Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday October 15, 2023
Well, that’s quite the gospel, this morning. Basically, we are offered a parable by Jesus that is essentially about God’s “cancelling” someone for wearing the wrong thing to a party.
Even by our current standards of outrage – legitimate and otherwise – showing up in the wrong robe isn’t likely to get that kind of reaction.
So let’s unpackage what is really going on.
In our gospel, this morning, Jesus offers us a parable. This King sends out invitations to a wedding party for his son. He invites some bigwigs, some landowners, powerful people. But they are too busy or can’t be bothered. Some of them even attack or kill those delivering the invitation. The king, in anger, responds by taking revenge.
He then decides to open the wedding up to everyone. Except one man is found not wearing the proper garb. When he can’t explain himself, the king orders the man tossed out of the party. We are to understand that his orders were followed. He was the king, after all. “Many are called,” Jesus says in warning. “Few are chosen.”
First of all, I wouldn’t consider this one of Jesus’s most successful parables. So many of his parables endure across time and traditions. But this one doesn’t so easily translate into our day. We’ve certainly seen our fair share, recently, of vengeful kings or petty leaders. We have seen quite clearly what happens to people who have the power to be “exclusive,” who decide who gets tossed and who measures up. We all heard the former president of the United States once spell it out baldly for us: that “When you are a star” people let you do things – egregious things – that other people couldn’t get away with. So, I don’t know about you, but upon first modern-day reading, my sympathy goes to the man who didn’t follow the dress code and got tossed out the door.
This parable is challenging, so let’s break it down. In some ways, it’s a bit on the nose. The King is God, the son is Jesus. God calls the leaders to follow the gospel, and they reject the offer or ignore it. Worse, they kill the messenger – that is, the prophet, such as John the Baptist, who was sent out to “invite” us to hear Jesus. So, God opens up the Kingdom of Heaven to everyone, no matter who they are, and waits to see who shows up.
First, let us consider this parable against the parables that surround it. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells the crowd of a father who asks his sons to help him: one says no but changes his mind and does it.The other says yes but doesn’t help. Which one, Jesus asks, did what his father wanted? The first, the crowd answers. And so Jesus teaches that even when we choose wrong, our mistakes can be corrected. That what we say does not define us, but ultimately our actions do.
The next parable we hear is of a vineyard owner who rents his land to a set of farmers. When it comes time to collect his share of the harvest, he sends his servant, who the farmers beat and kill. A second meets with the same fate. Finally the land owner sends his son, who is also killed. And in the crowd, we hear that the chief priests and Pharisees squirm – for they know that the parable is about them, who hold on to power for the sake of power.
Now the parables of Jesus always have to be balanced by the message that resonates with us today, and the historical context we need truly to truly understand what is happening. In Jesus’s time, a wedding thrown by a King or very wealthy person would have included the host’s providing wedding robes for the guests. Not to wear one, would have been an insult and affront. So, the man is not bounced from the party for his ratty clothes. He is kicked out for not accepting a gift. The wedding robes in this sense are meant to represent grace. The man is not wearing a robe of character, and it costs him his invitation.
But is that fair? Is that even our understanding of the gospel? If many are called, but few are chosen, doesn’t that lead us to a community of faith where some pass, and some fail? This, for me, is a troublesome part of this analogy. It appears to contradict so many of the other teachings of Jesus, which are about grace and forgiveness. In the end, don’t we all want the same chance -- to learn from our mistakes?
But just as I would question anyone who uses one line from the Old Testament to decide their views on a matter, we have to remember to take the gospel in its entirety. Each parable should be seen as a kernel of wisdom; taken together, they give us the nuanced wisdom of the gospel.
It makes no sense that Jesus would be saying, if you mess up and forget to put on the robe this one day, you are out. Or, if you realize your error, and put on the wedding robe, you won’t get back into the party.
But some of the parables of Jesus guide our actions, such as the one about the Good Samaritan. Others make us see how even in our failings, we are accepted, such as the story of the two sons that precedes it. And some of the parables, like this one and the one before it, remind us of our obligation to the gospel. In these parables, of course, Jesus is speaking without much disguise about his own role on earth, to upend and unsettle the powers that be, even if there is a cost.
In doing so, Jesus is reminding us that getting invited to God’s table isn’t something to take lightly. It comes with risk. It comes with effort. Collecting the harvest won’t be easy. We don’t just wake up one day and wander over to the party. This invitation comes with a calling to live with character.
What was the character that God wanted the man to instill by his presence? A character that would be as visible as the clothes he was wearing. Surely it was the humility that the wealthy landowners did not show. But also kindness and generosity -- not looking away when we see wrong. The cloak of character comes with sacrifice. At times, it is a heavy cloak to wear.
But let’s not forget that other story told today. The exchange between Moses and God is one particularly worth noting. God is angry about the golden calf, ready to call it quits on the Israelites. But Moses, in essence, talks God down. And eventually, we are told, God changes God’s mind. Think about that: in a moment, a calm human voice, asking for mercy, was heard by God, and brought change, another chance to wear the cloak of character.
Are we the many who are called, or the few chosen? Faith is, by its nature, aspirational: a goal to which we strive, a cloak of character we try to wear as much as can. Jesus is impressing upon us the cost of the cloak of discipleship, even as he reminds us that the price of the invitation to the party is not perfection. Let us hear the call. Let us be mindful of false idols and Kings. And let us leave the choosing to God. Amen.