What to Wear to the Party...or Not

Proper 23, Year A
Exodus 32:1-14,
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23,
Philippians 4:1-9,
Matthew 22:1-14

Matthew 22:1-14
This story is a mess. In its present form it is about a King who held a wedding banquet, but his guest list not only refused to come, but they beat up and murdered his messengers, whereupon the King laid siege to the land slaughtering peasants and burning "their" entire city (presumably also his own). Following the carnage, a somewhat more genteel King then invites "everybody," to come, "both good and bad" and fills the hall. But when he happens to notice that one of those innocent guests who came at his last minute invitation (with no notice and no requirement of proper dress) was not wearing proper dress, so he binds the poor schlep hand and foot and throws him into the outer darkness to cry and grind his teeth. ("This is the Good News of the Lord," as we say…)

Probably what happened is that Matthew has put at least one, and possibly two parables into the midst of a free-standing one, with odd results. First, in 11-13, he probably added lines that appear to be a separate parable of a wedding garment. The inclusion is awkward, because in 9-10 the host has gathered guests off the streets without any warning, and then at 11-13 he expels one of them for lacking in sartorial elegance. Second, in 6-7, he added lines that may be a fragment of yet another parable where the enraged King lets the dinner get cold while he launches a military campaign against the towns and villages of those who refused his invitation. Some commentators believe that Matthew created the war imagery himself to link this parable with last week's parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-46). There certainly are parallels in the sending of messengers and the level of retribution and violence. But who knows.

Matthew's message was probably to allegorize the first part of the parable into an image of the history of salvation:
the King = God,
guests = Israel,
first messengers = prophets
war = the destruction of Jerusalem,
second messengers = Christian missionaries,

And he wanted to turn the second part into an application to the internal tensions within his own community, between new (gentile) and old (Jewish) Christians. He didn't want the new gentile members of his church to think that getting in would be easy (cf. 5:17-19, 10:5-6). The new "elect" were not in the church as a simple replacement for Israel; responding to the invitation to be a part of the new community by doing nothing but showing up was not allowed.

Fred Craddock[1] notes that "Matthew knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness," and suggests that Matthew was perhaps "addressing a church that had lost the distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behavior" (p. 475). Perhaps a sermon could be directed toward "cheap grace" and the general somnambulation of Christianity. All are invited to God's table, but there is more required for admittance than just having a belly button.

That may all be true, but the result of Matthew's story containing all of these parts winds up being a parable that is very hard to read today.

(Incidentally, clothing imagery as a symbol for the coming into the new community was common in the early church. I wonder if a sermon could be crafted around the notion of "Clothes to Wear to the Kingdom"? [cf. Romans 13:12-14; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 6:11; Colossians 3:12, and a couple in the book of the Revelation, that I’m too lazy to go look up].)

Another direction might be to try and track down something close to Jesus' original story and preach that. Luke's version is generally considered to be the more original of the two and is also shorter and more genteel. His is also more appealing to the social justice crowd. John Dominic Crossan, however, notes that a small item in Matthew's version sounds closer to Jesus than the parallel in Luke. Luke has the King tell the servant to "go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame (Luke 14:21)." Matthew's version just has the King say "Go...into the main streets, and invite everyone you find...." Crossan suggests that in at least this one line, Matthew may be closer to Jesus because Luke's version is straight out of Luke's own theology (and quoted straight out of Luke's own writings: cf. Luke 14:13), and probably does not go back to Jesus. It may be more appealing in terms of mission and outreach, but, unlike Jesus, it still assumes a world of stratified classes.

Interestingly, Matthew's subtle difference may be much more extreme. "The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality,” says Crossan, “is the radical threat of the parable's vision."[2] Jesus' had a fundamental, genetic, inability to stick with just one social class, and that galled people. Note that he also seemed to draw the odd scorn from the privileged classes that he was too much of a drunkard, glutton, and friend to tax collectors and sinners: they possibly thought he should have been spending more time with them.

So given all that, here's a general guess at what the original parable might have said. A man decides on a sudden dinner (the suddenness is from Luke's version) and sends out his servants to invite his friends as the dinner is being prepared. Because of the lack of warning each one finds a perfectly reasonable excuse. But the result is a meal prepared and nobody there. The host's reaction is to send the servant out to bring in "everybody." (There is no implication that he is looking for riffraff.) And that is the vision of the new Kingdom. Jesus' point is that the invited are now absent (they turned down the offer), and the uninvited ("both good and bad") are now present. In the new Kingdom, everybody will be present, not just the friends of the King.

Not a bad sermon theme… if you can explain in your sermon, in less than five minutes, all of the ins and outs of historical, narrative, tradition, redaction, criticism that got you there without angering or confusing (or both) your parishioners.   

Another image that one might pursue in a sermon is meals. For Jesus, meals in which all have enough to eat, are almost always a symbol of the Kingdom. Not surprising in a country and era that was raging with poverty and hunger. See Matt 8:11-12 (par. Luke 13:28-29), "many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Or Luke 22:16 (par. Mark 14:25; Matt. 26:29), "...for I tell you, I will not eat it (the Passover meal) until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." And Luke 22:29, "...and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom."

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B (1993).
[2] (Crossan, Historical Jesus (1992), p. 262.