The invitations were out! The preparations were over! The banquet is ready! The followÂ-up is personal! The King's servants cry "Come!" This is no call for duty - this is an invitation to joy. It is a wedding feast.
The response is rejection. Of course, this parable of Jesus has immediate application. Matthew places it during the last week in the life of Jesus. The Son, the bridegroom, will soon be rejected and killed. The Scribes and Pharisees, those initially chosen, disregard the invitation to his kingdom.
Verse 7 with its armies and the burning of a city seems strangely misplaced and an over reaction to say the least. Matthew no doubt is recalling the pillaging and burning of Jerusalem by the armies of Rome in A.D. 70.
Is there also a universal application of this ancient story? Can it speak to those of us trying to make sense out of life at the close of the twentieth century?
How easy it is for us with our very busy schedules to regard or disregard an unsolicited invitation as an intrusion. In an age of consumerism we hear more about rights than privileges. We control our choices. We can turn others on or off with our remote control and VCR. We surf the Internet, but we decide among the options. No one has a claim on us unless it is our choice. When God says, "Seek ye first" we respond with "Let me first."
Those invited make light of the call to come to the banquet. We read one went to his farm, another to his business. There is no hint of either engaging in unsavory activities. We could easily read ourselves out of the story if the farmer had said, "I have to tend to my opium plants so I can make a killing in the illegal drug market." Don't miss the point -- these are responsible, busy people in the everyday working world. They are simply so consumed with the "dailyness" of their tightly prescribed schedules that nothing can break through -- even God can wait.
Christians make a grave mistake when they think their only choices in life are between good and evil. In the parable of the Pearls, also in Matthew, the merchant sells his good pearls for the Supreme Pearl. The choice is never between pearl and mud. It is between this pearl and that pearl. Sometimes the good we have becomes the enemy of the best we might enjoy. The servants may well have been doing good things on the farm and at the business, but in their busyness they missed the banquet. If one is full, an invitation to a feast is not good news. No wonder Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount -- "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, for they shall be satisfied." Those whose stomachs and schedules are satiated cannot experience a spiritual hunger for the kingdom.
We wade in shallow waters when we understand sin only in terms of wrongdoing. For most decent, law abiding, human beings it is manifested in terms of waste -- underliving our potential. Settling for good by declining an invitation to the best.
In Jesus' parable of the talents, the one talent man is not criticized for having one talent. He is not condemned for doing anything wrong, but doing nothing. He took his talent and hid it in the ground -- unwilling to trust God with any initiative. His sin was that of omission rather than commission.
I don't want to fall into the trap of playing comparative goodness -- all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God. No one is worthy or deserving of the invitation to the kingdom. God's grace is not limited in the parable -- eventually all are invited, but never underestimate the tragedy of wasted potential in the initial rejections.
Sometimes the Gospel is presented as having nothing to say to five talent and ten talent people. You must be bankrupt; you must be totally broken before you can serve in the kingdom. Can the God who has blessed us with gifts and talents engage us in an invitation to use them for good?
Is the Prodigal Son the only prototype for entrance into God's kingdom? Do we have to have a far country experience losing everything? I take seriously the words of Philippe Maury when he writes, "It is significant that the pietistic message has its greatest success among people who have experienced failure, discouragement or despair and who no longer expect anything in this world. It find little response among those who share the excitement and hopes of their day. For this reason pietism often engages in negative arguments aimed at undermining human hopes in order to prepare the ground for favorable reception to the gospel."
Are guilt trips the only journeys we experience in our churches? Can we not say "yes" to the invitation out of gratitude and a responsible stewardship? Saved to serve, blessed to be a blessing, we dare not waste our GodÂ-given potentials.
There is a postscript in our parable that is perplexing. Much the same as when Jesus added the story of the Elder brother to the Prodigal Son. This seems anticlimactic and enigmatic.
The King arrives at the banquet, greets his guests, and notices one of them not wearing a wedding garment. When asked why, he was speechless; so the host has him forcefully evicted and thrown into the outer darkness.
We are never told why the man did not observe the dress code. Was he a latecomer? Did he have time to change clothes? Why would a king gracious enough to invite him in the first place turn around and rudely evict him from the reception? One commentator suggests that garments may have been provided at the door, and this makes the man's refusal to wear one more serious. Even then, the punishment seems cruel and unusual for the crime.
Jesus was no stuffed shirt. In the sermon on the Mount He had said, "Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on."
The dramatic turn in the parable has little to do with the dress code. Some had made light of the invitation by staying away, but this man was making light of the invitation after he had come. God's gracious invitation always comes to us as we are, but we need to come not as we were. Grace is free, but it is not cheap. It involves change -- repentance. Insiders are always tempted to take God lightly -- to assume once at the table we can stay as we are. Consumers of God's grace, we dare not be presumers of that grace.
The parable is being enacted globally today in prophetic ways. Many of us with our roots in the state churches of Europe have regarded the invitation as right rather than privilege. We are busy with other things. We treat the call to come lightly. Our cathedrals are little more than museums. God is not limited by our choices. In other parts of the world the invitation is being received with joy and gratitude. People are coming in great numbers. The banquet hall is filled.
Come! Sense the urgency! Your later can mean never. Come to the banquet! Come! Amen.