Proper 23a 2014: What are you wearing to the party?

Philippians 4:1-9                      Matthew 22:1-14

Some days a preacher might feel better about pulling the covers over her head and going back to sleep. To one who is called to preach the gospel, good news, it is far from delightful to sink into stories of slavery, murder, the burning of towns, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. I suspect that there was a lot of procrastination going on in the preaching world this week….I got some house cleaning done.

Parables are meant to involve us, though, aren’t they? They are no less messy than real life. So let’s talk about the party. No one, we just heard, wanted to come to the king’s party. Do you?

There are at least several versions of this parable, including one that I just made up.

From a contemporary, “People magazine” point of view, the “A” list people chose not to attend. These folks were busy. There were scripts to read and people to please and paparazzi to avoid – or seek – and they just could not be bothered with the king’s party. People further down the social ladder were invited … and declined to attend. All these excuses!

The version from a book called “the gospel of Thomas” has that series of invitations and excuses for not attending. In the Thomas version, the master said: “Well, go out into the streets and bring back anyone you happen to run across, only don’t bring me any business persons or shopkeepers!”

The biblical gospel of Luke has a similar set of excuses, and here’s what happened when the slave reported back to his master: “the master became furious and said, ‘Go into the streets and bring back the poor the maimed, the blind, and the lame.’ The servant did so and reported that there was still more room at the table. The master said, ‘Well then, go beat the bushes and get anyone you can find; certainly none of those people originally invited is going to get one bite to eat at my banquet.!’”

I share with you now that I get less upset about later words about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” than I do with how the Lucan version of this parable has been used. The reasons for not attending the banquet coincide with traditional Jewish reasons for not fighting a war. Some – many? – people “have allegorized this parable as a tale about how Jews who would not convert to Christianity were to be excluded from the banquet, and that even the Gentiles (the maimed and the poor) were more fitting company.” (source: TM) THAT makes me weep.

A third version comes from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Babylonian Talmud. In this version, the king sends out the initial invitation but does not say when the banquet will be held. Some people get dressed and simply wait for the party to begin. The well-dressed, prepared people are allowed to sit down and partake of the feast. The rest of the people get in to the party, but are gathered around the edges of the room to observe what they are missing. The message here is that the messianic banquet can come at any time; be prepared. Jewish or otherwise, be ready, or else you will be forced to stand at the edges of heaven and starve.

Matthew’s version, too, lets us know that some are “in” and some are “out.” Again, some have used this version to say that Gentiles are in, Jews are out. Even members of the church will be sent to a place of fire and burning.

What if we stopped looking at the parable from the standpoint of an ancient king? What if we tried to look at this parable with the heart of a first century Jewish man named Jesus? In the ancient world, remember, it is only men who would have been invited to this party. They are the people who mattered, who had power. Then think about the people who hung out with Jesus. Fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners; these are the people with whom Jesus dined. Christ called (and calls) his followers to break the banquet rules and to share wisdom (Wisdom, Holy Spirit) with:

“women, [who are not powerful,]
the financially not powerful (“the poor”),
the physically not powerful (“the maimed, the blind, the lame”),
and the socially shunned (“the tax collectors and sinners”).”
(all, Philip Culbertson, TM, Vol 16.4, 2014)
What DO we wear to this party? Being caught without the right garment brings a terrible result. Even though it is the king who provides the garment, I guess we have to put it on. But we’re not really talking about clothing, are we?

We might not be talking about a party, either. This party might just be heaven; the king, God. How might we dress for the banquet that God gives, not in some future time, but right now? This parable is not only eschatological, about end times. A parable has relevance in its own time – and in our time. What will we wear to this banquet? The banquet at which we sit with Jesus and follow his example about giving up power in service to our Lord and our God.

Paul tells us to clothe ourselves in the mind of our Lord.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable … think about these things. Our clothing in front of Jesus is not about what covers our bodies. In front of Jesus, we are naked. We are vulnerable, raw, good, and bad … we are whatever and whoever and wherever we are when Jesus comes. We can hide neither ourselves nor our intentions. So think on excellence, Paul tells us. Think on these things, as you are, in fact, doing.

Paul’s words might sound a little soft, a little too easy. “Easy for him to say!” Then we remember that Paul did not write these words at a party or at a time of ease in his life. Paul wrote these words from jail. I do not know details about the conditions of 1st century imprisonment, but I am sure that it is a place in which we would not want to be, even for a moment.

It is helpful to know that clothing is a common New Testament metaphor for spiritual change. We can relax about whether or not we have the correct shoes, or pants, dress, or cummerbund. It is the king who provides us with our clothing. God provides all the cover that we need. Our robe is not a garment that we wear on the outside – we are in a parable today – but something that we wear on the inside. Our parable robe is our spiritual life, our willingness to make a change in our spiritual life that we are invited to wear.

To attend God’s party for God’s Son means that we say yes to spiritual change, and that we choose to wear that change in our lives. We put on the clothing of God’s banquet – our best clothing, the armor of spiritual joy. We are all invited to the feast, not to decide who’s in and who’s out, who eats and who receives nothing. We are with Jesus at this feast, Jesus who makes all of those distinctions irrelevant.

Come, eat with those who have no power, who have no voice except in the kingdom of God, who can do nothing for us. Nothing for us, that is, except to show us the love of Christ, the kingdom of God, the joy of the banquet and the feast. Come in, come in! Come, eat. What are you wearing to the party?

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