March 24, 2019 Sermon
Journey to the Cross:
The Great Party
First Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:1-10
22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:11-14
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Message – “Journey to the Cross: The Great Party”
Do you remember Jesus’ parable we read last week?
It was a parable about a landowner who hired workers all throughout the day and then, at the end of the day, paid each of those workers exactly the same wage, regardless of how long each had worked or even how hard each had worked. And the point of the parable is that God offers the exact same reward of grace, the exact same reward of eternal life with God, to all who receive it. Which is both a confusing thing to hear for human ears – we’re all about equal pay for EQUAL work – and an absolutely wonderful thing to hear for human ears – because without these words some people might actually have a case when they proclaim others will receive a lesser gift.
While I didn’t mention it directly, you might have realized that this parable of the landowner and the workers was a parable about something called The Judgment, which means this parable is about God’s decision regarding who will gain entrance into an eternity with God and who will not.
And then we get today’s parable. Without even studying it, without hearing what I have to say about it, I imagine you realized this parable is also about The Judgment. It’s got all the makings of a Judgment parable:
- A great banquet, a wedding banquet, even;
- Some guests who get in; other guests who don’t;
- Even a guest who ends up in “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
It sounds like a Judgment parable because it IS a Judgment parable.
My friends, today is the third Sunday of Lent. During this Lenten season, we are journeying with Jesus toward the cross, guided by the makers of the Narrative Lectionary to read about and consider some of Jesus’ last words, some of the things upon which Jesus was focused as His earthly ministry neared its end.
And today we discover with a second consecutive parable about The Judgment that Jesus seemed to be VERY focused on and concerned about The Judgment as His earthly ministry neared its end. I can imagine why. Jesus cared very deeply about people; Jesus loved people enough to go to the cross for them, for us. And so, as Jesus approached that cross, He wanted to tell us how The Judgment will work, how it will happen, in a way that would best help us understand…so we would not be confused.
So, of course, Jesus explained it to us in parables?! I know, it doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense. But, really, it does. While we might WANT Jesus to have given us some kind of mathematical formula or list of rules for how to receive an eternal life with God, we KNOW from history how that would work out. Just look back at the Old Testament. People would corrupt and pervert and abuse a formula or set of rules to the point that it no longer resembles God’s intentions. That’s what God told us through the prophets.
But a story, a parable, that reveals truth and intent, while it may seem more confusing than a set of rules, it actually provides greater clarity.
Let’s consider today’s Judgment parable as an example. Before I begin, I want to tell you why I’ve divided the story the way I have between the two readings. Matthew’s presentation of the parable appears to be a compilation of two things. One thing is the parable as quite similarly told through the gospel writer Luke and other ancient writings attesting to sayings and stories of Jesus. That’s today’s first reading. The second thing, which comprises today’s second reading, is an addition by Matthew.
Please, don’t hear my saying that the second reading is an addition by Matthew as any kind of suggestion that Jesus didn’t speak these words; I’m not suggesting that at all. Since these words are in the Bible and attributed to Jesus, we believe they were spoken by Jesus. Perhaps they were spoken by Jesus as the ending of this parable and somehow left out by Luke and other ancient writers, or perhaps they were spoken in proximity to but not directly connected to this parable. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that the parable as found in Luke and in our first reading today provides a particular point, a particular deep truth, but the addition of the second reading as an ending to the parable adds some depth to the original deep truth. So, I’m going to talk about both deep truths – the one as presented in the first reading and the one as modified with added depth by the second reading. I imagine Jesus tried to communicate both of them, even as I’m not sure if Jesus did so at the exact same time. And I’m absolutely certain God, through God’s Holy Spirit as God inspired Matthew to write Matthew’s gospel, wants us to receive BOTH truths.
So…let’s dive in.
Deep Truth Number 1: God invites unexpected people to participate in God’s eternal kingdom, and whoever shows up gets to enjoy the party of an eternity with God.
With the first service, I had a discussion about whether or not there’s anyone they have ever considered unworthy of eternal life. With y’all, I’m going to tell you that I grew up in and Independent Christian Church whose leaders most definitely tried to teach me that there are some people who are unworthy of eternal life….even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That congregation’s leaders and preachers had some views about who’s in and who’s out of eternal life with God that are different from what I find in scripture.
- If you spoke any of a long list of forbidden words – OUT;
- If you watched any of a long list of forbidden movies – OUT;
- If you had the wrong thoughts – OUT;
- If you participated in any of a long list of sins – OUT;
There were so many people the leaders of this congregation proclaimed were excluded due to any number of infractions, infractions, by the way, that I couldn’t find printed on any list but that were verbally mentioned in Sunday School classes and that were mentioned during the sermons. In fact, I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job until one Sunday morning, the pastor said that anyone who had watched a movie that had been released the Friday before was on the express train to Hell – anyone except the pastor, of course, since He was watching it only to be able to tell other people why watching it was akin to buying a ticket on that fast and hot train. As it turns out, I had watched the movie. I, too, thought it was a terrible, horrible, abomination of a movie; I never would have guessed it would be what it was when I went to watch it; the Dallas newspaper’s reviewer said it was good, and there wasn’t an Internet yet…so that review was all I had to go on. Somehow, without knowing what I was getting into, had I sealed my eternal fate? One pastor thought so.
Y’all one of the things Jesus made clear through His ministry and through parables like this one is that God’s amazing and eternal party is going to include a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t get let in if the decision was made by the religious leaders of this world…or, well, any person. Because the criteria for “getting in” has nothing to do with the ways of this world but has everything to do with the ways of God. And this story sure makes it sound like God is just going to keep inviting and keep inviting and keep inviting:
- Sure God will invite the people we expect;
- But God will ALSO invite the people we don’t expect, including all those people out there we call sinners; God is inviting THEM, too;
But the real kicker is this: who actually ends up making it into the party of eternal life is based ENTIRELY on who accepts…nothing else. God invites everyone; those who accept get in.
Deep Truth Number 2: In the additional verses provided by Matthew, Jesus nuances the first deep truth to include: while everyone who accepts can show up to the party, it takes more than a mere verbal acceptance to ENJOY the party. You’ve got to really want it; you’ve got to show that you want it by the actions of your life. You’ve got to live into the kingdom, not just stumble into it half-heartedly. In other words, you’ve got to manifest authentic Christian faith in deeds of love and justice as opposed to simply saying “I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God” and then living as if you’ve never heard of Jesus.
Now, I get that there are some issues, some potential problems with this.
For starters, this seems to making the suggestion that Jesus advocated a works-based faith. But, I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. Remember, Jesus was trying to explain The Judgment in story form rather than rules form because rules could be manipulated and twisted. If Jesus had said all you’ve got to do is believe, people would have twisted that to define all that is required for belief. With this addition, it seems to me that Jesus was trying to demonstrate that belief is more than words. Just like guests who care at all about a wedding would be CERTAIN to show up in appropriate attire, people who believe Jesus is the Son of the living God will most certainly live in accordance with what it means that they believe Jesus is God’s son.
Secondly, with the story it appears Jesus is telling we servants of God that we have the right and even the duty to prevent those we deem unworthy from admission to the party or perhaps even to throw them out. Which means we get to make lists of what’s acceptable and what’s not. I mean, that’s what the king’s servants DID in the story, right? Well, actually, it’s not. In the story, the king invited everyone and allowed everyone who showed up admittance to the party. No one was prevented from showing up other than by their own choice. That’s critical to remember. We don’t get to PREVENT anyone from showing up; that’s not our role. But once people decided to show up, only ONE PERSON in the story had the authority to make the decision that anyone wasn’t committed enough to remain at the party. And that one person was who? (The king.) In other words:
- You don’t have the authority to deem another person unworthy. You might want to have that authority, but you don’t.
- I don’t have the authority to deem another person unworthy. I might want to have that authority, but I don’t.
- Indeed, NO HUMAN has the authority to be judge over another. God reserves Judgment for God’s self.
And I don’t know about you, but this might be worthy of about the loudest “Amen” I’ve ever shouted…because, let’s face it, if it’s PEOPLE who get to decide…I’m guessing there’s someone out there who is going to kick every single one of us out of the Heavenly Banquet.
So I’d rather have my eternal fate resting in the hands of God:
- God who has the power to create the earth and the power to create life, the power to heal, the power to calm seas and to create storms;
- God who loves me enough to send His Son to show me the best way to live in this lifetime;
- God who loves me enough to justify me through the selfless act of that same Son, even though I am unworthy;
- God who loves me enough to resurrect that very same Son to demonstrate God has power enough to give me life even after nature says I have life no more;
My friends, I love you, I really do. But when it comes to my eternal future, I want the God of love and grace and mercy making the call, not any of you nor any mortal. Because the God of grace will know my heart, my intentions, my faith. The God of grace will KNOW; the God of grace will judge. I can live with that. Praise be to Christ, I’m quite sure I can live eternally with that.