a sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” But who was this king? And who was the strange guest who showed up?
Once upon a time there was a young priest who was responsible for giving the weekly children’s sermon. One Sunday, she decided to use squirrels as an example of being prepared for life. She started out by saying, ”I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …” Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The priest breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?” “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.”
Something like that is happening in today’s parable. We know it’s supposed to be about Jesus, but we have to get past the squirrely parts. As we have come to expect with Jesus’ parables, there is more than one way to interpret today’s Gospel. The traditional way goes something like this: The King represents God, the son represents Jesus, and the wedding banquet represents our eternal glory in heaven. God, the King, first invited all the holy people into heaven, but they rejected him. They were too busy or had other things to do. Some of them even killed his messengers, the Prophets. Enraged, the king, who represents God, destroyed all the holy people and tore their temple down and nuked the city. Then he invited everyone else – the good and the bad, including us – to the heavenly banquet. And we all came and enjoyed our heavenly reward, eating and drinking, having a good time forever.
But there was one guy, we don’t know who he was, that really wasn’t prepared to do the hard work God expects us to do, and that one – the one without a wedding robe – God casts out to the outer darkness (which represents Hell). So all are invited. All are welcome. But God still expects us to do what’s pleasing in God’s sight.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this traditional interpretation. It’s open, welcoming, inclusive to everyone. But it makes the king look like a jerk. Imagine a king who invited all these people to the wedding banquet. But when he’s embarrassed that the wedding hall is empty, he goes crazy. He sends out his army, destroys the town and then starts over with a completely new guest list. That doesn’t sound very much like the God of love that I know. (At least he didn’t have Twitter.)
Now when Jesus’ audience heard this parable, they probably didn’t imagine the king as God. They probably would thought of their own king, King Herod. He was the king who, when confronted by the Wise Men at the time of Jesus’ birth responded by destroying an entire generation of babies. The king who persistently sought the adulation of others. The king who exercised his power and control over others, and built huge monuments along the way. And he was the king who killed anyone who got in his way, including John the Baptist, whose head was brought to him on a platter.
So what if Jesus was saying something else? What if we have this story backwards? What if Jesus really meant that the king was simply another human king, a vain man who thought that all that mattered was his money and power; a king who wanted to be feared, not loved; a king who believed that might made right? In other words, what if this king really represented the evil powers and rulers of this world?
Then we can understand how that king could turn to the poorest guest in the room, the one who couldn’t afford any wedding clothes, and bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. Then we might see that while the king may not represent God, the poor man looks an awful lot like Jesus. In this version of the parable, the hero of the story is not the king, but the stranger – Jesus, who lived with the outcasts and sinners; Jesus, who healed the lepers, and broke bread with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus, of whom Isaiah said,
“For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress…the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth”
Where do we expect to find Jesus? Do we expect him to be at a lavish banquet, rubbing shoulders with the rich folks? Do we expect to find him the corridors of worldly power? Or do we expect him to be with the hungry, the grieving, the poor? Does he sit at the table of the rich man, or dry the tears of the crying mother?
Jesus Christ was cast into the outer darkness by the evil and corrupt powers of the world. But that is exactly where he finds us. When we are broken, when things look hopeless, when need him most, he is already there. Christ was crucified and died, and raised from the dead to show that our lives matter to God. In God’s kingdom, we are his most precious possessions.
Now BOTH of these ways of reading this story are right. The kingdom of heaven IS like a great wedding banquet, where all are welcome, all are fed. It’s a banquet filled with life and light and joy.
AND, the kingdom of heaven is in our darkness, too. God is with us in our grief and pain, in our tears and sorrow. God is with us when all looks like all is lost. God is with us, because God’s love for us knows no bounds.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to when the powers of the world trample over you and cast you aside, and despite your having been cast out, you are still welcome at the Table, at the Feast that God offers us every single time that we are gathered together.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like when there is a strongman seeks to thwart all that Jesus has taught, and still the truth is brought to Light.
The kingdom of heaven is like when Jesus share a supper of bread and wine with his friends, knowing that he would be betrayed by one of them. And for this, Jesus stood silently before Pilate, bound hand and foot.
The kingdom of heaven is like when we gather here together, the whole and the broken, in tears and in joy, to share in the Eucharistic feast.
Come to the Table where all will be fed; none will be denied; And no one will ever be cast out.
Thanks be to God.