The parable from this mornings Gospel is one of the most chilling, disturbing stories in the Christian scriptures -perfectly timed for a season when all kinds of specters and demons begin appearing in the costume aisle of our pharmacies and evening news programs. For me, the creepiest moment, the one that I could easily see emblazoned in a Clint Eastwood film with stark, cinematic realness, is the one where the King says, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” The King is essentially alone when he says this line, isolated by his own violent reactivity, surrounded only by a few minions who must be cowering for fear of what his temper might next produce. Those invited were more than simply found unworthy for their disinterest in attending the King’s party, they were killed. One can imagine the King uttering this line before an empty banquet hall where the feast has begun to melt and rot on their long tables, while in the background, a whole city burns, a fire that consumes the carnage of the very people the King is meant to lead and protect. “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.” These are the words of a tyrant. A despot. A madman. Not a god of renewable mercy and boundless compassion.
The deeper trouble with this reading is it’s history of interpretation in the church. In her sermon last week, Dr. Lisa Kimball mentioned the antisemetic applications of the vineyard parable with wicked tenants: vineyard owner equals God, tenants equal Jews, messenger and Son equal prophets and Jesus, each thrown out or killed. The same allegory has been applied to this story. God Almighty has a plan for his creation to which he first invites his own people, the Jews, who refuse to play along, so God punishes them and extends the invitation to everyone else, the Gentiles. This interpretation is deeply embedded in our tradition, even as deeply as the text itself. The community which was sharing and writing these stories about Jesus in the 1st century was likely a community of Jews who were deeply embattled with other Jews. [Imagine this on a smaller scale as a conflict within a modern parish community- one small group n the congregation feels inspired to take on a project which they believe reflects the mission of the whole church, but members of the broader community disagree. Without charity and forebearance, it can become dangerous breeding ground of resentment and factioning.] The first Christians were a new movement within Judaism that proclaimed the Jewish messiah had not only already come, but had come as something other than a conquering militaristic hero, as had been expected. For the majority of Jews, this message was untenable, and the people proclaiming it more than a little mad. Most of the converts to the messianic message of the new group were from outside the tribe. When we keep this context in mind, a story about a temperamental king who throws a tantrum when his guests decline an invitaiton to his party makes a little more sense. Is the King God- or us?
And what about the poor guy at the end? The second creepiest scene in this Gospel reading is the end. What could be a celebratory scene of folks from many different walks of life gathered together around an undeserved banquet table with unlikely company turns into a horror story when one guest is singled out for failing to follow the proper dress code for such an occasion. One can imagine the festive atmosphere scratching to a silent halt, hors d’vours still in open mouths, as the King enters the banquet hall to address the one man who stands out from everybody else. This is something akin to my worst nightmare. As an east-coaster relatively new to the Pacific Northwest I still find myself adjusting to the proper dress code for most formal occasions here. Just when I think I’ve learned that Portland formal can include plaid and a pair of waterproof Keens, I stumble into some occasion where I’m the only guy without a tie on. Fortunately I’ve never been bounced from any dinner party here for dressing wrong. But the guest at the end of Jesus’ story is. Why? Many have seen this as a cautionary tale: everyone is invited to the party, but if you don’t play the part, you’ll be kicked out just like the Jews were. Just because the invitation is extended to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone gets to stay. For some Catholics having the right wedding garments meant partaking of the right sacraments, for some Protestants having the right garments meant performing the right works, proclaiming the right faith. For some, the wedding garments are simply an image of the grace given by God, with our choice being whether we make use of it or not. Whatever the interpretation, a mystery remains in the so-called moral of the story, the final verse: “many are called, but few are chosen.” This simply doesn’t make sense with the rest of the story. Actually, many were called, and all but one were chosen.
When we begin to look at this story in the context of the rest of Jesus’ life, it makes even less sense. Jesus wasn’t exactly known for being a great bouncer. He never cast anyone into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth for simply getting it wrong. He never threw anyone out of a dinner party. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Jesus was often the odd man out at dinner. Jesus was the one who didn’t fit in with the customs of his time. Jesus spoke and ate with those who couldn’t get it right. And when we look for weeping and gnashing of teeth throughout the Gospel, we quickly find that Jesus is actually at the center of it all, on the cross. This parable may indeed be a cautionary tale about assuming a great deal of responsibility along with our acceptance of God’s invitation. But the life of Jesus is not a cautionary tale. It is a compassionate tale. It is a story about how God occupies the very place of hurt, and pain, and exile to which we have so often driven the least among us for fear of ending up there ourselves. This is where we find Jesus. In the courtyard, outside the party, beside the ones who have been cast there, alone if he must be.
If this is where we find Jesus, where are we called to be, dear church? Imagine yourselves in this story. Where is the most natural place for you to be? Do you know the relief that comes from being on the inside, whether you deserved it or not, the relief of knowing how to dress for the occasion, the relief of being safe from war? Do you know what it is to be exiled or isolated because you couldn’t keep step? Our reality is that we have a great feast going on all around us, and we are called to more than simply enjoying our share of it, thankful that we weren’t the ones exiled or killed this time. Where there is pain, there is Christ to be found at work, and we are called to be with him there. I pray we have the courage to find and follow, until God brings all of us back to the welcome table.