Pastor Mark's Short Papers
Sermon on the Man Kicked Out of the Partyby Mark Koonz on October 12, 2014
When we hear a juicy story we like to hear all the relevant details. They add spice and help us keep track of the main drama. Today we rarely hear parables and may make the mistake of thinking they are no different than a modern story or a bit of gossip. A parable is not a story that gives all the details. To the mind of the person hearing the story, everything may not fit.
A modern writer has to make all the details fit properly and tie everything together in a way that makes the story seem credible. Everything with character development has to be psychologically accurate. Not so with a parable in Jesus’ day – a lot of things could be left out because it wasn’t a mere story, rather it was a story designed to emphasize one or two points. More than that, however, it was usually accurate enough to help the listener find his or her own self in the story, that is, find which character most represents his or her own attitude or practice.
Modern writers have to remember the rule that “life is stranger than fiction.” My creative writing teacher at WSU reminded us that some things happen in real life that are so strange they would not seem believable if put in a novel or fictional short story. The writer has to be so careful to build a story with characters whose motivations and actions become understandable to the reader. Some things that actually have happened with real live people may seem strange and unbelievable to the reader who has not actually encountered these strange individuals and behaviors. So our writing professor taught us to be careful and prepare the way, and the more extreme things we wrote about the more preparation or setting up was required in the early part of the story. That is a good guide today, but it has little to do with ancient Jewish parables.
In the ancient use of parables a story teller might highlight and emphasize strange, even offensive situations to make a point, because the story was merely a means to make the point stick in your mind. For example, in Luke 15, which recounts Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (which should be renamed the parable of the Prodigal Sons, because both of them did wrong and dishonored their father), Jesus first emphasizes the bad behavior of the younger son. He made his disrespectful behavior so extreme that it was almost unbelievable, because in nearly every Jewish, Syrian, or Egyptian village, if any son accountable for his own actions actually had said and done those things he would have been stoned to death. Jesus made him so offensive in the story that his hearers probably shook their heads in disgust. But why did he make him so extreme in his badness? To emphasize how extreme the father was in providing protection and forgiveness, all to emphasize the truly amazing quality of God’s forgiveness for our sins.
Here in Matthew 22, with this parable of the man rejected from the wedding feast, the emphasis is on the welcome to all the guests which highlights the rejection of this one man. In the story itself the details are sparse, and so to some modern people his rejection seems quite arbitrary and unfair. Yet the parable does not make sense unless we assume the man was given the same opportunity as all the other guests.
In Jesus’ day people washed themselves before going to a wedding celebration. The celebration might last a week and they could select which day they attended. I was fascinated to see how close Cana was to Nazareth. Clearly Jesus, his mother, and his disciples could have walked to the wedding feast (see John chapter 2) within an hour of his home. Maybe some people had to walk 2, 3, 4, or 5 miles to get there, but they washed first and they did not wear grubby clothes. They put on their best. Maybe they did not have much, but one way or another they showed they had done their best to honor the marriage union and the two families who united and provided the party.
A very poor woman named Minerva grew up in the 1880s in the hills of western New York State. She was orphaned at the age of 12, and married at the age of 13, and bore her first baby at the age of 14. She had three children when her husband died and she was left with very little. Minerva lived a hard life. Her daughter grew up and married had gave Minerva two grandchildren, but then became an invalid due to scarlet fever. Minerva had to take and raise the two grandchildren, a boy and a girl. I knew her granddaughter. She remembered how Grandma Minerva would say, “We may be poor but we will be clean. When you go to school you will be clean and your hair will be combed.” There must have been many Jewish people in Galilee who were just as poor in their day as Minerva was in hers. They may have been poor, but they had a basic goodness and did not want to live in filth. Even if they could not afford expensive clothes, they would have put on something clean for a wedding feast.
In the parable, people were invited to the wedding of the King’s Son. And they did not want to come. See how Jesus set up an extreme situation just to emphasize a spiritual truth. This was not true to life. In real life anyone invited to a royal wedding would try to attend, because it was a badge of honor, a sign that you had arrived at the top of the social ladder! Saying no back then would be like saying no today to a special invitation. Something like declining to have tea with Prince William and Kate at Buckingham Palace, or declining an invitation to be a guest at the White House and sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. It would be like a football fan saying no to a free seat with a great view in Paul McCartney’s suite at the Super Bowl Game, or a young businessman declining a ride with Bill Gates on his yacht. Most people in Jesus’ day would have grabbed ahold of a special invitation and milked it for all it was worth, seeing it as a super honor. So the people in the parable who rejected the King’s invitation were seen as doing something extremely offensive.
Jesus told this parable against his enemies, against the very religious leaders of his people, the scribes and priests, Pharisees and Sadducees alike. He highlighted the fact that they should have recognized that God’s party is already under way. Every miracle of healing was a sign indicating that this divine celebration was open to all the Jewish people plus more besides. He pointed to himself, saying in essence “I am the King’s Son, and with my arrival the wedding party starts. But you made excuses and refused to come and celebrate. You know I’m the Messiah but you won’t acknowledge me.”
Jesus’ parable makes the further point that the very tax collectors and sinners who were not welcome in the local synagogues were being invited to the party. They were the people gathered first from the highways and byways, and next would come the gentiles. Everyone who was poor, everyone who was from the wrong part of town, everyone who had done wrong was invited to the party. The “righteous” in Galilee refused to come; the “righteous” in Jerusalem refused to come. Therefore the party has room for more people – there is room for you too! This is great news, good news all the way around, for people who want to get closer to Jesus and join in the celebration at God’s party. So far you and I can have no problem hearing and appreciating Jesus’ parable, because it still is good news to those of us who live many generations down the road since he first spoke these words.
But then Jesus ends his parable by saying a man was rejected and thrown out. This does not sound like good news. Nor can it because it is not good news.
Here is where we would like more information. The parable as we have it does not explain the details of the missing parts. Where did the other broken-down people from the highway get their wedding garments? Did they have plenty of time to wash and change their clothes, or at least put a nice garment over their other clothes? Was this man given the same opportunity? To the last question I can say, we may assume so. The penalty is based on this man’s refusal of his opportunity to wear the nice wedding garment. What did Jesus intend for us to understand? There is a serious consequence for allowing that refusal to define one’s life.
The garment is a sign of God’s forgiveness and favor, if you will, a sign of God’s grace. Yes, sinners may be forgiven and are being forgiven, but saying that much is not saying everything. What do we mean by forgiveness? What all does forgiveness include? To begin with, it is not merely being declared free of all charges, or “let off the hook” after getting caught at doing wrong. It is not merely a ledger notation in heaven as it were. That is a weak and inadequate understanding of God’s forgiveness.
Think about some of the horrible things that have been done. One of the Charles Manson cult, a man guilty of murder, became a Christian in prison. While some prisoners only become a Christian temporarily, as a means to cope with the harshness of prison life, then leave it behind shortly after their release or parole, I am willing to acknowledge that some are genuine conversions. Christian prisoners do need the support of the Christian community should they ever be paroled. But for a moment think about the horrendous nature of certain crimes. I was in school with a girl whose sister was murdered by the Green River Killer. Does God really love serial killers and offer them forgiveness? Yes. If I understand the New Testament message of God’s grace, then the answer is Yes. Does God love child molesters? Yes.
Let us move beyond the realm of the obviously criminal type of behavior. Does God love mean parents? Does God love the manipulative mothers and controlling fathers who damage their children emotionally for the rest of their lives? Does God love self-centered adult children who neglect their elderly parents? Does God love ruthless businessmen who hire thieves to steal trade secrets from their competitors? Does God love trial lawyers who get rich by encouraging frivolous lawsuits and charging outrageous fees? Yes to all of the above . . . but don’t stop there.
God loves these persons, every one of them, but simultaneously hates what they do to damage their own lives and the lives of so many others. God does not love or overlook the crime, the manipulation, the arrogance, or the brutality. When a sinner receives God’s forgiving grace there takes place more than setting them free from a criminal record as it were, more than a change in a ledger entry in heaven as it were. There is also gifted a new power to help every sinner live a new life. The God who made all things can truly make all things new. The God who forgives sends His very own Holy Spirit to make all things new within the life of the forgiven person. This does not mean that everything happens in a moment and is totally easy, but that there is a new and holy power at work within. The God who forgives gives the power to live a new life.
This means that God loves the murderer, but when the murderer receives forgiveness he or she does not have to murder any more. Yes, God expects a change of behavior. God loves the controlling and manipulative parent, but when he or she is forgiven then there is a new power to show a proper respect to one’s children, an opportunity to have a better relationship. When the dishonest businessman or employee is forgiven, there is a new opportunity to live honestly.
But what if this power, this wonderful opportunity, is rejected? What if it is not welcome as an ongoing gift that renews life every day? The rejection of this spiritual grace, the rejection of the new life, has serious consequences. Is this what happened when the one man was thrown out of the feast? It is not easy to say for sure. Here are three possible interpretations.
Firstly, some might think this is a reference to Judas. We say he betrayed Jesus, but the Greek word for betrayal is not used in the New Testament. He identified Jesus and located him in order for his enemies to make a quick arrest at night, when the crowd could not interfere and give protection. This was called “handing him over,” and Judas was guilty of this terrible sin, but it was not much worse than what Peter did when he cursed and denied he even knew Jesus. Peter was forgiven, and if Judas had not taken his life we might have read that Jesus forgave him too. Was Judas not included with Caiaphas and Pilate in the prayer Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? This parable was told prior to Jesus’ arrest, and neither Matthew nor any other New Testament writer interpreted this as referring specifically or exclusively to Judas.
Secondly, some interpret the clothes the one guest refused to wear as the clothes of mercy, truth, and righteousness (N.T. Wright for example). Because God is good, because God is holy, there can come a point where the refusal to change attitude and behavior moves God to reject one from the party. God’s Kingdom is not a candy-cane lane that winds through Disneyland castles and pampers children who want to be first in line; it is not a department store where the customer is always right. Love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness belong together where God is King. Are these the clean wedding clothes? If so, should we say that those who do not want to wear them cannot stay at the party? The murderer who wants to get off “Scot free” and go on murdering cannot remain at the party. This is an extreme example, but it makes the point. God’s grace cannot be mocked indefinitely without consequence. This is one interpretation.
Thirdly, it may be that the rejection of the wedding garment was a rejection of being saved by God’s grace in and through Jesus. Some people like to say, “Don’t bother me with your gospel, I’m finding my own way to God.” The very phrase “finding my own way to God” tells so much. Why are we so sure God wants us to come to him by the path of our own choosing? Yes, I am aware that every person is unique, coming from a different background and with a whole range of personal experiences, all of which serve as a filter or form colored glasses through which we see and think about the world. I’m not talking about the unique elements of every person’s journey to faith or a fuller apprehension of God. I’m talking about the arrogant attitude that says, “I can determine how I want to think about God or approach God.” It may very well be the case that God will not allow us to each approach according to our own wishes and preferences, our own desired “way.” It may be the case that God only wants us to approach through the way God has provided. God the Father welcomes us to come through his Son Jesus.
If I understand correctly, God’s rejection is nothing arbitrary, but a confirmation of the human person’s rejection of grace. We cannot avoid the fact that this is one of the places where Jesus spoke a stern warning. We have to fear it or we do not hear Jesus correctly. In the end, however, we must also remember that many more were allowed to remain at the wedding feast. We must not forget who is at the center of this parable: the King’s own Son. He is the one who provides the wedding clothes, the one who gives us the grace to be forgiven and remain at the wedding party.