliefs and values you hold that put you at odds with what you’ve been given.
These are not the sorts of conflicts that can or should be “resolved” in that we decide that we believe one thing and not the other, or try to make some sort of break from the past and do a totally new thing. Even people who do conflict resolution for a living will tell you that conflict over values and beliefs, whether within ourselves or between ourselves and others, cannot be resolved – it’s not possible and it wouldn’t even be helpful. Instead we try to understand the perspectives involved, respect them when able, learn to live in the midst of differing perspectives, trusting that we will find our way forward when we don’t know the way. That maybe God has something to do with that.
Past and present, tradition and now, faith and doubt; God as king or God as suffering servant. These conflicts and many more define a mature life of faith and a mature faith community. Part of developing a mature faith is not avoiding such conflict, it’s engaging it. So let us not run away from conflicting interpretations or ideas or beliefs or values, in ourselves or in others, but instead to lean in a bit more. Explore. Question. Try thing out for size. Growth happens when we have the bravery of the child who admits that the squirrel is supposed to be Jesus, but to him it looks just like a squirrel. When we admit, accept, and even embrace the conflicts and contradictions we have the opportunity to grow into our own faith as people on our own journeys and as people on this shared journey called church.
Whether it was the point of today’s text or not, at that banquet we are invited to challenge rulers and authorities who act with violence and oppression, knowing when we do we are in the presence of the Holy. And whether it was the point of today’s text or not, we are invited along with everyone else to bring ourselves and our own ideas and thoughts and beliefs to this magnificent banquet called community, where we can come together to explore and listen and puzzle and disagree, all in the presence of the Holy. There will always be conflict at that banquet, as we seek to find the way on our journey. To accept that is to accept yourself and your neighbor, just as you are, and to find good company on the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] I am indebted especially to the following resources for helping me explore this perspective.
For careful exegesis of the Greek language I am grateful to D. Mark Davis for his post “The Kingdom of the Heavens v. The Kingdom of a Human King” on his blog, Left Behind and Loving It. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-kingdom-of-heavens-v-kingdom-of.html
For careful commentary and exploration I am grateful to Janet Hunt for her exploration “The Wedding Banquet: Turning It Inside Out” on her blog Dancing With The Word.
I am also grateful to two colleagues for their sermons on this text:
Julie Morris’s sermon “The Banquet” at The Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal), Oak Park CA, from October 15, 2017: http://girardianlectionary.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Morris-Wedding-Banquet-Proper-23A.pdf
Paul Neuchterlein’s sermon “When a Squirrel Is Just A Squirrel” at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Portage, Michigan on October 12, 2008: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper23a_2008_ser/
[ii] Marty Aiken explores this story’s connection with Herod, and Herod’s own wedding and power struggles, in his groundbreaking paper “The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet” presented at the 2003 Colloquium on Violence & Religion at Innsbruck, Austria: http://girardianlectionary.net/res/innsbruck2003_Aiken_Paper.doc