This past week I was on a walk with my wife Alli in the dusk of early evening. We were catching up after a day of work. As we walked on a quiet sidewalk, there sat a masked skeleton in a chair. Even though I knew it was fake and plastic… I tensed up, raised my hands, and skirted around it, veering off the sidewalk and onto the street to give it space. I didn’t want it to be one of those motion-activated decorations that scare you when you walk by. It didn’t move. Alli and I continued on our walk.
You’ve probably also seen Halloween decorations popping up around town or at your own house. It’s the season of the year for scary movies and all things spooky like skeletons and spiders and witches and ghouls and ghosts.
But our Matthew gospel text isn’t just spooky. The wedding banquet parable Jesus tells is more of a horror story.
Horror stories seem to endure because they reveal something true about our world and about ourselves. Humans are capable of horrific things. We’re haunted by scary forces.
My hunch is that most of us are more familiar with the banquet parable that has a happy ending. It’s the one we find in the gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells a story about a dinner, while eating dinner himself.
In Jesus’ parable in Luke, a person throws a dinner party and invites guests who each have excuses they give to why they can’t come: a field they bought that needs checking, five yokes of oxen that need to be worked, and a recent marriage. All good reasons. Work to do, places to be, responsible stuff. But the dinner host sends his servants out into the highways and byways to gather up the poor, the sick, those who cannot walk or see.
We know this happy-ending story of radical inclusion well. The oppressed gather at God’s great table of freedom and peace and love to share abundant food in the here and now and in life everlasting. Beautiful. Amen. May it be so.
But that’s not how it goes in today’s text.
Because the wedding banquet parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew is a horror story. Jesus is in the midst of what we might call a horror-movie marathon late in the gospel of Matthew.
Right before our text, Jesus has entered the temple, flipped tables and disrupted commerce, clashed with religious authorities, and healed people with blindness and disabilities. This fierce-mood -Jesus, has cussed out a fig tree, he’s entered into intense debates with his fellow Jewish teachers, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the chief priests and elders, and large crowds, with buckets of popcorn, have arrived to watch the spectacle.
The parables Jesus tells at the end of Matthew are filled with vivid and intense images of violence and betrayal and the need for watchfulness, faithfulness and righteousness to see the kingdom of heaven, a realm marked by the presence of God in the least of these – the hungry, thirsty, foreigner, the sick and imprisoned…and the naked.
Jesus begins our horror parable gently enough, “The kingdom of heaven has become like… a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Good so far.
The initial invitation is dismissed by some. But then, others who were invited turn on the king; killing the king’s slaves. The horror of revenge ensues – the king escalates the violence by sending in his army, to destroy and kill. The city which had just received an invitation to feast at the wedding banquet is now burnt in rage.
After these flames of war have subsided, the wedding dinner meal of oxen and fatted calves, is still warm. They hired good caterers, I guess. More slaves are sent out – they hit the highway, with instructions to invite everyone they can find, good and bad folks alike, in order to fill up the banquet hall. If we stopped here – we could get our happy ending! It’s still a brutal story but at least it turns out well for the second round of guests.
But Jesus continues on with the parable: The king enters the banquet hall and singles out one guy. “Hey you, yeah you, why aren’t you wearing a wedding robe?”
And the poor fellow is speechless, silent, shocked. Why would he have some fancy wedding clothes on? Just a minute ago, he was swept up off the city’s streets to be here at this wedding banquet.
The king reacts brutally, ordering that he be bound and thrown into outdoor darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the language of hell. And if the terrifying beginning to the parable was its vicious violence – here it is the more personal and palpable shame of showing up somewhere and not being properly dressed.
It’s the bad dream that wakes you up in the middle of the night – where you are naked on the day you have to give a class presentation. It’s showing up to a wedding, not having read that the invite specified formal attire and you’re wearing a ratty polo, cargo shorts and flip flops. And deeper than all this – it’s a sort of sinking feeling, a dread that when we show up for that thing that we longed for most – that we’ll be rejected, bound up and cast out. That when we meet God we won’t be enough, we won’t be wearing the right clothes.
The shame of nakedness and the horror of violence.
Why does Jesus tell these types of stories and why do we listen? They aren’t simple stories, but confusing, confronting, difficult-to-chew-on tales. They are complex enough to hold up alongside the enormity and reality of what life brings.
This week you – maybe like me – have been haunted by what you’ve seen and read on your phones and screens. The brutal attacks by Hamas in Israel, the Israeli army’s escalation of violence, the unfolding humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza seek water and food and safety in an impossible situation. In this horror, we pray with Jesus, Lord in your mercy, gather your children as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wing.
To hear about this wedding banquet gone awry invites us to wonder with Jesus at where God is in the horrors of our world and in the shame of our lives.
We strain with the listeners who first heard this parable asking, where is the kingdom of heaven in this story? Where is God’s kin-dom springing up in our communities? Where is God’s party breaking out on our streets? Where is God to be found when cities are burned and people are mistreated and killed?
Yet still the invitation goes out, go out into the highway, invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.
Jesus knew and experienced and holds and grieves all the horrors of this world. Like the dinner guest who showed up with the wrong clothes, Jesus knew what it was to be stripped and naked, to be clothed in garments of shame. Like the king’s slaves who were violated by those they were sent to invite, Jesus knows what it is to be overwhelmed by forces of violence and fear and death.
In Jesus we come to know a God who is NOT like the king of our parable – because God does not own slaves, but sets people free. God does not send out armies waging wars of revenge but God sent out and continues to send Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to bring life to all the world.
There is no pain too small for God’s great love not to accompany it. There is no shame, that Christ has not already born with and for us. Even horrors of death that weigh heavy on our hearts, are grieved in the heart of God by a love greater than we can imagine. Again and again God’s invitation to feast at that great kingdom banquet goes out.
We say YES! to that love feast anytime that seeds of peace are planted and replanted and watered. We say YES! to that wedding banquet anytime that songs of hope are sung in the face of despair! We say YES! to that invitation to God’s glorious party anytime that bread is broken and blessed with the hungry, any time the thirsty find water, anytime that the fleeing refugee finds safety, the fearful finds comfort and the wander arrives home.
So wherever you find yourself seated today in this small sanctuary – know that the same big invitation goes out from God to the whole big world – “come to my banquet!”
“For many are called but few are chosen.” Jesus says.
The invitation goes out, many are called, we are called, you are called..to this banquet, to God’s great feast of peace.
And when we show up there, and we always are being given opportunities to show up, be not afraid that you’ll be dressed wrongly or left hungry or cast out into the dark.
For Jesus clothes even the most ragged soul with his great love. Jesus feeds the hungriest child from himself. Jesus stands with the one overwhelmed by the horrors of night.
Under his wing, Jesus gathers the world he loves so much.
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.