It didn’t take long, after starting to date my wife, Debbie, for me to realise that this was the woman I wanted to be with for the rest of my life and I remember very clearly what it was that made me feel that way. Very early on in our relationship I told Debbie about a particularly difficult time that I had experienced. It was one of those moments when I poured out everything and let her see the real me – the darkness as well as the good. When I had finished, I braced myself for the awkward comment and the quick retreat that would indicate that I had gone too far and told her more about myself than she wanted to know. But, instead, she thanked me for sharing so deeply and honestly. It was a moment in which I experienced a profound sense of acceptance. It was a healing moment.
Fast forward about eight years and contrast this with a conversation we had with our pastor of the time. We were both on staff at this independent, charismatic church, and the pastor had called us into his office to reprimand Debbie for the fashionable, vibrantly-coloured stockings she had worn in our evening service. He complained that they made her legs appear tattooed, and this was a sinful temptation to the men in the congregation. It was moment of shame that left us both feeling judged – Debbie for wearing what she did, and me because it was hinted that, as the husband, I should have stepped in.
Which of these two conversations better reflects the kind of person Jesus calls us to be? The parable Jesus tells in this week’s Gospel reading offers an answer to exactly this question. It’s a story that follows on other parables which are designed to challenge the legalism and sense of entitlement of the religious leaders. From the moment Jesus enters Jerusalem and cleanses the temple a show-down occurs between Jesus and the religious leaders. Matthew relates these events with a clear purpose – to show how God’s original mission for God’s people had been lost by the religious establishment, and how Jesus was bringing into being a new (or fulfilled) people of God. Where Israel had been called to be a blessing to the nations, the religious leaders had become the watchdog of the law – rejecting and excluding all who failed to meet their exacting standards of legal observance. Instead of serving others and bringing them into the feast of God’s grace and love, they had become doorkeepers keeping out all whom they considered impure and unacceptable.
But, Jesus had no hesitation in challenging this view of God and God’s reign. In the debate that ensued in the temple courts, and in the parables Jesus told, he made it clear that God had no interest in their legalisms, and that those whom they considered unacceptable were, in fact, finding their way into God’s gracious embrace. This week’s parable is one of these pointed stories challenging the religious leaders on their refusal to accept God’s invitation to God’s celebratory feast. But, this is not where the debate ends. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees (the three ruling classes of Jewish life) all continue to challenge Jesus, until the climax is finally reached in Jesus’ proclamation that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love neighbour wholly and completely (22:35-40). The entire interaction between Jesus and his opponents, including this week’s parable, must be read in the context of this commandment, because for Jesus the entire message of the Scriptures, and the entire thrust of his ministry is expressed in, and flows from, love.
Which brings us back to our original question. What kind of people does Jesus call us to be? The short answer, as we’ve discovered, is that we are called to be people of love. The long answer – which explains what it looks like to be people of love – can be understood by looking a little more closely at this parable, and what it says about the difference between those who find their way into God’s reign and those who don’t.
It’s a tough parable, especially in the form that Matthew gives us here, because it contains some rather violent and seemingly exclusionary elements. Firstly, there is the reaction of the king to those who refuse his invitation – he sends his army out to destroy them! Yes, they have beaten and killed his messengers, but this seems to be a rather uncharacteristic way for Jesus to tell the story. One possible reason for this inclusion may be that Matthew was writing after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in response to the Jewish uprising of 66 AD, and so he added this comment to reflect on the way the religious leaders had been brought down. Certainly, this part of the story does not appear in Luke’s version of this parable. The second disturbing part of this parable is when the person who gets thrown out because he is not wearing wedding clothes. It may be tempting to ask where all the other poor folk from the streets got their wedding outfits from, but this would be to take the parable too literally. Rather, Jesus is seeking to make a point here about the way inclusion at God’s table must change us (more about that later).
So, in this parable we are challenged by the two main thrusts of the Gospel message – invitation and confrontation.
At first glance the invitation may seem to be easy and welcome to us. It is not hard for us to distance ourselves from the religious leaders, and see ourselves as the marginalised who get the surprising, all-inclusive invitation to find a place at God’s table. There is no question that Jesus was seeking to make this point. The religious leaders were convinced that they were “in”. They were the chosen, the invited, ones. They knew and obeyed the law. They studied the Scriptures. They taught others about God’s ways and how to be acceptable to God. They had made it, and they were secure, or so they thought. But, then the time came to respond to God’s invitation, to take a seat at the table of God’s grace and love, and these religious leaders missed it completely. The way God’s invitation came to them, through this strange preacher who bucked the system and made the law about the heart, not jumping through legalistic hoops was simply unpalatable for them. Jesus’ challenge that God’s reign is about something deeper and more radical than obeying law or being “good” was more that they could take in, and so they reject both the message and the messenger. When religion becomes a source of security, power, financial well-being and control, it is very hard to embrace the radical, indiscriminate grace of God. But, this is what the parable teaches. We cannot earn a place at God’s table – it is freely and graciously given.
My best year at school was grade seven. Academically I achieved way beyond anything before or after that year. There were, I’m sure, many reasons for this, but one in particular was significant. My teacher was an elderly man, close to retirement, called Mr. Reinecke, who, soon after meeting me, must have seen something in me that others hadn’t, that even I didn’t know was there. He championed my cause when I was not appointed as a prefect, and ensured that I was, eventually, included among these students leaders. In class, I felt comfortable and respected and challenged by him, and he had a way of bringing out the best in me. I had not asked for any of these gifts, but he gave them anyway, simply because he could. It was grace that changed me, and grace that I could never have earned.
This is the kind of radical acceptance that Jesus offers to us. He sees in us what we cannot see in ourselves, and he offers us a place at God’s table. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we’ve done. All that matters is that we are invited, included, accepted by God. We cannot earn it, deserve it or achieve it. We can only trust it and accept it and live from it.
But, here’s the catch. If Jesus gives us a place at the table freely and undeservedly, then he does so for everyone else as well. Everyone belongs at God’s table, everyone has a place. And that means that we don’t get to choose who we sit with. As we are radically and graciously accepted, so we too are called to radically and graciously accept the other undeserving guests at the table. It’s a radical invitation, but because we don’t get to choose our table-mates, there is, in the invitation, a tough confrontation that we cannot avoid.
This is where the part about the man with the wrong clothes comes in. It is unpopular in some circles to speak about some people not being included at the table, but Jesus does not balk at driving this part of his message home. On the other hand, when we accept that some aren’t welcome at the table, we tend to fall back into Pharisaic legalism and make the exclusion about issues of doctrine, our standards of moral purity or biblical literalism. Both legalism and license miss the point of this story, though.
The wedding clothes here are certainly meant to refer to the nature of God’s reign, and the fact that if we are truly at the table, if we have truly accepted the invitation, we will be changed to reflect the values and priorities of God’s reign. Colossians 3:12-14 gives a glimpse of the kind of clothing that is worn by citizens of God’s realm:
“Since God chose you to be the holy people He loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.” (NLT)
With this we are back at the Great Commandment. All of these characteristics are features of God’s reign with love being paramount. All of these characteristics relate to the way we treat others, and all of them call us to embody the grace, compassion and forgiveness of Christ. So, to seek a place at the table, while simultaneously trying to exclude others, is to be “clothed” with the wrong “clothing”, and it results in us being the ones who have excluded ourselves. This was the mistake of the religious leaders of Jesus day – to believe themselves to be “in” while trying to keep others “out”.
The Gospel, then, is a profound and painful confrontation against our prejudice, our stereotyping, our legalism, our judgement and our exclusion of others. It is only when we are willing for these attitudes to be changed, when we are humble and grateful enough that we allow God to turn us into agents of God’s grace and love, that we have truly found our place at God’s table. Those who have found their place at the table have learned to love indiscriminately and recklessly – as Jesus did.
So, what clothing are you wearing now? Where might the Gospel be confronting you & challenging you to change into “wedding clothes”? Who are the people you don’t want beside you at the table, and how can you begin to make a place for them? It’s an old cliche’, but true nevertheless – God loves us enough to accept us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way!
God’s invitation is radical and all-encompassing. There is no question in the New Testament that God longs for every single person to find their place at God’s table. And we love this. We are so very keen to broadcast God’s invitation, and to market it like a new line of hair products. There is no shortage of programs that will teach you to do this. But, unfortunately too often, in trying so hard to get people to pray the prayer and sign the card, we downplay the radical confrontation that is part of the invitation. It’s an amazing invitation, but when we begin to recognise that it challenges our attitudes, and leads us, at the end, to the Great Commandment, it is a very uncomfortable invitation.
So, there is a seat at the table for all of us. It’s God’s unconditional welcome. But, there is also a seat at the table for the people we would rather keep out. And, so, if we’re going to sit down to the feast, we’re going to have to check our exclusionary baggage at the door. Anything in us that contradicts God’s grace, love, justice and compassion will be changed when we step into God’s reign. That’s why Jesus’ first word is repent. But, this change is life-giving, liberating, peace-making and restoring. That’s why I pray tat we have the courage not just to accept God’s invitation, but to accept, and celebrate, God’s confrontation as well.