Invited to a Different Feast

A Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 and Isaiah 25:1-9

I once heard the story of a pastor who was giving a children’s sermon that happened to involve a certain woodland creature. He wanted to engage the children, rather than just talking at them, so he asked a question:

Who can tell me what is small, and brown, and furry, with a big puffy tail and eats nuts.”

Most of the children looked confused, but one precocious child stuck her hand up in the air and replied:

Well, it sounds a lot like a squirrel, but I know the answer must be Jesus.”

The moral of that story, as it was told to me, was to be careful about asking questions in a children’s sermon (a lesson I mostly ignore). But I think the story actually has a much more serious warning – a warning about the assumptions we make when we hear stories in church.

Is there a who-is-this-question in a children’s sermons? The answer MUST be Jesus, right? – Wrong.

Is there a parable that describes a king, or master, or other powerful man-in-charge? That character MUST represent God… right? - Wrong.

In his book on listening to the parables[1], Richard Ford explores the problem with what he calls the "idealization of the superior character” in the parables. He spotlights the assumption readers so often make that the character with the power in the parables MUST be God, and he then explores the pretzel knots this assumption forces us into because we then have to make that character’s behavior our model for righteousness – and so often it’s just NOT!

Today’s parable is a perfect example of why we need to question the assumption that the “king” is always God in the parables. Let’s hear the story again:

It starts innocuously enough: the king is hosting a feast – a wedding banquet. The God-association seems pretty reasonable; the writings of the prophets, (including today’s reading from Isaiah) are full of the imagery of the feast that God sets out for God’s people.

The expansive nature of the guest list fits as well. Again, from Isaiah: “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…”

But we run into problems with the REASON that the guest list in the parable gets expanded. The King calls the originally exclusive list of invitees to come now that the feast is ready, but they won't come. More than that, the invited nobility mistreat and KILL the messengers – in the cultural context of the 1st Century, that response equals starting a revolution.

So, the king goes on a murder spree, and kills not only the invited guests, but burns their whole city.

But now he has a problem, because he has a banquet ready, and no one to attend. This is a deep dishonor to the host.

So, first he blusters about how the first guests weren’t really worthy anyway, And then makes it plain that he has absolutely no concern for worthiness, because he immediately sends his slaves to go get anyone they can find – it doesn’t matter if they are good or bad, just get them in here.

That seems to satisfy him – his banquet hall is full; he has restored his own honor. But then he sees that one of these conscripted guests is not dressed correctly – which means that when he came in from the streets, he either didn’t receive or didn’t put on the robe that the host is supposed to supply.

So, the king accosts this guest and essentially asks him how he dares – and when the guest has no answer, the king doesn’t just kick him out; he has him bound hand and foot and thrown out into the outer darkness.

So, to sum up: The king in this story is an is ego-driven character with a violent temper, engaged in a power struggle with the social elites, more concerned about the appearance of honor than the character of the people he is surrounded by, and capricious in his treatment of his guests, the people he is SUPPOSED to serve.

Does that sound ANYTHING like God? No. Obviously not.

The description DOES match, however, the human kings in the background of Matthew’s gospel. King Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and his son, also Herod, who executed John the Baptist. They were both ego-driven, violent kings concerned with protecting their own honor and power, no matter who they hurt.

And Jesus’s parable is calling out the temple elites who have aligned with these kings. I say that, because this parable has an important context. It is part of a string of parables that Jesus tells in response to the question that we talked about two weeks ago:

by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?(Matthew 21:23)

The temple leaders recognize Jesus for what he is – a disruptor.Throughout Matthew’s gospel Jesus’s ministry has been about proclaiming a NEW KINGDOM – and when he brings this proclamation into the very heart of the current religious power at the temple, this is a threat.

So, the temple leaders challenge his authority to attack their power, and Jesus throws that challenge right back at them, in a series of stories that expose the nature of the authority that THEY claim.

That is clear by the reactions of the chief priests and Pharisees immediately before and after today’s reading. In the last verses of chapter 21 we read:

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

But then Jesus comes back at them again, with today’s parable of the wedding feast, and he makes it even more clear that he is REJECTING the authority with which they are aligned. But in that move they think they see their chance…

If we keep reading at verse 15: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said…” and the plot in question (which we will hear next week) is a question meant to trap Jesus in treason.

The Pharisees are perfectly clear that Jesus, in these parables, is being political, and they know how to play that game. But what they DON’T realize, is that Jesus has just told them, he isn’t there to play the game.

You see, while the parable of the wedding banquet is not a story about God as King, it IS a story about Jesus… just not a story where Jesus plays the power-broker. Pastor Janet Hunt suggests the possibility that “Jesus is the wedding guest who is not wearing the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who on behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.[2]

That is what Jesus is about to do in Matthew’s gospel. Just a few days further along in the story, he will be arrested and accused of treason and blasphemy. He will stand before the high priest, and refuse to play the game.

Just like the wedding guest, he will be silent. (Matthew 26:63; also 27:12).

Because the feast of this corrupt authority is not one he wants to join. He is there to issue invitations to a very different feast, in a very different kingdom.

Near the beginning of this year we spent four weeks examining THAT invitation - digging into the Sermon on the Mount and exploring the question of how to understand Jesus’ call to righteousness in Matthew’s Gospel. What we found was that righteousness was not so much a spiritual characteristic as a pattern of activity. As I told you then:

Righteousness is what happens when God’s kingdom, God’s way of doing things, breaks into our world and disrupts all of our priorities, because we realize that God’s ways are not our ways.

Matthew’s whole gospel is telling the story of the clash of two kingdoms, two sources of authority, two ways of seeing and interacting with the world. And this gospel, and this parable, is a call for us to CHOOSE:

to choose the kingdom of righteousness, as opposed to the kingdom of power and privilege (as described in this parable):

to choose God’s way of blessing the meek, and the mourning, and the peace-makers, and the persecuted (as described in the Sermon on the Mount);

to choose to be a refuge to the poor and needy in their distress (as described in Isaiah’s text about God’s kingdom feast);

to choose to refuse to wear the robe and play the honor game because JESUS – the one whom the ego-driven, violent, power-brokers cast out – this Jesus is our TRUE king .

I am confident that there are power figures in each of our lives telling us to come to their banquets, and put on their robes, and honor their priorities.

Priorities of control, or consumption, or status, or self-protection, or all the other things that tell us to look out for ourselves, and to play the game, because that’s the only safe way to be included in the feast.

We are told that there’s not enough for everyone, and we need to look out for ourselves first. And we better not criticize, or be disloyal, or object about the people who are being shut out, unless WE want to get thrown out into the outer darkness too!

But there is another feast, in another kingdom, and we are invited by a very different King. A King who invites us to his table, to feast without fear, because he has swallowed up death forever (Isaiah 25:8); And we don’t have to worry about what we are wearing, because he has clothed us with our baptism; And we don’t have to worry about who else is invited, because there is enough for everyone.

This invitation sounded like bad news to the people who wanted to hold onto the broken, violent, power-hungry kingdom whose rules they knew how to play.

But for us, it is an invitation to declare our loyalty a different kingdom, a kingdom of righteousness that serves the needs of ALL.

And the banquet is ready. Will you join the feast?

[1] Ford, Richard Q. The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

[2] The Rev. Dr. anet H. Hunt, http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-banquet-turning-it-inside-out/

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