I wish this story was easier to explain.
The traditional explanation would be that this is an allegory with the king as God, the slaves who went out to urge the invited to show up as prophets, the bad people who didn’t show up as those who defy God and ultimately the good people, that’s the church, that’s us, join God at the heavenly banquet. The bad people and their city are destroyed and the one person who manages to make it into the banquet is still disobedient and so is tossed into the outer darkness to weep and gnash his teeth.[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/252754-looking-good-hollywood.mp3]
Perfect! Those who defy God are destroyed or cast away AND we get to hear one of my favorite bible expressions, weeping and gnashing of teeth. All the loose ends are tied up, the rough edges are smoothed over, the bad people get what they deserve AND we, the good people Jesus is talking about, the church, get to hang out with God at the heavenly banquet. What could be better? Tie it off with a bow and let’s all go home!
Except! Except! Since when are Bible stories, especially stories that Jesus told, so simple and clear cut? Remember, this is another parable. And what is a parable? A non-literal story that uses common themes that everyone can understand combined with exaggeration and hyperbole for the purpose of making a point.
Alright, so where does that leave us, the good people, the church, that are looking forward to hanging out with God at the heavenly banquet? Our invitation to the table is still wide open, never fear about that. With that said, let’s look into what this story IS telling us.
First off, it’s a parable so it uses lots of exaggeration to make its point. A parable stretches our thinking to get us to thinking beyond the ‘let’s hold hands and sing Kum By Yah and everything is fine’ kind of thinking.
Secondly, this parable is using the idea of a wedding banquet. That really sets the stage, doesn’t it? We know about weddings. We know about the exuberant joy and shiny exterior of weddings. We also know about the dark underbelly that some weddings have. Or more specifically, some of the participants in weddings.
The thing about this particular parable is that it was written in a culture where it would be unthinkable to refuse an invitation to a wedding banquet, particularly an invitation from the king. It just wasn’t done. Today we struggle with remembering to RSVP to invitations but the outrageousness in Matthew’s tale of refusing an invitation highlights the nature of the parable.
And then, someone with the wrong wardrobe is tossed out of the banquet. Getting tossed because you have the wrong clothes on?
That still applies today in some situations. We live out by Raymono’s Pizza and that can be a real study in human behavior on Sunday nights during the summer when folks are coming back from a weekend on the lake at Branched Oak. There are all kinds of styles that people use to dress in. And wouldn’t dream of wearing to a place like maybe The Lodge at Wilderness Ridge. Clothing standards have changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years but there are still some boundaries there. We recognize this idea in Matthew’s story.
What we’re seeing in all this is a family feud going on with Matthew and his folks. Not an unusual kind of thing in the setting of a wedding and the banquet following. They’re all Jewish but they don’t agree on who Christ is so they’re having a fight over and about God and who God loves. It is a struggle for church families in some places even today. There is a lamentable tendency by many to claim that we’re doing it right so therefore God loves us best and everyone else is kicked to the curb. There is a lamentable tendency by many to claim that ‘You’re doing it wrong’ so God loves us and not you. You’re off the island. You’re out of the banquet.
It’s kind of like a Hollywood movie. Ever notice how everyone in a movie has the right clothing selection for any situation? People in movies always look really good, don’t they? And of course, everything in movies is accurate and true and we want to look that good, too! Even when we know it is all made up we still imprint on our brains that we want to have the perfect look so that everyone will look at us and say, “Wow, they’ve got it all together!”
Oh were that how it works. Fortunately for us, those of us who struggle day by day to get some of it together, never mind getting it all together, the love of Jesus is not dependent on how we look. Or how we act. Or how we think. The love of Jesus isn’t dependent on anything we can come up with. Jesus loves us in spite of how we look. Jesus loves us in spite of how we act. Jesus loves us in spite of how we think. This is a parable of God’s love in Jesus Christ coming to us. This is a parable of us being dependent on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit not the other way around.
What it comes down to is this. In this parable Jesus turns everything upside down. From not responding to a wedding invitation to getting thrown out of the wedding banquet for not wearing the correct clothing Jesus is warning us of the danger of working hard to look good on the outside but not really living out the transformation of our hearts by the Holy Spirit that comes in baptism.