When it came time to choose a godmother for our son, Sam, twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I had no idea how wise our choice would be. Sam hit the jackpot with his godmother Rachel when Halloween rolled around because she determined early on in her godson’s life that she would design and sew a Halloween costume for him every year. He got to choose his costume in late summer, and sometime in early October, a package would arrive with the latest costume in it: from a dalmatian, skunk, and lightning bug to a bumblebee, Pikachu, and Harry Potter. By year ten, Sam was too old to trick-or-treat with impunity, so no more costumes. But it was a great run while it lasted. Every year he had the perfect costume.
The parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew hinges on whether a guy is wearing the right costume for the party. It makes for the difference between a celebration and the gnashing of teeth. This is a notoriously difficult passage to preach on. Luke tells the story more mildly than Matthew, and that’s the version people usually gravitate toward and that preachers prefer because it doesn’t include the bit at the end about the guy getting kicked out into the outer darkness. Who wants to preach on that kind of judgmental cruelty when you can just talk about a fun meal where everybody is welcomed?
In Matthew, all this takes place after Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the last week of his life. The week started with the crowds waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” that is, “Save us, King Jesus.” The Lord’s first move in Jerusalem is to barge into the temple precincts and throw out the vendors who were making a drachma or two on over-priced sacrificial animals and the money-changers who were the equivalent of an ATM that charges a five-dollar fee to access your own money. The chief priests and scribes, who didn’t much cotton to Jesus’ popularity with the people, liked this even less and upbraided Jesus for it. He responded with a quip about “out of the mouths of babes” and left for an overnight at his friends’ AirBnB in nearby Bethany.
The next day Jesus is loaded for bear. He has conflicts with others where he issues a defensive non-defense of his authority, and he curses a fig tree that he can’t find any fruit on. That sets up a string of parables of judgment where Jesus tells stories about how the disastrous denouement of his whole life is close by and how people need to be ready when it comes down.
The parable starts happily enough. Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of heaven, that is, what it’s like when our petitions in the Lord’s Prayer are fulfilled: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Jesus says it’ll be like a king whose son is getting married. God’s will looks like a big honking wedding reception, catered by the nearest three-star Michelin restaurant, and with an open bar for the usual three-days of reveling in first-century Judea. The king in the parable sends out e-vites via all the proper social media and doesn’t get a single RSVP. It’s all respondez sil vous nope.
That’s no way to get a crowd for your kid’s nuptials, so the king tries another tactic. This time he sends out personal representatives to knock on invitees’ doors to tell them about the grand time that’ll be had by all. But the proper guests don’t just refuse the invite by treating the king’s reps like evangelists with a handful of “littrachur.” That’s just the mild refusal. Others actually kill the messengers. The king’s response is to send his armies out to destroy the refuseniks and burn down their town.
So, who winds up feasting in the parable? It’s not the A-listers, the politically powerful, or the homecoming king and queen wearing their crowns of popularity.
Who are these proper folks who ought to be part of a royal wedding no-questions-asked? Who would you think would be the first people at valet parking when the Son of God seals his vows with his bride? It would be religious people who like those big omnis about God’s nature. They want an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God in their corner as an insurance policy in bad times and as a lackey to do their bidding every other day. God’s chosen ones had been invited into his feast again and again, but they didn’t like the host’s insistence on the party being about him and not them. They’d heard from the prophets before and rejected them. They refused to consider a banquet where the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the immigrant, the oppressed, the hungry, the least, the last, or the lost would also have the same pride of place on the seating chart.
If the kingdom of heaven is like this parable, the hard word here is that the consequences for people who use their religion to show off their piety, who refuse to welcome the “other,” and who reject outright what God is up to, will not be pretty. U-G-L-Y, the Lord says, you ain’t got no alibi.
So, who winds up feasting in the parable? It’s not the A-listers, the politically powerful, or the homecoming king and queen wearing their crowns of popularity. It’s not the religious zealots who cry “Lord, Lord!” oh so loudly, while they really mean “Me! Me!” It’s not those who insist the king’s banquet should be run according to their specifications from either side of the religious-slash-political divide in our culture. It’s not those who turn faith into a moral system that’s designed to keep themselves smelling pretty and turn everyone else into a rabble riddled with character flaws and weak wills.
The people the king in heaven insists belong at his Son’s eternal feast are exactly the wrong people. They’re the people on the bottom rung of the ladder. They’re the ones with no reputation, no agency, no badges of honor, and no dream of ever being worthy of the invite. They’re the losers and suckers that it’s laughable to consider as proper guests. They’re the people Jesus had been hanging out with for three years before he walked through the gates of Jerusalem.
What’s going on here is that Paul’s words in Galatians come true in the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. There is now no longer slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, male nor female. At this party, Mary’s song is fulfilled. God raises up the lowly and brings down the rich and haughty. The playing field is leveled because God knows that all have sinned and fall short of his glory. Whatever the prescription in our lenses was that allowed us to regard those around us in terms of hierarchies, of winners and losers, of fit and unfit, of deserving and undeserving, has been stripped away. Now the only vision is a divine one that sees the truth of our sin and makes us recipients of his eternal will – all on account of his desire to make you his own.
So, now we’ve dealt with two sets of people in the parable: those who should have been there but refused to show and those who didn’t belong but packed the reception hall. Now there’s this little matter of the guy in the coda to the story that makes preacher’s tremble. The king tells the fella that he’s shocked the guy got in without a wedding robe and condemns him. Presumably, the people who were herded into the hall before him all had wedding robes on. Maybe the costumes got handed out at the door. Everybody got a gift bag full of party swag for celebrating, including a t-shirt that said, “Jesus has horrible taste in brides (and that’s a good thing).” And they took it as their cue to dance to Kool and the Gang and quote Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
I’m the one who likes the idea of being connected to Jesus and who likes the prospect of eternal life with him even better.
The guy without the wedding robe wanted to be there for the party, but he couldn’t bear to have his attire dictated. He’d worked hard for his bow tie and tuxedo, and he’d be literally damned if someone was going to make him wear a cheesy t-shirt. He found the nearest urn and tossed the swag away. He had no use for the king’s righteous gifts. He wanted the caviar and champagne, not the connection to the king and his son – certainly not a relationship as tenuous as a cheap gimme shirt in honor of the nuptial promises. He was afraid he’d wind up like my son when he wore his Hedwig the Owl costume to school for the Halloween party, and everyone thought he was a chicken. Embarrassed, he must have responded, “God is fine and everything, but don’t get the wrong idea about me.”
This guy is me. I’m the one who likes the idea of being connected to Jesus and who likes the prospect of eternal life with him even better. To me, those are good things, but the old sinner in me sees the demand that my salvation be based on someone else as a deal-breaker. So, I say, “No thank you. I’ll go it on my own.” And I toss away the gown I was draped in at my baptism and opt for parading myself in my own righteousness. Martin Luther called this our preference for going to God’s judgment seat rather than to his mercy seat. We want God’s ruling in our case to be based on our good works, our good intentions, our ability to win, even it’s by 50.00000001%. I can’t bear the thought that the wedding robe requires that I become a nobody, that my identity be wrapped up in the Jesus who made himself mine rather than in my accomplishments, my career, or my seven-gabled suburban home with a three-car garage.
But there’s no other way. Paul says in Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” Revelation provides a picture of the heavenly host arrayed in white whose robes have been tie-dyed in Jesus’ blood. In Colossians, Paul declares that we’re clothed in Jesus’ nature, adorned with his compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience rather than our own.
We see these wedding robes time and again at church. When we baptize babies, we dress them in a white wedding robe. What’s a pastor’s alb but that same wedding robe. And if your funeral is in my congregation, there’ll be a white funeral pall that will get draped over your coffin when you die. Church is a veritable Project Runway of wedding robes.
You belong here on the Lord’s Misfit Island.
But here’s the deal: These wedding robes that make you a member of the wedding aren’t what you expect. They’re actually Jesus’ graveclothes. They’re on loan to us who are dead in sin, who are no more able to concoct a life and a future than four-day-dead stinking-in-his-grave Lazarus was. So, your Lord has graciously given them to you to wear for the time being, which helps us understand what the guy without the wedding robe was so afraid of: he didn’t want to be dead, and I suspect neither do you.
And yet here you are with a swag bag in your hand and a host in the Lord’s Supper ready to welcome you because the guest of honor at his eternal feast wants you to be fit company. He’s given you his graveclothes to bind up your sin and brokenness, for you who are baptized into his death will certainly be raised in a resurrection like his.
If you’re at all concerned about whether you’re the naysayer, the RSVP-er, or the guy caught sartorially short; I have good news for you. You’re here. You’ve been gathered in with the rest of the cast-offs. You belong here on the Lord’s Misfit Island.
Yet what Jesus’ parable never tells you is a sweet and glorious secret: You’re the nameless character in the parable who never got any explicit mention. You’re the bride to whom the divine bridegroom has promised himself, and this meal is the wedding banquet. We’re all here to celebrate. Somebody queue up YMCA again. It’s time to get down. Rejoice in the Lord. Again, I tell you, rejoice.