This week’s reflection from Pastor Kris delves into the parable of the wedding banquet in the gospel of Matthew, which includes challenging images for our time- as it did for the early followers of Jesus.
Today’s texts – Philippians 4:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14
Prayer: God, we come before you in this sacred space to rejoice in your Word. May your Love, Grace, and Peace, which surpass all understanding, guide our hearts and our meditations this day. Amen.
We as human creatures learn through repetition. So hear again the story. Remember the context in which today’s reading from the book of Matthew is set: We are in Jerusalem. It is the last few days of Jesus’ life. There has been a huge celebration, and a dusty crowd gathered around Jesus as he rode a donkey and entered Jerusalem through the east gate. When the Roman army would have paraded into the city they would have entered on the other side of the city, on fine horses and in full regalia. In contrast to the empire’s display of power, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was marked by whatever the people could grab from the surrounding hillside: They took off their simple cloaks and tossed them on the ground in front of Jesus as he rode into the city, and cut branches from palm trees to wave high in the air. Shouts of “Hosanna!” broke out. Scripture tells us that “the whole city was in turmoil…” (Matt. 21:10b, NRSV).
According to the author, the chaos that day continued in what was considered the most sacred of spaces, the Temple on the mount. There, Jesus tossed over tables. According to Marcus Borg, “Jesus’ charge ‘indicted the temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination system. They had made the temple into a den of robbing and violence. Jesus’ action was not a cleansing of the temple, but an indictment of the temple.’ And it was an indictment of the system that the temple authorities had established.”
The next day, Jesus returned to the city, and once again to the Temple. There, in that holy place, he began teaching. Gathered there, the chief priests and elders of the Jewish community began to question Jesus’ authority. This is where we gather with our biblical ancestors today—in Jerusalem, in the Temple. It is HERE that we get this series of parables that Jesus shares, and witness his push back on the oppressive conditions the masses were enduring at the hands of the Empire, intertwined with the deadly silence and collaboration of the religious leadership. It is HERE that Jesus tells three parables in rapid succession, the third of which—the wedding banquet—we pause to reflect on today.
So hear this day another parable: The kingdom of heaven can be compared to… the mayor of a large, urban city. The mayor hosted a wedding reception for her daughter at the largest venue in town. She hired a wedding planner to coordinate the details, sparing no expense, and invited the CEO’s, real estate moguls, and political leaders. But there was silence. Absolutely no response. None of the business or community leaders replied to the invitation by RSVPing via telephone or email. The mayor sent a text to the wedding coordinator: “Everything is ready. I’ve booked the wedding hall and hired the caterers for a premium price. Message all the guests again and tell them to come!”
The emails, and texts, and telephone calls went out. But everyone whom the wedding planner contacted made light of the event. One hopped on his private jet and flew to his luxury resort thousands of miles away. Another appeared at a $10,000 per plate fundraiser for her political campaign. And yet another criticized the mayor on Twitter, saying the reception was just a publicity stunt. The social media trolls went wild. The mayor was enraged. She began responding on Twitter and FaceBook. #politics. #ItHasComeToThis.
The mayor contacted the wedding planner again: “We are set for the wedding, but those I invited have snubbed me and trolled me on Twitter. Let’s flip the tables. I want you to print leaflets and hand them out on corners. Post the wedding as an open event on social media. Commission party buses to pick people up. Let’s pack the wedding hall with people from all parts of the city! NOW we will see who shows up.”
So the wedding planner and his staff went out onto the streets and gathered everyone they could— joggers and bicyclists, parents pushing strollers, people in the coffee shops, people living under city bridges, and those that had drug additions. They invited the crowds in the malls, the families at soccer practice, students in lecture halls, and the people standing in line at the food pantry. Party buses were sent to the nursing homes and loaded up with patients and staff. The news of the wedding reception began trending on social media, and the wedding hall was soon filled with guests.
The place was packed! The largest hall in town. And then… glancing about the mayor noticed one person, someone who stood out in that beautifully diverse crowd. Suddenly, the mayor called that person out. That one person, out of the thousands there, the mayor declared not welcome. Amongst strangers, there was an intruder. Who was this unidentified person?
This parable is laced with scenes that can be disturbing. Who would show up at God’s banquet, only to be tossed into the outer darkness, cast into a realm of weeping and gnashing of teeth? If Jesus is comparing God’s vision of heaven to this extravagant, wonderful feast… just who is it that is not welcome?
For us as the United Church of Christ, a denomination that declares, “whoever you are, you are welcome here,” the end of this story is unsettling. But taking another glance, as we reread the passage, Jesus tells us that people… both good and bad… were accepted at the meal. All were welcomed. Jesus tells us that there, in the midst of that ragtag crowd, God’s abundance and grace was revealed. No matter your socioeconomic status, no matter your skin tone, no matter your physical or cognitive ability, no matter your sexual or gender identity, no matter your age, you are welcome here.
So… who… is… this interloper?
Hang on, and see if you can follow me here. If the kingdom of God looks like an extravagant party where EVERYONE is radically welcomed, and God’s vision is for a wedding like spread of food and celebration for ALL…
Then… could the party crasher be the presence of Evil? Evil alive and living in our midst? Or, oppression? Or, scarcity? Might this be the entity that is banished from heaven?
Evil. Systemic injustices. The Jesus followers in the first century were people who experienced imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of the Empire. If that was the evil that you lived in fear of each day, just think of the immense, transformational hope that would erupt from envisioning this new, creative image of abundance and welcome for all.
A place with no evil. No hate. No fear.
Maybe it is in the realization of this radical coming together, of us ALL responding to God’s invitation to gather as one, to eat in celebration of God’s goodness, that can bring about God’s Holy Transformation—heaven on earth—and the banishment of Evil.
This take on God’s envisioned banquet might sound all snuggly and warm, full of love and light, but I also think that there is a caution for us in the story. For there is the reality that our own busy-ness, our own immersion in the 24/7 work culture, our own overwhelming schedules, that is keeping us—you, me, our faith community—from celebrating God in everything that we do. How often does our turning to our work, checking off those items on our “to do” list, come at the expense of finding time to pause and respond to God’s invitation to be together at the wedding banquet? To be in worship? To be Church, and follow Jesus out onto the streets?
Might it be time for us to be counter cultural? For this feast of God is a meal of transformation. But look around. God’s revelation of heaven on earth seems so very far from being realized. Can we struggle besides each other—here, at coffee shops, at hospital bedsides, visiting elders and others who are homebound, walking in the CROP walk, serving at the Personal Essentials Pantry and Luke House, connecting with the youth and families who come here each Saturday for lessons through the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Music Makers, by being advocates for workers not earning a living wage, immigrants and refugees, racial justice… our work, dear Church, continues.
So as you go this day, be in the spirit of Paul’s words as written in The Message: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in (God)! … you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into (God’s) most excellent harmonies.”
Rejoice in the Lord always!
 Borg, Marcus. Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 235.
 “Turning the Tables—Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, accessed October 14, 2017, http://www.ucc.org/sermon_seeds_2016.