“The Open Table”

“The Open Table”
Luke 14:7-24
Matthew 22:1-14
Kelly Ann Seaman
July 31, 2022

Our Second reading this morning from Matthew 22: 1-14

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD

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This is the word of the Lord, but man, sometimes the word of the Lord is difficult to understand. You would think a royal wedding would cause unbridled joy and excitement, no one in this version of the parable wants to go! I think it’s fair to ask, why not? After all, nothing would have kept me from Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s wedding! But not only are these invited guests busy, they’ll kill the postman before they’ll attend. And then, we have our King, and boy is he disgruntled. He will burn your whole town down, and then, he will FORCE WHOEVER IS LEFT (good or bad) TO COME TO THE WEDDING. Not only will you come, but you better wash the ashes off your face and find something appropriate to wear… OR ELSE! Weeping and Gnashing of teeth, for you!  

To be honest, I am angry at Matthew for writing some funhouse mirror version of the parable I love so much in Luke. Dr. Barbra Brown Taylor, writer and minister, when writing about Matthew’s penchant for hellfire and brimstone wrote, “If Matthew and Luke had churches in my town, I would definitely go to Luke’s.” ME TOO. 

Earlier this week, I thought about bailing. Forget Matthew, we could all just snuggle up with Luke’s version, and I could feel cozy again. But, I think parables are meant to make us uncomfortable. And I believe there is something in here in both gospels to teach and reorient us. 

In Matthew, Jesus is in the temple, and he is talking to a group of Pharisees who have been railing against him with big scary questions, trying to trip him up so they can arrest this annoying heretic, who is making them all look bad! Matthew says just before the wedding parable that the Pharisees have realized Jesus is “talking about them!” And they are NOT HAPPY. 

There are many different commentaries on these verses, with some fascinating different understandings of what this parable means. In one, Jesus is the undressed guest, another, the King represents political systems at the time, in one more, we are the servants sent out to gather the wedding guests… But, most frame it as allegory instead of parable. That’s how it was taught to me: the King is God, Jesus is the Groom, the busy and murderous guests are the Jews, the wedding feast is the heaven, the rejected and/ or murdered slaves are the Old Testament prophets, the A-list guests who have refused to attend the wedding are God’s chosen people, the Isrealites. The kicked out guest represents the Pharisees… But the B- listers? Those last minute guests who come in off the streets? That’s us. The gentiles. How convenient is that understanding of this scripture for us then? We get to show up to the party! Those on the outs? They’re dead, or out gnashing their teeth together. We are eating caviar and drinking wine while the world literally burns around us. 

The commentators who understand this parable in this way give us a glossary, a cast of characters. They’ve (dust hands together) got it all figured out. And so, their warning to us then becomes NOW DON’T YOU MAKE THE KING MAD, or you know where you’ll end up. It’s right there in the text, clear as day! 

But is it? Did you know that Jesus is asked 183 questions across the gospels? He rarely gave a direct answer. Instead, he liked to ask questions: 307 of them to be correct. And, many of those questions were presented through parables. Some parables make you feel all warm and fuzzy, and others, others make us a little crazy. 

Jewish Historian Amy Jill Levine says, “What makes parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge”. 

And so our job this morning is to get inside this parable and walk around in it. Let’s get a little uncomfortable. We have the same job those Pharisees had all those years ago: to get a little mad or confused, so that we can wake up; that Jesus can teach us something. 

I’m uncomfortable with Matthew’s version because I don’t like this commonly assigned cast of characters.  The temper tantrum throwing King looks nothing like God to me. If Jesus is the groom, why doesn’t he step in? Where is the mercy in this story? Where is the justice? Where is grace? If this is a parable about heaven, then do we really get to stay in because of clothes we wear or don’t?  Is the focus of salvation really all about what we do and get right instead of about grace…

I love the challenge Episcopal Minister Debie Thomas offers, “ I wonder now if Jesus tells the parable from Matthew in such an extreme and offensive way precisely because we do believe in a God as harsh as the king who turns his armies loose on his own people — and we need the help of hyperbole in order to recognize it. What if the king in the parable isn’t God at all?  What if the king is what we project onto God?  What if the king embodies everything we’ve learned to associate with divine power and authority from watching other, all-too-human kings and rulers?  Kings like Herod.  Conquerors like the Roman Empire of Jesus’s day.” Leaders like Hitler, or Putin, who enact violence, demand obedience and perfection before they offer justice or love? What if this king represents our worst fears? That at the doors of heaven, a wrathful and vengeful God is waiting for us?

And if we follow that fear… what about us? I think we are terrified that we are actually the thrown out guest. The King calls the undressed wedding guest, “friend”. In some versions it is translated as “imposter.” We’re afraid that we are an imposter. Our greatest fear is that we don’t have a seat at the table at all. We are wearing the wrong clothes. Our invite is rescinded; God’s grace has limits;  that we’re not invited. We are not worthy. 

That fear, that feeling of unworthiness, I know you know it. But my question to you this morning is: can a life lived in fear produce the love of Christ? The joy of salvation? Fear and anxiety cannot be our response to this parable. 

If this story is told in hyperbole to show the Pharisees about what the Kingdom of God is NOT, then perhaps Luke’s parable can show what the Kingdom of God is… 

Franciscan Priest, Richard Rhor writes, “Before the parable of the wedding feast, in Luke 14:12, Jesus says when you give a lunch or a dinner don’t ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors, for fear that they might repay you. Then you’d be back into the meritocracy game. They might invite you in return out of courtesy.

Jesus is telling his followers: Get out of the worthiness game entirely. When you have a party invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind so that they cannot pay you back. This will mean you (recognize you) are fortunate… In the Gospels, the banquet is a wonderful symbol of God’s free and unconditional love… We seem to prefer the worthiness system, where we earn what we get. But that’s not God’s invitation” to us… 

As we’re told in Ephesians “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is my favorite movie. If you’ve never seen it, I mean, you’ve had 76 years. You can just plan to come to our house this Christmas Eve at about 10 pm. Eric and I will have hot cocoa. You can help us wrap presents while we all sob together under the twinkly lights. 

The movie begins with the love story of Mary and George Bailey. Love and joy is what they build their life on. They continuously make life choices centered around sacrificing, loving, and caring for the people God has put in their life. They live on little, and they give so much. They especially give to those who are “the least of these” None of that makes sense to the movie’s villain and self proclaimed King of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter. In life, George is blessed with a beautiful family, but George is also tested. 

By the end of the movie, It is Christmas Eve, and George Bailey’s love and joy have been replaced with fear and anxiety. He is in the middle of a huge life crisis. His uncle has lost an $8,000  deposit that would have protected their savings and loan business from bankruptcy and fraud charges. The government is knocking at his door for answers, ready to arrest him. George is brought to his knees; he does the unthinkable and asks his nemesis, Mr. Potter, for a loan (Mr. Potter, by the way, has actually stolen that lost deposit), but he has NO GRACE for George. 

Instead, he tells him he should go ask all the people he’s helped to save him now, implying that he’s helped the wrong type of people because of course, they’re all poor and unable to repay him.  Mr. Potter tells George he’s got the wrong clothes on and would be worth more dead than alive. He throws him out of his office, and George experiences his own version of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He ends up at a bridge and is about to take his own life when God steps in. He sends a 2nd class angel, Clarence, to show George the way. 

Instead of just giving George an easy answer, or fixing everything, Clarence has him walk around in a parable for a little while. He shows George what the world would be like if he had never been born at all. George experiences a funhouse, terrifying inversion of his life. The people he helped his whole life are bitter and destitute. Why? He wasn’t there to help them. His brother is dead, George wasn’t there at age 9 to grab him when he fell below the ice. The woman he loved is an old maid. The children he cherished don’t exist. Mr. Potter’s reign is clear; Bedford Falls is now Pottersville. There is no joy, no love, no grace. And that is clear by how lost everyone is. Instead of a party, the city is burning.  

Of course, this terrifies George, but it also wakes him up to the beauty that is his life. He begs God to take him back to reality and when he does, he has had a wake up call that has reoriented his life.

I really wanted to find a comparison to what the wedding feast, the kingdom of God will look like, and I have to tell you, I dream it is like the home that George Bailey returns to. After wrapping his children and his wife in his arms, the door opens and the guests start filling in. They are all of the people George has ever helped: the poor, the lame, the people Mr. Potter never thought could repay him. And guess what? They’ve drained their bank accounts, canceled their Christmas plans, called in favors. They shower him with all the love and joy he invested his whole life. The house is full. His debt is paid. The movie ends with Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Auld Lang Syne, and I love to think that just after, everyone settles in for a big meal together. Can you imagine the feeling of belonging? Of worth? Of family?

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The house of love is the house of Christ, the place where we can think, speak, and act in the way of God– not in the way of a fear filled world. From this house the voice of love keeps calling out: ‘Do not be afraid… come and follow me… go out and preach the good news… the kingdom of God is close at hand.” 

I’ve heard it said we have one foot in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We get to see little glimpses of it here and there. Unfortunately, more often than not, I think we experience the scary funhouse version of it. It is very easy earthside to mistake Kings for God, to mistake our brothers and sisters as our enemies, to believe ourselves without an invitation…but that is not the gospel of Christ. That is not the Kingdom of God.

I don’t have a pretty perfect bow to wrap on these parables.  I don’t have a certain cast of characters or  glossary. What I do know is that just 23 verses after Matthew’s parable, Jesus does clearly give us an answer to a giant question: “Teacher, which is the most important in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and ALL THE DEMANDS of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” 

If we allow parables’ meanings to be cemented and figured out for us, aren’t we missing the entire point of what a parable is meant to do? If we don’t get uncomfortable, ask some bigger questions, walk around in a parable for ourselves, won’t they just become stagnant, instead of challenging and inspiring? I think the differences between Luke and Matthew’s tellings points to a very interesting truth: we all bring our own biases, hopes and fears, daily struggles, and whole selves to the gospel (the Good News). That is what is so powerful about scripture, when we wrestle and look deeper, we uncover our deepest held values, how we understand who God is. Anne Lamott says, “Most parables are paradoxical in that they don’t go the ways you think they will. Jesus is messing with people’s minds, paradoxically out of love, so they dig deeper into truth, where they may find themselves, and love, which is the kingdom.”

WAKE UP, my friends. We have good news: The kingdom of God is near. We are on the guest list. The music is ready for dancing. The food is ready. The table is open. Let’s reach out to every margin; let’s fill the house with the love we can never repay, and then, let’s take our seats. 

Benediction:

To steal from poet Mary Oliver: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? In gratitude to our host, let’s love one another. Let’s open the table up here on earth as it is in heaven. 

Amen

 

About Kelly Seaman