The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23
October 15th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
For the last several weeks, we’ve been making our way through various parables in Matthew’s Gospel concerning the nature of the kingdom of God and our responsibility to live according to its peculiar ethics.
Matthew’s Jesus has been using the setting of a vineyard—a term which Isaiah used to describe Israel—in order to speak about who is invited to come labor in the vineyard, the difference between those who say they will come work and those who actually do, and about how a poorly tended vineyard will be taken away and given to those more willing and able to care for its fruitfulness.
Hearing these parables in a succession of weeks in church, one starts to slowly come to the realization that many of our notions about how the world works, or should work, are turned upside-down by Jesus, putting us to a decision as a result.
This Sunday, we have exchanged the metaphor of the vineyard, for that of a great feast.
And not just any feast, but a royal wedding banquet given by a king in honor of the nuptials of his son.
You can imagine how lavish such an occasion might have been, and if you’ve ever been to such a wedding, or hosted one, you know as well, how costly such a production can be.
The parable hinges on the fact that the original guests do not accept the invitation, and even though the king reminds them of the fact that he’s gone to great lengths to prepare the feast for them, they still do not accept the invitation.
Some cite business interests, while others, like the bad tenants in last week’s Gospel, seize and mistreat the king’s slaves and even kill them, prompting a swift and violent retaliatory justice from the king.
Since the feast has been prepared, and the food and wine are subject to spoiling if not consumed soon (not unlike the daily bread of manna for the wilderness roaming Israelites), the king has his servants go out and invite everyone they can find to the banquet.
It doesn’t even matter if a person is considered good or bad…in the face of this blanket invitation, what seems to matter is attendance…namely coming to the party.
And yet, there is a troubling encounter that concludes the parable.
The king, surmising the party he has assembled and the guests who are in attendance, sees a man without a wedding robe.
When questioned as to how he got into the wedding banquet without the robe, the guest has nothing to say.
Consequently, the king’s response is fierce and the improperly dressed, speechless guest is thrown out of the party into a place of torment.
For years, I have wrestled with interpreting this last part of the parable.
Coming on the heels of Jesus’ other vineyard and kingdom parables in Matthew, it is not difficult for the astute listener to read the first part as just another example of how God’s constant invitation to live in relationship is rejected by some, abused by others, and how God’s response is to fling open the doors of salvation as widely as possible.
But why would the king of all heaven throw a person out of the banquet hall for not being dressed correctly?
It seems paradoxical in light of the grace-filled blanket invitation to then single out this man for his improper clothing.
Recently, I have begun to think of this lack of a wedding garment as a symbol of squandered grace.
In short, while I have absolutely no doubt that God’s grace is universal and that all, good and bad, are invited to the great wedding feast God is throwing through the ministry of Jesus Christ, there is still a component of personal accountability that accompanies acceptance of that grace.
We who have been invited to the party can’t merely sit back and do nothing when it comes to responding to God’s grace.
Putting on a wedding garment means accepting that we are part of a motley crue of good and bad invitees, and that we are willing to be associated with such varied humanity and are there for a specific purpose…to keep the feast together.
Remaining ignorant of our shared purpose, and coming up speechless when asked by the king, how and why we are present at the wedding banquet, is not good enough.
In fact, the parable seems to be saying, our entire life depends on how we respond to God’s grace.
One of the iconic scenes from the Academy Award winning film, No Country for Old Men, touches on this dynamic.
The scene is a tense encounter in a rural gas station between the well-meaning shop keeper, and an idiosyncratic hitman who takes a routine conversational inquiry from the shopkeeper as an opportunity to put his very life on the line.
The situation starts becoming uncomfortable, not unlike the confrontation between the king and the unclad wedding guest, when the hitman refers to the shopkeeper as “Friendo.”
While a psychoanalysis of the hitman is for another time, the part of the “Coin Toss” scene that resonates with this Gospel parable is when the hitman tells the meek shopkeeper to call heads or tails.
We viewers know that a coin toss is how the hitman decides the fate of some of his victims, so it is not just any flip of the coin we are witnessing.
“Call it…you have to call it” says the hitman, and the shopkeeper responds, “Well I have to know what I’m calling it for. What do I stand to gain?”
Saying the hapless shopkeeper stands to gain everything, or lose everything by implication, the hitman waits for an answer.
Heads says the shopkeeper…and the hitman reveals the coin to indeed be a heads, and the shopkeeper, and we, breathe a sigh of relief.
But immediately the hitman warns the shopkeeper not to just put the coin into his pocket, calling it “his lucky coin.”
For the hitman, the shopkeeper calling heads and the coin turning up heads is what gave him his life, and even though it may look like just a coin, that quarter from 1958 represents something far more valuable.
Such is the case with the wedding garment in the parable, and so it is with our own lives.
While our faith is not exactly like the psychotic roulette game played between hitman and shopkeeper, we are indeed asked to definitively respond to the grace we have been given, and in a certain way, our whole life depends on it.
Our invitation to the great wedding banquet of the Lord is free of charge, and shared by all.
But once we accept that invitation, we have to join the party and add to the festivities…not just take up space and certainly not to squander the opportunity to amplify the occasion.
Once we have been granted our life in Christ, we can’t just choose to pocket that invitation as if it were the same as any other.
The children’s song “This little light of mine” touches on that theme, and in a warped way, so does the Coin Toss scene.
The question each one of us has to answer, with an understanding that our life depends on it, is, “Now that we have been called, what then?”
How are we responding to the graceful invitation we have been given?
Are we wandering through normal life, secure and satisfied in the all-encompassing grace of Christ, or are we adding our voice to the party, tending the vineyard so that it produces fruits of the kingdom, and actively building a kingdom filled with divine justice that no empire can take away?
Take some time this week to ask yourself these questions, and prepare yourself to answer the King who invites us to the feast, and simultaneously demands our faithful participation.
Though it may be frightening to imagine…our very lives depend upon the response.