A Banquet of Grace, An Expanded Guest List, and a Demanding Dress Code

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…

…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.

God’s Revolutionary Economics

(Artwork: Icon, “Laborers in the Vineyard”)

Of all the passages of Scripture that I have preached or taught over the course of my thirty-one years of ministry, no passage has inspired more energized questions—or outright anger—from people than this weekend’s lectionary Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16. 

In the passage, Jesus tells a story about an entrepreneurial landowner, hiring laborers for a day’s work in his vineyard. Some of the laborers work a full day, morning until evening. Other laborers receive their job offers later in the day and work a shorter period of time in the vineyard—some half a day, others only for an hour or two.

Then the story gets strange. 

When evening falls, and the landowner distributes to the laborers their wages, he gives to all of the laborers the same amount. The laborers had spent different periods of time in the vineyard–some a full day, others a part day–but the landowner offers the same remuneration to each.

As one might imagine, the laborers who had worked the full day are outraged, since “they thought they would receive more.” They grumble to the landowner, laud their efforts over those of their coworkers, and lament what they perceive to be the unfairness of the situation.

The landowner, in response to their complaints, plays the “my vineyard, my rules” card. “Look,” he says, “relax! You have received the wage you were promised. But I have chosen to give to the later workers the same amount.” Then the landowner asks two questions that dramatically shift the focus of the conversation from economics to metaphysics: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or, are you envious or resentful because I am generous?”

With that the story ends.

“Here,” Jesus essentially says, “the reign of God that I am inaugurating is like this story. It is a new reality in which the distribution of grace is governed by a transformed economics in which even the last to arrive find the same generosity as those who arrived first.”

Over the years, I have often been stunned at how angry this story has made some church folk.

“I don’t blame the workers for being furious, ‘cause I’m kind of ticked off too!”

Or,

“Why would Jesus tell a story that champions what sounds like a twisted form of socialism?!”

Or,

“How can a story about unfairness help us to understand what the kingdom of heaven is like?!”

One person even compared the end-of-day laborers to those who live horrible lives and then experience a deathbed conversion to Jesus. “It just doesn’t seem right for people who come late to Jesus to receive the same provision (or salvation) as those who have been working at it for a much longer time. Please tell me God is a more practical landowner than that!”

Jesus’ story, you see, is an assault on our capitalistic sensibilities and our well-cultivated theology of earning. The very content of the story flies in the face of our long-held conviction that anything of true value must be justified by one’s efforts and accomplishments before it can be legitimately received.

Still, Jesus begins the story with words that will not go away: “For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”

And therein lies the point. If this were only a story about economics, we would be left only with an unrealistic landowner and a disgruntled workforce. When we pause to remember that this is a story about God’s kingdom, however, it becomes a glimpse of the wildly impractical and wholly unmerited grace upon which all of us depend—a decidedly uncapitalistic grace that is abundantly offered to both early-arrivers and latecomers; to longtime disciples and last-minute “thieves on the cross;” to those who have walked with Jesus from childhood and those who have clumsily stumbled both toward him and away from him, whispering his name all the while without even comprehending its significance.

The story makes us angry because we tend to want to manage and control the kingdom of which the story speaks in the same manner in which we try to manage and control everything else in our lives—with a rigid understanding of who it is that “deserves” certain blessings and outcomes. How often, for example, do we lose ourselves in a distorted spiritual economics, becoming so fixated on who “deserves” our love and compassion (and who does not) that we end up losing the impulse to love altogether? Or the impulse to forgive? Or the impulse to serve?

Jesus’ story reminds us that God stubbornly refuses to impose so equational a rubric on a “vineyard” that only God is qualified to steward. And God’s non-conformity to practicality in this regard should inspire nothing less than a loud “hallelujah” in our souls, since not one of us (not even the brazen soul that is convinced that s/he “deserves” it) merits the provision of God’s grace that God so generously offers to us.

If the story makes you a bit angry, you are in good company. Remember, though, that your quarrel is not with the story itself. Rather, your quarrel is with the scandalous methodology of a God who, in Jesus, has established a vineyard where workers find unmerited abundance rather than fair compensation; where distorted hierarchies give way to a widespread recognition of a shared dependency upon the generosity of the landowner; and where distribution is governed by a revolutionary economy of grace that the landowner chooses to offer lavishly.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like this…”

When Jesus Brings Division

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(Artwork: “The Word Brings Division” by Ian M. Welch)

I invite you to travel with me into a prayerful and contemplative struggle.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

From today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (Sunday, August 18, 2019), these are words of Jesus that many teachers and preachers of Scripture would prefer to ignore. It is far easer to focus on the Jesus who speaks of loving our neighbors and enemies, welcoming the children, embracing the “least of these,” and turning the other cheek. What do we do with a Jesus who says that his presence brings division and family fracture, especially in a world where families, friends, and churches are already bitterly divided over politics, decisions about human sexuality and race, and a variety of important social issues that have become polarizing?

Is Jesus suggesting that such division is what he desires?

I believe that coming to this conclusion would be a dangerous misreading of the Scripture. Jesus is not promoting broken relationships when he tells us that his presence brings division, nor is he communicating a desire for fractured families. Rather, he is illuminating what we have already come to understand from experience—that advocating for the priorities that Jesus champions and walking in the Way that he incarnated will often inspire even our friends and family members to stand against us. Jesus is neither celebrating this reality nor glorifying it. He is simply warning us that aligning ourselves with him and with his worldview might inspire opposition and even rejection from those for whom such an alignment represents foolishness or betrayal, or both.

But here is where things become really tricky. Do people oppose us for the right reasons as Christ-followers these days? Are we opposed for standing against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) and resisting the manipulations of religious and political leaders (Luke 12:2-3)? Are we stood against because of our steadfast devotion to Jesus and his commitment to valuing the marginalized and the lost (Luke 12:8-12)? Are we noticed and questioned for refusing to hoard our riches and possessions (Luke 12:13-21), for laying aside a spirit of crippling fear (or fear mongering) and worry (Luke 12:22-31), and for daring to live with a relentless spiritual attentiveness and moral watchfulness (Luke 12:35-40)? Are we criticized because of our passion for cultivating a God-honoring stewardship over the matters that have been entrusted to our care (Luke 12:41-48)?

These are the issues that occupy Jesus’ mind in the verses leading up to his teaching about his presence in the world causing division, which leads me to back to this question: Are Christ-followers in 2019 being opposed for the right reasons? Are we being opposed because of our refusal to align ourselves with the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the greed, the fear, and the spiritual and moral inattentiveness against which Jesus himself speaks out?

Or, do we too often participate in (and thereby perpetuate) less consequential divisions and fractures that consume our best energies, diminish our deeper unity, and compromise our shared witness concerning the things that matter most?

If I am making that sound like a rhetorical question, please forgive me. I do not mean it to be rhetorical. I am voicing an authentic struggle that emerges from a heart that desperately wants to get it right. If Jesus’ coming brings division, then I long for the division to be over the right things and not over the misplaced and overemphasized battle lines crafted by an alternative narrative that is sometimes confused with the Way of Jesus.