All through the season of Lent, I have been inviting the people of Plymouth to ponder our motto: We Agree to Differ. We resolve to Love. We Unite to Serve. From now through Easter, I am preaching a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.
So right now my plan looks like this:
March 10 We Agree to Differ Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)
March 17 We Resolve to Love Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)
March 31 We Unite to Serve Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Ten Foolish Bridesmaids)
April 14 Join the Crowd Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)
April 21 With Fear and Great Joy Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)
As you can see from the schedule, this is a bye week for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts! Our text for this weekend comes from Matthew 22:1-14, The Parable of the Wedding Banquet.
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. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again 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.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13Then 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.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’
The context here is critical. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. This is the last week of his life –sometime after Palm Sunday and before the Last Supper. As the cross draws near, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts. And he seems a little fixated on questions of insiders and outsiders. Who is in? Who is out? And how do we know the difference?
There are different versions of this story going around, so it is important to be clear on the details of this particular iteration –which is, well, violent and weird.
A king throws a wedding banquet for his son. The invited guests do not want to come –so much so that they treat the king’s messengers with terrible violence. The king is enraged, takes his revenge on the refusing guests, and then invites a bunch of random people to a feast. But, in a strange coda, the king notices a guest without a wedding garment and has him ejected from the banquet. And, bizarrely, what had been a story about a wedding banquet suddenly turns into something cosmic, with the king tossing the guests into something that sounds a lot like hell.
What is going on here? And can this really have anything to do with the motto of Plymouth Church?
The parable may seem a little less puzzling when we realize that Matthew is wrestling with two related problems: the troubling history between Gentiles and Jews in the 1st century and the very compromised nature of the church in Matthew’s day.
First: Gentiles and Jews. In the beginning, Christianity was a movement with Judaism. But it began to spread among Gentile (non-Jewish) people. By the last 3rd of the 1st century, the church was a mixed body: Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Even in the best of times, relations between the two groups could be strained.
Then, in the year 70, disaster struck. Rome destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple was torn down, the city burned. Jews blamed Christians for this. Christians blamed Jews. And Jewish-Christians—like Matthew—were caught in the middle.
Most likely, Matthew and his fellow Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue after Jerusalem fell. Matthew has been badly hurt by his fellow Jews and often includes anti-Jewish polemic in his writings. Hence, this story’s narration of the people who were invited but refused to come and were punished as a result. (The Gentiles are the random people brought in from the streets).
This is EXTREMELY unfortunate.
2,000 years later, Christians have a lot to answer for in our treatment of the Jewish people. And Matthew’s Gospel must be handled carefully.
How do we do that?
In this particular instance, we might begin by recognizing that this is about insiders and outsiders. Today, when we read this, Christians are, clearly, the insiders. That is how we need to think about this story. If anybody refused God’s invitation, we did. You can see it in, among other things, the shameful ways we have treated our Jewish neighbors.
Second: the mixed body. We know from other parts of Matthew’s Gospel that he views his own church as a decidedly mixed-body: morally compromised, etc. So the story’s coda about the man not wearing a wedding garment is Matthew’s way of saying that it isn’t enough to show up for the party; you have to behave in the right way. If God’s kingdom is about love, sharing and peace, I can’t very well go in there spreading hated and hoarding my stuff and picking fights.
You are invited but you have to behave.
This is a bye week for me, so let me just offer a fleeting thought about how this might relate to our motto. We are big on welcome at Plymouth Church. Sometimes I think we simply see the motto as another way of saying “all are welcome.”
But this story shows us that there may need to be some fine print. All people are welcome; all behaviors are not. We are here to learn and grow in the love of God.
Maybe we should expect a little more of each other in that regard. Maybe that is what the motto is trying to tell us
We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.