An Invitation, A Robe

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
October 12, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
An Invitation, A Robe
Matthew 22:1-14 (excerpts)
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 servants to call those who had been invited to the banquet, but they would not come. … They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. … The king was enraged. … He said to his servants, ‘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.’ They went out 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?’ The man was speechless. The king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him and throw him out.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Sermon Number One: “An Invitation.” A king has a wedding banquet for his son’s wedding, and he invites all of the dignitaries from miles around. When none of them come, he sends out the invitation to the people on the streets—“both good and bad”—and they come gladly.
Sermon Number Two: “A Robe.” The people from the streets all accept the king’s gift of a wedding robe—except one. That man stands there in his street clothes, casually eating caviar and drinking champagne, and when the king asks him why, he says nothing, so the king has him thrown out.
Sermon Number Three: (Untitled) Jesus throws in this confusing phrase at the end: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Which one would you like to hear? <<Wait for responses. ? >>
I wrote all three sermons, just to be prepared. (Not really!)
But let’s take a quick look at all three and see what can be learned from them and how they fit together. We have to assume Jesus knew what he was doing when he created this parable, right?
Picture it: Jesus looks out over the crowd and notices that most of the people there are peasants. They would never be invited to a grand wedding; many of them are not even allowed in the Temple because they’re considered unclean or they don’t have the right sacrifices to offer. So Jesus tells the first story, and he sees smiles spreading across many of their faces. The people in the crowd can relate to this story; in their minds, they are those guests who were gathered, “both good and bad,” from the streets of the town. They are those guests who literally received their invitations to the wedding that day—and left their jobs and their fields and their dirty laundry and their housework and their sick beds and their babies and put on their grandest attire (which probably wasn’t all that grand, considering the circumstances) and came.
The message is clear, to those standing by and to us: The invitation is open to everyone, regardless of differences. Regardless of differences in ability—today is, by the way, Access & Disabilities Awareness Sunday in churches worldwide. Regardless of differences in race, culture or sexual orientation—no matter how you feel about the Supreme Court’s action this week. Regardless of how we struggle with faith, long for answers, long for a closer walk with God—as in the two George Harrison songs our youth sang a few minutes ago: (from My Sweet Lord) “I really want to see you, I really want to know you, but it takes so long, my Lord”; and (from Give Me Love) “Give me hope, help me cope with this heavy load. Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul. Please take hold of my hand, that I might understand you.” And from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven: “I must be strong and carry on, ’cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.” And the king says, “Yes, you do! Just come! Come to the wedding banquet! My son is getting married, and I want you to help me celebrate!”
Now picture this: Jesus notices some in the crowd who aren’t smiling. They’re the scribes, the Pharisees, the religious elite who have figured out by now that when Jesus talked about the dignitaries who refused to come to the wedding, he was talking about them. So they stand a little firmer, gaze a little steelier, and Jesus even hears one of them grumble under his breath, “What’s he talking about? We’re here, aren’t we? We came to his ‘peasants’ banquet,’ didn’t we?” And Jesus knows they’re getting a little hot under the collar, and they’re already trying to figure out how to make him stop. Permanently.
He knows they’re not humble. He knows they love standing apart—above—everyone else. He knows that if they were asked to put down their religious pride and truly worship on the level of the common folk—the people of the streets—they would recoil in disgust. Jesus knows the religious elite wear their robes and vestments as if their own righteousness were sufficient to gain them entry into the grand halls of God’s “wedding banquet.” He knows that, regardless of what they say, they don’t truly believe they need any help at all—from God or from anybody else.
So Jesus creates—on the spot—the next vignette. The guests are at the banquet. The king looks around and is pleased. His guests are wearing their white robes—his gift to each of them, just for accepting the invitation—kind of like the table favors we find at many wedding receptions today and are encouraged to keep as souvenirs of the event. But these guests wear their white robes particularly well. For these are the guests who were gathered, “both good and bad,” from the streets of the town.
For some of them, the “grandest attire” they put on when they received the invitation was probably stained or torn or didn’t fit properly; some of them probably stunk to high heaven; but the sweet-smelling beautiful white wedding robes covered all of that, putting everyone on the same standing with everyone else in attendance. The robes made them less self-conscious—less ashamed or less proud (whichever the case may have been)—and more able to focus on the joyous event of the day—the wedding!
These are the guests who willingly wore the robes they were offered, and then they fit in perfectly because they all looked—and smelled—wonderful.
Then Jesus turns our attention to the guy without a robe—the guy who’s casually standing at the caviar table, drinking champagne, and wearing his street clothes. His own robe. His own vestments. He hasn’t accepted the king’s gift and put on the robe of humility, the robe of equality, the robe of leveling the playing field. He won’t wear the robe of the king’s righteousness because he’s wearing the robe of his own self-righteousness and he thinks that’s all he needs. He has it all figured out, and he feels perfectly comfortable standing aloof and judging the other guests for what he assumes they are like under their white robes.
And Jesus says the man doesn’t say anything. Nothing at all. The king asks him, “Friend? Why aren’t you wearing a wedding robe?” and the man is silent. Speechless. Without words. So caught up in his religious pride that he sees no reason to defend himself. And the king has no choice but to have him escorted out before he ruins the party.
Sermon Number Three – (Untitled) – is Jesus’ commentary after his parable. He says, quite simply, “For many are called/invited, but few are chosen.” The “called/invited” part makes sense: it’s the moral of the story in Sermon Number One. Many are invited (or all are invited). But few are chosen? What is that?
This verse is one of those known as the “difficult texts” of Jesus’ teaching. Much hay has been made with this idiom, with the most hurtful interpretation (in my view) being that of Calvinism’s double predestination—that is, some are predestined (foreordained) by God to get to heaven, and others are predestined by God to go to hell. On the extreme end of this belief, a person may believe she or he is called, but may not, indeed, be chosen. And so you could live your whole life, faithful to God, and BLAM! you die, and you’re in hell-fire, and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. I asked a Predestinationist one time how this could be consistent with the nature of a loving God, and he said, “Well, God could send every last one of us to hell if he wanted to.” …
I did not find that to be a satisfactory answer. …
So great has been the debate over predestination, though, that it has split denominations; it has split churches. In the small town of Westby, Wisconsin—population around 1500—seven miles from where I grew up, there are two Lutheran churches, side by side, because 100 or so years ago, the church split over this very issue, so the detractors bought the property right next door and built a new church on it. That was not a satisfactory answer, either.
In the original context of this parable, though, we may find a more satisfactory answer. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” I went back to the original language and learned that the Greek word eklektos, that has been translated “chosen,” was, when this passage was written, more often used to mean “choice,” as in “a choice cut of beef.” Top-notch, the cream of the crop. And I can see Jesus now, leveling his gaze and speaking directly to his critics, but sweeping his arms widely, expansively, and saying, “Many are called,” (“The world is called!”) and then lowering his arms a bit, making a smaller sweeping gesture toward the smiling crowd and saying, “but few are the eklektos, the choice ones, top-notch, the cream of the crop—because few have chosen to come to the banquet and feast on my father’s love.”
The difference is subtle, but the implications are huge! It means God doesn’t “uncall” anyone. God doesn’t “unchoose” anyone! It means that by our choosing, we are chosen. By our choosing, we are the choice ones, top-notch, the cream of the crop. As we accept the invitation and put on the robe of humility, of respect, of equality, of God’s righteousness and not our own, we become God’s favorites. The gift is right there, before you. The playing field has been leveled. The same beautiful white robe has been offered to each one of us. Many—all—are called, and you are chosen! An invitation, a robe, a gift—for each and every one of us! Try that one on for size!
Let us pray.
Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out life with such abundance that death cannot claim the triumph over your universe. Call us again to your banquet where we may receive your holy food
and, strengthened by what is honorable, just and pure, be transformed into a people of righteousness and peace. Amen.