Every time I hear this parable, I think about a church camp I once attended as a camp counselor. The kids had an opportunity to learn a song based on this parable as it is told in Luke’s gospel.
Now the refrain of the song the campers sang went something like this:
I can not come to your banquet don’t bother me now,
I have bought me a wife, I have married a cow,
(actually in the song it was the cow that was bought and the wife that was married, but that isn’t the way they sang it)
I have deadlines and commitments, and debts to be paid,
I cannot come to your banquet. I cannot come.
It was a cute song, and kids just couldn’t resist changing it. If you have a Bible, open it up to Luke 14:16. You will see a parable quite similar to the parable we read in Matthew, but also very different. When I read the parable in Matthew, it strikes me that perhaps others have put their mark on this parable as well. The parable in Matthew seems oddly configured in many ways, and one can argue that Luke may have kept closer to the original story the way Jesus told it. I think this may be so, because so many of Jesus parables were about ordinary life that perhaps anyone would encounter, but in Matthew the parable of the banquet has elements in it that when you get right down to it makes the story hard to understand. The story in Matthew is really a story beyond the ordinary.
Let’s spend a few moments comparing these two parables. The story as it is found in Matthew versus the story as it is found in Luke. In Matthew the story is about a king. In Luke it is just someone who gives a great dinner. In Matthew the banquet is described as a wedding feast. In Luke the banquet is simply a feast without a particular social event tied to it. In Matthew the servants of the king are not only rebuffed, but also actually put to death. In Luke no one dies, but the servants are simply shrugged off. In Matthew the king wages a war against the wicked guest who spurned his invitation and killed his servants. In Luke the house owner simply uninvites his first guest and gathers others to fill his hall and eat his meal. In Matthew after the king’s army comes back from burning the cities of the wicked, (which one would think would take at least a few days) unexplainably the banquet is still waiting, and the king invites others to fill his hall and eat of the banquet that would have been prepared several days ago. In Luke the hall is filled immediately, and the banquet is shared with the many who came by the second invitation. In Matthew one person shows up at the banquet and isn’t wearing the right clothes, and even though that person may have been the poorest of the poor (because everyone was invited in) more is expected of him. He could give no reason why he was not properly dressed and so he went from invited guest and being called friend to being cast out into ultimate judgment –bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness; which can only be an allusion to eternal condemnation.
If you look at the parable in Luke and the Parable in Matthew it is fairly easy to see many similarities, but they are also really different. Luke’s parable seems like an ordinary day. In Jesus time feast generally worked along these lines. People were first invited to a feast and they would accept the invitation. After they accepted then the animals were slaughtered, the food was prepared, and the wine was purchased or taken from storage. Finally, after ever thing was made ready, servants were sent out to the guest to inform them that the time for the feast was at hand. The guest never knew exactly when the feast was to be served, because it took a lot of time to prepare everything, but when the word came that it was time for the feast, then the guest would gathered at the place of the host and share both in the meal and long moments of fellowship and conversation. Indeed, the conversation after the meal was probably more important then the meal itself. To participate in a banquet was a prime moment in the social order of the day. And it only came with much preparation on the part of the host. To delay one’s arrival after having accepted an invitation to come was an absolute breach of courtesy and manners. You might not even get invited back if you behaved in such a way. This was ordinary life in Jesus day. Luke seems to paint this image.
Matthew on the other hand creates a story filled with rather apocalyptic images and final judgments. The story is about a king and his subjects. The servants are killed by those they were sent to invite. We have an epic war scene in the middle of the story, and finally and open-door invitation which leads to one of the guest being cast out into images familiar with the description of eternal condemnation. Matthew’s story is anything but mundane. If anything, this is a story that is designed to amplify the significance of God’s grace and judgment in ways that can not be missed.
If this is the case then let us consider two basic points: Where is God’s Grace, and where is God’s judgment, and as we are considering this, what does it mean to us?
Where is God’s grace found in this passage? Consider the importance of the invitation. Have you ever had a big get together at your house –A party or a wedding complete with a catered dinner for the guest? It takes a lot of planning. Like the king in our story it took him much time in preparing for the feast. We are talking days of preparation. Now what does that tell us about God? How long and how much effort has God went through to prepare a place at his table for us? In earthly terms the plan of salvation runs from the first breath of humankind to what shall be the last. In history God has always been present in the faith of Abraham, and his children, in the judges and prophets, in the kings and leaders; through Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, through the apostles and the church until the gospel shall be preached to all the earth. God not even sparing the life of his only begotten son planned for us to have a place in his kingdom, and who shall ever believe in the name of Jesus shall be saved! Not only this but the invitation has been extended not to just to a few people, but to all people. Like the parable where the first invitation was rejected and thus extended to anyone passing by, so it has been given to us. That is grace. God has called and welcomed the rich and the poor, black and the white, men and women, everyone, and all he has called equally. There has been a lot of serious hard work done on our behalf. God is saying to us “You are invited, now is the time.” Can you feel the weight of that invitation?
When God invites us to join him in the feast it is not just an ordinary invitation, but it truly becomes a heavy obligation of grace that we must answer. Like the characters in the parable we are at that point where we need to respond. And our choices really become an “either or” proposition. We either join the feast and advantage ourselves to the grace that has been offered many times over many years, or we face ultimate loss. We reject the free meal, and confront the judgment and wrath of God. It should be a no-brainer.
However, there are often a lot of things that can get in the way of hearing and responding to God’s invitation as we travel through this old life, but we should never forget how short life can be. Do we have our priorities straight? Have you taken the time to consider the importance of God within your life?
The story points out that the king’s invitation is often ignored, and even dealt with in a violent manner. The Bible makes no effort to avoid the fact that God’s servants, prophets and even Christ himself were put to death. The parable leads us to remember this, and it also warns that the choice of rejecting God’s grace is the choice of accepting God’s wrath. I was listening to a preacher on the radio once, and he made the interesting comment that no one goes to heaven deservingly, and no one goes to hell unwillingly. By that he was pointing out that the only way a person ends up condemned is by repeatedly rejecting God’s offer of grace. People willing choose the wrong path and I think that the parable makes clear that God will eventually execute his judgment on those who do. That is why the story can have a war scene in the middle of it while the food is sitting on the tables in the banquet hall. We are not talking about everyday life here; we are talking about the final outcome of life and God’s final judgment. Chronological time is not so much a factor relevant to our story, because we are no longer dealing with earthly human realities. And in as much as Matthew was written to a Jewish audience perhaps this is a strong warning to the original readers not to reject God’s invitation when it comes, or perhaps it is an explanation as to why even the gentiles were being openly accepted in God’s plan of salvation. Since the religious leaders of Jesus time rejected him and orchestrated his death, God’s plan came to opening the invitation to everyone.
But here is even a warning to the “everyone” who might approach the wedding feast of the King’s son –that glorious banquet of God in the life to come. When you come you need to come with the proper attire. The only sense that I can make of the one guest who was cast out into the darkness is that when we do come before God we must be clothed in the imperishable righteousness of Christ. The Bible speaks of being clothed as an analogy to immortality or being in the righteousness that God gives to us in Christ. The invitation has been extended but it is not truly accepted until we accept Christ into our lives. Once more the parable simply doesn’t make any earthly sense, because it is pointing us to a heavenly and spiritual reality. We are to trust not in our own righteousness, but rather we must take upon ourself the fullest measure of God’s grace in Christ. Once again it is not what we do for God but being willing to receive what God has done for us.
Today we celebrate a baptism. Baptism is very much about saying yes to the grace of God for us within life. It is about receiving and welcoming God’s invitation for us to share in life with God. It is not because we are able or that an infant is able, but it is because God is able. God is able to create within us eternal life and has already done so. So, we rejoice. We can approach the throne of God with boldness. We can celebrate in all that God has done.
The bottom line is you have been invited –after much effort to God’s banquet of life, make yourself ready. Be a part of the celebration. The wedding hall will be filled! Amen.