Jesus so often taught in parables—strange little stories that creatively subverted the hearer’s presuppositions and illuminated the often-countercultural priorities that characterize the new “Way” that Jesus inaugurated.
Perhaps Jesus knew that this newly-inaugurated “Way” was far too grand and far too expansive to be taught through bullet points and prosaic discourse. This Way required the mystery, nuance, and dynamism of peculiar narratives—stories that are sometimes heartwarming and other times unsettling.
This weekend, many Christian preachers will focus on one of these stories from Jesus (Matthew 22:1-14). It is a story about a king preparing a huge wedding banquet for his son. In the story, many invitations to the banquet are sent, but those who receive them find a variety of reasons not to attend the banquet. The desperate king sends his servants to help the invitees to understand the urgency of what they are missing, but they “made light of it and went away.” Some of the invitees even go so far as to kill the king’s servants.
(Apparently, the nature of this banquet was controversial enough to inspire violent resistance.)
The king, enraged and clearly not to be trifled with, deploys his troops. They deal swiftly and fiercely with those who had killed the king’s servants, annihilating them and destroying their habitation.
(Apparently, there are dire consequences to responding to this king’s invitation with nothing but violent resistance and abject rejection.)
Refusing to allow the banquet to be diminished or ruined by those who rejected his invitation…
(Apparently, this banquet is far too important to cancel or reschedule.)
…the king sends his servants into the streets, instructing them to invite “everyone you find.” The servants become a veritable hospitality committee, gathering all kinds of folks (“both good and bad”) who are only too eager to attend a lavish banquet in a world that had regularly communicated to them that they had no place at such banquets. The banquet hall is packed—standing room only. The guest list, however, now includes folks with whom the original invitees would probably never have rubbed shoulders.
(Apparently, this king is not at all limited by the cultural, societal, and religious boundaries upon which some of the original invitees might have insisted.)
All is well, then, in the story. The banquet is on. The hall is packed. Celebration is plentiful. But…wait. This king, who had been so gracious with his invitations, stumbles upon a guest who is not wearing the proper garment for the occasion.
(Apparently, showing up for this banquet without a commitment to honoring the dress code is as serious an offense as not showing up at all.)
The king’s response to the offense seems exaggerated in its severity. He has the offender bound and thrown into the “outer darkness”—a place where those who now recognize the pain and regret of squandered invitations can only weep and gnash their teeth.
(Apparently, at this banquet, those who do not clothe themselves rightly run the risk of besmirching the very nature of the banquet itself and dishonoring the host in a manner that angers and breaks his heart.)
With that, the story ends. “Here,” Jesus says. “The kingdom of heaven that I am bringing into the world is something like this story. Pay attention to it. Let the story into your heart and mind.”
Um…excuse me, Jesus. But…what?!
How could the kingdom of heaven—the in-breaking Way of Jesus—be something like this bizarre little story about a banquet, its insolent and rebellious invitees, its expanded guest list, and its strict dress code?!
Part of the beauty of the parable is that Jesus does not spell out its meaning. He permits us to hold the story without an explication, without a detailed hermeneutical analysis. He trusts the story to stand on its own, strange as it is, just as he trusts the Spirit to illuminate the story’s meaning over time.
I certainly do not have a definitive and exhaustive interpretation to offer to you. I am neither a Biblical scholar nor a hermeneutical genius. In fact, I am far from either.
But the story has me pondering…
…pondering the “banquet” of God’s grace where the guest list is always more expansive than the one I would develop, and where I might just encounter plenty of souls that, to be honest, I never thought would be there and that I have probably already written off as “not to be invited;”
pondering the frequency with which I trivialize my own invitation to the banquet, turning away from it in order to accommodate a variety of distractions that both diminish my gratitude and distort my priorities;
pondering how often I do not give attention to my own “wardrobe,” believing that the t-shirt of my self-righteousness is sufficient when, in fact, the banquet demands nothing less than a commitment to “clothe [myself] with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12);
pondering a grace that is always free but never cheap, always inviting but also demanding, always welcoming of “both good and bad” but also expecting a change of “garments.”
The parable is not an allegory. Jesus is not saying, “this king is God.”
But he is telling us that salvation is something like the rhythms and dynamics we find in the story. Salvation, in other words, is both invitational and transformational; both freely offered (even to the people we would never invite) and freely resistible (although there are painful consequences to such resistance); both unparalleled in its hospitality and unyielding in its demand for a sanctified wardrobe of newly-embraced priorities; both reflective of the Divine Heart’s love and illuminating of that same Heart’s capacity to be wounded, broken, and angered.
As I ponder all of this, I find myself longing that the church will begin to see itself, less as the determiner of the banquet’s guest list, and more as a potential reflection of what it looks like to be dressed rightly at the party.