“Pity Party or Plenty Party?” – Sermon for October 12, 2014

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“Pity Party or Plenty Party?”

A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
preached by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister, on October 12, 2014

Caesar Augustus, the emperor of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar, back in the same era when Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus had a daughter named Julia. As the story goes, one day Julia came into her father’s presence wearing a rather—shall we say—immodest dress. Although her father the emperor was shocked, he did not rebuke her. The following day, to Augustus’s great pleasure, she appeared in a dress entirely suitable to her age and her position as the emperor’s daughter. “This dress,” he said to her, “is much more becoming to the daughter of Augustus.” To which Julia wryly replied, “Today I dressed to meet my father’s eyes; yesterday it was for my husband’s.”[1]

Obviously, the emperor had certain expectations of how his daughter should be dressed. And it’s still true that there are times and places and situations where people have expectations of what’s appropriate for someone to be wearing. Sometimes it’s the formally stated expectations of a school dress code, ruling out skirts that come up too high or jeans worn too low or items that are emblazoned with certain kinds of messages. Or, then, there are the unspoken kinds of expectations, like the ones that some churches’ memberships put on their pastors about what they should and should not be seen wearing—and unfortunately, truth be told, this so much stronger and more frequent for female pastors that these expectations get heaped on them. And, of course, there are also situations that fall in between the formal codes and the unspoken judgments, like the more social expectations of, say, what you should or shouldn’t wear to a wedding or a funeral.

As you’ve heard in our scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable in which apparently there were very definite expectations about what was supposed to have been worn to that wedding. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” we heard the king ask one guest. And the fate that came to that guest was not, shall we say, a very positive one.

This parable is among the most challenging for us to deal with. At least part of the reason this parable is so challenging is because, quite frankly, we liberal Christians are just too literal sometimes. Yes, you heard me right, sometimes we more progressively-minded or more liberally-leaning Christians, sometimes we end up being literalists a bit too much. “Hey, wait a minute!” you might be thinking. “We’re not the literalists; it’s those other guys, the right-wingers, who insist that every detail about the Bible must be historical fact or literal truth, and therefore denying the science of evolution and clinging to gender roles that oppress women and railing against gay-and-lesbian identity and practice. We’re not the literalists; we’re not anything like that.”

And you’re right… we don’t hold to those positions. We don’t believe that the Biblical scriptures are meant to be science textbooks, and neither do we believe every command was dictated by God to be applicable in every age and time and place, ‘world without end, Amen.’

But then a passage like this parable comes along, and we find ourselves still stuck in some of the same ruts as our more fundamentalist counterparts. Sure, when we hear a passage whose language or imagery or face-value implications give us pause, we don’t insist that today things must be exactly so, reason be damned. But so many of us on the more progressive or liberal side of things, we still can’t get past those surface things any more than the other guys. The only difference is that, instead of defending things in the Bible because we believe they simply must be so, some of us end up simply rejecting or ignoring or bypassing those same parts. The conservatives will say that the Bible proscribes something and thus that’s the way things are supposed to be; and the liberals too often simply reject parts of the Bible as irrelevant because what they see being proscribed simply isn’t tenable. But what if there’s a third way. What if we can get past the discomforts that first strike us, and still dig deeper for what the scriptures might still be asking of us?

So, with this parable we’ve heard today, the so-called “parable of the wedding banquet”, there’s quite a lot that gives us pause, and should give us pause. There’s a lot of violence in this story. The king invites people to the wedding feast and the original invitees won’t come. We wonder, of course, why they don’t come, but thus far there aren’t any real “problems” with the story. But then the king sends out people to remind and re-invite these people, and some of these invitees, we are told, “seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” And then it escalates, with the king sending out the troops to kill the killers and destroy their city. Wow, that’s a little severe, don’t you think? And then, of course, at the end of the parable, we have this whole matter of the mis-clothed guest being thrown to the “outer darkness”. So, like I said, there’s plenty in this parable that should give us pause.

Most people who come to this story read it and understand it as an allegory. When a story is allegorical, that typically means that each of the various characters or pieces are meant to stand in for something else. The king, the original invitees, the slaves sent out, the new guests, each of these is supposed to be a symbol for a person or group or thing in real life. But in this case, the easy, face-value allegorical meanings don’t make the story any more comfortable. The king, we presume, is supposed to be God, and thus the king’s son—the one for whom the wedding banquet is being held—is Jesus Christ. But if we start drawing that out very far, we start to wonder… would God send forth troops to actually murder the original invitees who reject the invitation? And who are those original invitees, anyway? Unfortunately, the most common interpretation in the history of Christianity has presumed the original invitees to be the Jewish people, and thus this parable has been one of the many parts of the Bible that Christians have misused to perpetrate atrocities against Jews.

We forget, though, that the actual scene in the Bible where Jesus is telling this parable is in the middle of a conflict with the chief priests and elders and Pharisees while Jesus is in the temple. So, the issue at stake here isn’t so much about the Jewish people as a whole, but about the recognized leadership, the religious establishment. We always must remember that much of our New Testament scripture was recorded in a time when Jesus-following Jews and non-Jesus-following Jews were struggling with one another. There’s a family feud going on, not a family rejection.

We must also remember that prophets calling the leadership to account is something that the Jewish tradition, the people of Israel, had in the scriptures long before Jesus came along. In the Old Testament book Zephaniah, for example, the prophet uses a feast scene to call the leaders to account, too. “For the day of the Lord is at hand;” the prophet says. “the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests. And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who dress themselves in foreign attire. On that day I will punish all who leap over the threshold, who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud.”[2] ‘Violence and fraud’… remember, the parable we’ve just heard from Matthew comes right after Jesus enters the temple and throws over the tables of the money changers.

Another thing I’d say is that sometimes our analogies, our allegorical interpretations, shouldn’t be taken so easily and lightly. The easy, seemingly obvious way to read this parable is to assume that the ‘king’ is supposed to be a stand in for God. But what if that’s not the point? What if this is simply supposed to be a story to provoke a question in us and to us, and not some revelation of God’s character?[3] As one commentator offers, “Matthew’s intention is not to describe God, but to employ a shocking, worldly story to warn those whose behavior does not conform to the time.”

So, if we can get past the discomforts and the easy, almost-literal allegory here, and simply ask, “what’s the question this story asks of us?”… what might that question be? Well, given that the whole set up of the wedding banquet scene isn’t actually all that different from the two other parables Jesus tells before this—the one we heard two weeks ago about the vineyard owner’s two sons being asked to go work in the vineyard, and the one that comes in between that one and todays—then the focus might just be on the last part, the part that’s different. Which, of course, would be this whole bit about guy without the wedding robe.

As it turns out, sometimes how we clothe ourselves says something about our expectations. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you should have asked a guy named Adrien-Louis de Bonnières, who was the Duke of Guines in France back under King Louis-the-16th, right before the French Revolution. Apparently, the duke was enormously fat, but nevertheless a great dandy, very much concerned with how he appeared. His wardrobe contained two pairs of breeches for each outfit—one for days when he would have to sit down and the other, much tighter, for days when he only had to stand. In the mourning his valet’s first question would be, “Will monsieur be sitting down today?”.[4]

Sometimes how we clothe ourselves says something about our expectations. Perhaps the man in the parable who was not in a wedding robe came to the wedding feast of the king not expecting anything to happen. Perhaps he didn’t imagine that there was anything special about this gathering, this celebration, and so just showing up in the ho-hum work-a-day clothes was all he needed to do. It’s hard to say with any certainty… although that may be the point.

Thinking about what question this parable might pose to us today, I don’t think it’s about what clothes you wear to church. But I do think it might be about how we “clothe” ourselves—figuratively speaking—in accordance with our expectations. I ask you, what do you expect when you come into God’s presence? What do you expect when you come be a part of this thing called “church”? What do you expect God to be up to in the world, and what do you expect to happen here, among us in this place? Do you expect life with God to be nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that requires anything of us but the run-of-the-mill things we clothe our lives in every day?

Or do we come to church, come into God’s presence, come into the life of discipleship expecting something extraordinary to happen? Do we expect to be changed? Do we expect to be invited into a mission of changing the world? Do we expect to be healed? Or embraced? Or called and challenged out of brokenness? Or loved beyond measure? Do we expect anything here?

Are we being asked to clothe ourselves with hope? Or maybe repentance? Perhaps humility and grace? Is God hoping that we’ll come wearing work boots and hard hats because we are ready to join in the construction work of God’s kingdom? Maybe we’re being invited to clothe our lives in generosity—courageous, extravagant, life-changing generosity—because we expect that our gifts can make a difference, because we expect that God can use us, our treasures, our church, our lives for something marvelous and perhaps even miraculous.

So, my friends, I ask you, how do you come dressed? And, of course, hopefully you realize by now I’m not talking about your physical clothes… but still, I ask how do you come dressed? How do you come dressed for church? How do you come dressed for God? How do you come dressed for life? Do you clothe yourself expecting a pity party? Or do you come decked out for a plenty party?

I don’t know about you, but I sure think that God’s invitation is for the latter…

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, Saturnalia; cited in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, 1st rev. ed., ed. Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000), 308.

[2] Zephaniah 1:7-9, NRSV.

[3] Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 226. O. Wesley Allen seems to agree: “Interpreters should not get caught up in the characterization of the king as indication in any straightforward fashion the character of God”; O. Wesley Allen Jr., Matthew, Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 222.

[4] Susan Mary Alsop, Yankees at the Court: The First Americans in Paris (New York, Doubleday, 1982); cited in Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, 250.

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