The Parable of the Invitation
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
11 October 2020: 8 a.m. Said Mass on the Labyrinth;
10 a.m. Said Mass with Cantors live-streamed from the Chancel
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
Parish of Trinity, Ashland (Oregon)
8:00 am said; 10 am sung Mass
God, give us hearts to feel and love.
Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
What in the world was that Gospel reading about? If a king invites a whole lot of people to a party and he’s so scary that everyone finds a polite excuse to get out of it, there’s something wrong with that king. And if you dragoon me in from the street as a party stuffer for all the No RSVPs you have received, only to humiliate and shame me for not wearing just the right clothes, and then throw me out, there’s something the matter with you.
Matthew’s Jesus starts it with “the kingdom of heaven is like….” But remember that this isn’t saying that king is somehow God. The phrase means something more like “Let me tell you a story that will help you see how God rules over us.”
The king here is clearly a psycho, totally self-absorbed and narcissistic. This is how Nero, Caligula, or some petty but nasty dictator in a banana republic throws parties. By seeing how bad such “hospitality” is, we see maybe what God’s invitations are like by contrast.
Matthew was written just after Vespasian destroyed the Jewish homeland and its Temple. The Gospel writer suffers from serious post-traumatic stress syndrome. And he is the only Gospel that pictures Jesus teaching clearly “from John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence and the violent continue to take it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
Once again, Matthew has taken a parable from Jesus and added all sorts of details to turn it into an allegory, changing its meaning in the process. Like last week, the earlier form of the parable is preserved in the Gospel of Luke and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.
It originally ran this way:
A rich man gave a great dinner to which he invited many guests. When all was ready, he sent his servant to summon the guests. But one by one, they all gave excuses for not coming. Hearing this, the rich man commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys and bring in anyone you find. I want my great hall to be filled for the banquet.’
Most of Jesus’ audience knew that a great banquet was a big scriptural image for God’s future saving act. Even though many passages said, like today’s Isaiah reading, that this banquet would be for all nations (Isaiah 25:7), many teachers said that it would be an exclusive event limited to God’s people only.
Jesus replied to such a stingy image of God with parables. He points to the weather and says that God gives his rain and sunshine to both good and bad people alike (Matt. 5:45). He points to families and notes that when children ask for bread to eat, parents do not give them stones, or when they ask for an egg to eat, do not give them a scorpion, or when a fish, not a snake. “If even average parents try to give their children good things, how much more generous will God be?” (Matt. 7:9-10; Luke 11:11-13) And Jesus’ actions matched his words. He regularly ate and drank with people declared contagiously unclean by his religion. He welcomed them. He tells people to accept God’s invitation without fear or anxiety. “Don’t worry about how you’re clothed,” he says, “the wild flowers are prettier than King Solomon all decked out, without any worries at all.” When he sends the apostles out, he tells them to just take one change of clothes and no more, to accept people’s hospitality, not be picky about their food, and eat whatever their hosts give them.
He asks Martha, driven to distraction about getting every little detail of her dinner for Jesus just right, whether she might relax a little, and focus on the one thing that will give her joy, like her sister Mary. I heard this text preached this weak by Archbishop Melissa Skelton at the annual convocation of my religious order. She said,
“We are all worried to distraction about getting things right: the technical live-stream feeds and zoom meetings, all the safety and hygiene rules for reengaging our buildings. These are things we should worry about, but not to distraction. If it had been me, I would not have asked Jesus, like Martha, to make my sister carry her weight in the worry game. I would have asked Jesus to just fix it. But that is not the savior we are given. He is there with us in our sorrows, fear, and worries, but we must not expect him to fix things at our beck and call. We can only, like Mary, look at him, listen to him, and be strengthened by his intentions and presence.”
Jesus’ original parable tells the story of the host forced by RSVP “regrets” to drag in people from off the street to say God’s banquet is open to all. It’s all about grace. But Matthew adds all the nasty details about a psychopathic king and invitees scared to death of getting things wrong, and that poor guy without proper wedding clothes thrown out into the street bound hand and foot. He is trying to explain that no matter how gracious God’s invitation, we need to be attentive and intentional in accepting it. Matthew’s image of having proper clothes for the wedding becomes in the Gospel of Thomas a symbol of whether we have actually truly accepted God’s gift.
At Caesar’s party, where all is fear and stress, if anyone is like that guy thrown out it is Jesus himself. Jesus was taken outside the city wall and nailed to a cross because he just was not up to snuff when it came for giving proper respect to Rome.
God is a kind and loving host, and invites us all. There is no need for stress or anxiety. The good news in this is that God’s invitation is not like Caesar’s. God is not a psycho killer. We need not fear.
But in order to accept God’s invitation, we have to be open to receive it. St. Augustine says, ‘God gives where He finds open hands.’ You can't receive the gift if your hands are already full, or are clenched tight. In yet another parable, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a narrow path and a tight gate, which at any given time only a few can manage to squeeze through (Matt 7:13-14). This is because in order to get through such a tight fit, people have to be willing to abandon all the baggage they are carrying, whether riches, resentments, self-will, sins, or even what appears to be good things if they are getting in the way.
What does accepting grace, freely offered, look like in practical terms? It looks like me admitting that I am helpless and hopeless. It sounds like the sincere phrase “I am sorry and I humbly repent.” It feels like Martin Luther’s heartfelt cry, “I am yours Lord, save me.” I myself have known God’s grace. All was hopeless and helpless, through my own “thoughtlessness, weakness, through my own deliberate fault.” I found that I had to accept my own powerlessness and turn it all over to God. And keep doing that, each day. Gradually, steadily, God worked wonderful changes. I am still far from what God wants. But I live each day in gratitude. I know that many of you have had similar experiences. You have told me your stories. We need to continue in faith and gratitude, and share the invitation to the party through our actions and words. If you have not had such an experience, then please listen to this call to God’s banquet, you random passerby on the street, and come it to the party. The tickets are free. But they are not cheap. Once it the door and settled at the table, we must continue to respond to Jesus’ beckoning call. This means amending our ways, making up as far as it is possible for our misdoings. It means trying to be our best selves, being a bit better today than yesterday, this year than last.
The banquet is priceless, the bread the finest, and the wine, a vintage that makes our hearts gladder than any other. Come to the banquet, don’t be afraid. And, without sinking into fear or anxiety, let’s try to dress appropriately.
In the name of Christ, Amen.