The Risk of Grace
You don’t look like a very angry bunch this morning. That’s good! – but it also makes it harder for us to understand parables like this one we just heard in the Gospel of Matthew, parables of anger and judgement. To start to make sense of this wedding banquet parable, we need to find a way into the mindspace of Matthew’s community: a beleaguered, persecuted group which understood at a gut level the risk and the scandal of grace.
In the world of Matthew’s community, the ones for whom Matthew is writing this gospel in the latter years of the first century AD, things have gone terribly wrong. This is a Jewish community living in the aftermath of the first Jewish-Roman War during which the Romans decimated the Jewish nation and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Families and communities were divided into revolutionaries and collaborators, and they were divided into those like Matthew’s community, who wanted to rebuild Jewish religious practice around the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and others like the Pharisees who eventually succeeded in establishing rabbinic Judaism as the successor to Temple worship. It was a time of division and chaos. Matthew’s community faced constant threat from within and without. They were a community under siege, ejected from the synagogues, betrayed by their own members, subject to imprisonment and constantly battling to preach the gospel of Jesus in the face of competing religious teachings and practices. Is this what the kingdom of God is like? Is this what God intended? Why has everything gone so terribly wrong?
Matthew’s gospel is an angry gospel at times, and it’s good for us to understand why. There are those whose suffering is so great that they have every right to cry out for justice. Matthew’s people longed for judgement. Bring it on, bring on the outer darkness and the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. And there will be judgement. Judgement, when it’s in God’s hands, is a good thing. It means that how we live matters and it means that God is going to set things right. Matthew’s community was counting on that.
So when Matthew gives us Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, he raises the stakes. If you want to see how he does that, compare today’s gospel with Luke’s version of the same parable, in Luke chapter 14, when you get home. Luke’s version is set in Galilee, at a meal at a Pharisee’s home where Jesus is a guest. Matthew’s version is set in the Jerusalem Temple, three days before the cross, as part of an escalating and deadly confrontation between Jesus and the Chief Priests. In Luke’s version “someone” is giving a great dinner. In Matthew’s version, the king is giving a wedding banquet for his son. In Luke’s version, when the guests don’t come, the host becomes angry. In Matthew, when the invited guests kill his slaves, the king becomes enraged, sends troops, destroys those murderers and burns their city. Every single element in the parable has been amplified and revved up. The parable we heard read this morning is over the top in every way – and that’s good, because sometimes we need to be reminded that the stakes are high.
The stakes are high for Jesus in his confrontation with the chief priests in the Temple; the parable of the wedding banquet reflects that. The refusal of the initial guests to respond to the king’s invitation is not just bad manners, it’s treason, it’s an act of rebellion. The king tries the soft approach, he invites them a second time, he tries to persuade them, but the rejection is the same and this time it turns violent. And so, enraged, the king sends his troops and destroys them. Judgement and retribution. It’s ugly, but it’s not surprising. That is after all, how kings deal with treason.
But then we get the surprising moment. Then there is a moment of grace. The king says to his slaves, “the wedding is ready . . . go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” And so the slaves go out and gather all whom they find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
And if you’re like me listening to the parable, at this point you start to relax, you start to get a little more comfortable, grace is going to win out, we appear to be headed towards a happy ending.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What did the king see that we don’t see? Sure the parable talks about the lack of a wedding robe, but what’s that all about? It’s pretty clear this isn’t really about clothing.
I think Matthew’s community would have understood. There is a huge risk associated with grace. When you open the doors and invite everyone into the community, the good and the bad, you make yourself vulnerable. Matthew’s community had experienced this first-hand. Infiltrators, secret police, false prophets, spies, traitors – all of these had been welcomed into Matthew’s community, and the community had paid a price. Grace makes you vulnerable. They knew that from experience.
They also knew what comes next in the story, maybe you do too. There’s some foreshadowing going on here in Matthew’s gospel. Two days after the parable of the wedding banquet is the last supper, where Jesus invites his friends and disciples to share a meal with him, the fishers and the tax-collector, the good and the bad, the beloved disciple and the betrayer. At that meal, Jesus saw Judas without his wedding robe.
“One of you will betray me.”
“Is it I?”
“Do quickly what you are going to do.”
Judas departed to the outer darkness.
Jesus was betrayed and crucified.
The stakes are high.
There is a risk to grace. When we extend grace, when we open our doors, when we invite everyone, when we gather the good and the bad, we make ourselves vulnerable. The cross itself is ample evidence of how God’s love for us, how God’s grace made God vulnerable. But we are called to be the ones through whom God’s grace flows into the world, inviting, engaging, extending hospitality to all, the good and the bad. That can make us vulnerable, in fact if it’s not making us vulnerable, maybe we need to open our doors even wider. The stakes are high. There may even be times when action is needed to protect the safety of the community. But if someone does come in without their wedding robe, we leave the judgement to God.
So there is a risk when we extend grace. But there is also a very different risk when we receive grace. I think there is a second foreshadowing going on in this parable, a foreshadowing of the Great Commission found in Matthew 28. The king says to his slaves, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”
Jesus, in his final words to his disciples says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
We have not been invited to the wedding banquet simply in order to take up space or occupy a chair. We are invited to become disciples. Active followers of Jesus.
Perhaps the fault of the one deemed to be without the wedding robe was not anything he was doing, but rather that he was not doing anything. No one is invited to a wedding simply to be passive; we’re invited to weddings so that we can be part of the celebration. The risk of receiving grace is that we become complacent. We think that all that matters is that we’ve made it through the door. But our response does matter. We are called to become disciples of Jesus, people who celebrate the wedding. So don’t just sit there, put on that wedding dress and celebrate.
Grace is awesome. It’s at the core of our faith and our relationship with God. But grace is also risky. When we extend it, we risk vulnerability. When we receive it, we risk complacency. The stakes are high.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.
Homily: Yr A Proper 28, Oct 15 2017, St. Matthew’s Ottawa
Readings: Exodus 32.1-14; Ps 106.1-6, 19-23; Phil 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14
Image by S. Chia, Creative Commons