The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, 12 October 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Deacon Paul S. Kahn
Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always precede and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
How many of you had a mother who used to say, “Always be sure to put on clean underwear every day, because you never know when you might be in an accident and end up in the hospital?” Well imagine that you actually are in an accident, and are brought to the hospital, and you assume you’ll get in to the emergency room, and of course they’ll take care of you, right? But you get there and find out that your very survival depends on what you are wearing. Mom was right once again. Maybe Mom had read the parable we’ve just heard. And maybe Mom took it to heart, and wanted to make sure her kids understood that when it comes to salvation, complacency is a dangerous thing.
This parable of the wedding feast is one of the toughest in a Gospel that’s full of tough parables. It forces us to look at our concept of heaven, and more specifically, at our assumptions about its door policy. Some of our assumptions are very deeply held. Some of them, we can get quite emotional about. And that’s why the parable shocks us. I daresay it shocks many of us each and every time we hear it.
Most commentators, and most semi-informed readers such as myself, view the king’s wedding feast here as an allegory of the heavenly banquet. It’s a view that is so beautifully set up for us by Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of … fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined … He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…” To Matthew’s Jewish audience, this was the kingdom that the Messiah would establish. This was the kingdom that was promised to them in the Hebrew Scriptures. This was the kingdom that the chief priests and the Pharisees were confident they would enter, so long as they obeyed the Law. And here’s Jesus, in place of their mothers, telling them, “Beware.”
Well, warnings to the chief priests and Pharisees are meant for us as well, so let’s see what we are to take away from this startling tale of a king, a wedding feast, and a hapless guest without the right garment. Is it about judgment? Yes. Is it that simple? No. I am going to suggest that this parable is really about Grace. Not the lovely, gentle, embracing grace that we find, for instance, in Luke’s story of the prodigal son, but the humbling, almost unbearable grace that absolutely demands a response from us. And that response, in the world of this parable, is the wedding garment.
The king has invited some people to his banquet. He is generous, he is merry, he wants people to feast on his fatted calves. But the people don’t come. They’re dismissive, or they’re downright malicious, and some just have better things to do. But the feast is all prepared. So the king sends the servants out to invite everyone they can find on the streets. Everyone, both good and bad! Isn’t this a great image of God’s goodness to us, to all of us? No disqualifications, no exclusions. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, we are invited to the feast! So we show up! But what are we wearing?
A certain Rabbi Jacob, in the second century, wrote, “This world is like a vestibule before the world to come. Prepare yourself in the vestibule for the meeting in the banquet hall!” Prepare yourself. But how? By doing good works? Not in our theology. No, we prepare ourselves by first realizing that we have received the invitation. Let’s call that “Grace.” No matter who we are – no disqualifications, no exclusions -- we are already invited to the feast. In fact, we get a foretaste of it every time we approach that altar. And once we acknowledge the invitation, we then respond by putting on the wedding garment. This is important: it’s not the garment that makes us worthy of the invitation; it’s the invitation that calls us to put on the garment – the garment of repentance, of righteousness, and yes, of good works. The wedding garment, in this parable, is like an outward and visible sign of Grace. It’s a sign that we are not complacent about the invitation to the feast, but have responded in faith and gratitude. Our poorly attired wedding guest didn’t bother to respond at all. He evidently felt that he deserved his place at the table.
So Jesus is giving us here three essential pieces of information. One: we are all of us invited to the Lord’s table. Two: it’s not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. And three: don’t be presumptuous about items One and Two. We can ignore the invitation – not a good idea, as the parable makes clear. We can presume to come to the Lord’s table trusting in our own righteousness – but that only leads to gnashing of teeth. But we can – and are called to -- respond to this almost unbearably generous invitation with what is true, what is honorable, what is just, what is pure.
In closing, let us pray, using today’s collect as a springboard: Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always precede and follow us, and call forth from us those thoughts and deeds which are pleasing in thy sight, that at last we may approach thy heavenly banquet clothed with gratitude and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
©2008 Paul S. Kahn