parable

Fully Clothed

"Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet" by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet” by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) – Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:1-14

The king in this parable takes his son’s wedding celebration very seriously. No surprise there; what’s astonishing is how no one close to the royal family seems to care.

Maybe the king’s son is like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all pasty-faced and whiny and trying to sing his way through life, and no one wants to put up with him for the next seven days or so. (Wedding banquets could go on for quite awhile.) Such speculation will cause us to miss the point of the parable, however.

Jesus told this parable near the end of his ministry, while delivering a withering critique of the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews. The kingdom of heaven is like a glorious banquet. To refuse to go to such a feast makes no sense. Jesus was implying that the Jewish leaders were worse than the wedding guests, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of the messiah and the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, they and their ancestors for centuries had participated in the persecution and slaughter of prophets who had declared the coming kingdom.

Therefore, Jesus was saying, the king—God—would invite others, people who had never expected to go to the banquet. For non-Jews, this is the important part of the parable. We Gentiles are the ones gathered from the streets, “both good and bad.”

What an opportunity! All we unwashed heathens have to do is say “yes” to the invitation. But one thing remains in the story: what to wear?

"The Marriage Feast" by John Everett Millais

“The Marriage Feast” by John Everett Millais

This is where we run into the really difficult part of the parable, the four verses that serve almost as a parable unto themselves. The king enters the banquet hall full of commoners but sees a guest not dressed properly. The king’s men bind this slob hand and foot and cast him out into a place darker-than-dark, a location full of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and sounding suspiciously like hell. Here we see it is possible to say yes to the invitation, get into the party, and still not please the king.

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus concluded his parable.

Three weeks ago, while preaching about God’s enormous grace, I mentioned that Jesus and the early church fathers at times seemed to indicate salvation will be widespread, possibly even universal, while at other times they spoke in a very sober way about the demands inherent in following Christ. This parable seems to be on the more restrictive end of the spectrum.

If we’re not careful, we can be left feeling as if we’re once again striving for our salvation, trying to earn it under some sort of new code or law that has replaced the Jewish system that proved to be such an impossible burden. What must we do, and how well must we do it? What might the king’s fashion rules be? Go to church? Read your Bible? Say your prayers?

The parable, however, really isn’t taking us in such a direction. To fully understand what Jesus was saying, we need one important piece of background information. In Jesus’ day, guests at an elaborate wedding banquet like this one didn’t have to dress for the occasion. The host provided everyone with robes to wear. You simply had to wrap yourself in what was his.

When we accept that invitation to joyous life with Christ, we receive more than an eternity scheduled to begin at a later date. God’s Holy Spirit clothes us with his righteousness and attributes now, if we let God work in us.

This was what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians that the Holy Spirit gives us characteristics we cannot achieve on our own: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the garments we put on, a kind of clothing we could never stitch together on our own.

Activities like worship, Bible study and prayer aren’t rules, they’re garment boxes, wrapped and ready with our holy, eternal clothing inside. The more we open these boxes, the more of God’s robes we put on.

With such gifts awaiting us, why would anyone want to wear the stinky old clothes from days gone by?

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Unfair!

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard lets us thoroughly explore a subject we just barely began to touch upon last week. God’s grace can seem strange to us—perhaps even unfair.

There is no trick to interpreting what Jesus means in this parable. It’s just that confronting the plain meaning can be troublesome. Would you want to work all day in a field, see other workers arrive in the last hour and work alongside you, and then watch them receive the same pay as you? Any of us would be indignant.

Let’s explore that sense of injustice a little further. As is pointed out in the parable, the workers who bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat” really don’t have a sound economic argument to make. They receive a fair wage, one clearly prearranged before they began work. They have not been cheated in any way.

No, their anger, their desire to cry “unfair,” seems rooted more in the simple fact that no one wants to feel like a fool.  They see what has happened and think to themselves, “I could have waited in the marketplace day labor camp until almost evening, done hardly any work at all, and gotten exactly the same amount of money.” Stupid, stupid, stupid!

There is a parallel in the Christian life. Some will receive God’s grace early, devoting their lives to Christ in the process. Some will come to Christ later. Some will come so late, perhaps on their deathbeds or in a last fleeting moment, that they leave little evidence in this life of their conversions. The reward is the same, however, eternal life with God.

And again, it is not hard for those who come to Christ early to perhaps feel a little indignant, deserving of something more, although it’s difficult to imagine what “eternal life with God plus more” might look like. The convenience store robber who pleads to Christ for salvation as he bleeds out from a bullet in his chest—he is equal in God’s eyes to Mother Teresa? Really?

When I was in seminary, a teacher illustrated this well, turning a mid-term exam into a lesson about God’s grace and the importance of not resenting what is given to others. Grace is a gift; it cannot be earned, only accepted.

If you study today’s parable and other texts illustrating the magnitude of God’s grace, the situation can become even more perplexing, particularly if you immerse yourself in a centuries-old argument. Is God’s grace so great that everyone will be saved?

Does God create some path, some sort of opportunity in this life or beyond, for everyone to see the work of Christ clearly and say yes to what is seen? One controversial early church father, Origen, built an elaborate argument that all creatures—even Judas, even the devil—ultimately will be restored to God.

I think no pastor can preach such an idea as biblically true. As attractive as the notion is, I cannot be a universalist. Now, I should acknowledge there are biblical texts that talk about the full and complete restoration of creation.   Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, Philippians 2:10-11 and Colossians 1:19-20 are sometimes cited as examples. But there also are many texts about hell and eternal separation from God for nonbelievers, some of those warnings in the same gospel where we find the parable of the laborers. The subject simply cannot be resolved in a clear enough way to establish doctrine.

The concept of salvation for all can shape our hopes, however. Can we sincerely desire eternal life for the worst people we can think of, perhaps the people who have wounded us most grievously?

Such questions serve as a litmus test for Christians, a way of determining if we’re able to reflect God’s love for all. Essentially, we’re trying to emulate the mind that makes possible John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

If you carry such hope in your heart, God bless you. You are a remarkable person. The rest of us may find we need to sink deeper into God’s incredible grace.

*****

To give credit where credit is due, my introduction to the idea of  of salvation for all as a matter of hope came from an article by Father Richard John Neuhaus in the August 2001 issue of the journal First Things, titled, “Will All Be Saved?