St. John’s Lutheran Church
15 October 2023 + Lect. 28a (20 Pentecost)
Rev. Josh Evans
It’s been a difficult week. Because of an act of terror by an extremist group. Because of the resulting humanitarian crisis. And because of the way the present conflict has given rise to a renewed hostility and divisiveness, feeding into an unhelpful binary that would have us take sides.
As skyscrapers and government buildings light up in blue and white and politicians adorn their lapels with Star of David flags in well-meaning public support for Israel, the ripple effects have only fueled a heightened divisiveness:
What about Palestine? What about the innocent civilians in Gaza, whose water, electricity, and basic supplies have been cut off, whose homes and businesses have been destroyed, who mourn for dead loved ones? Both Muslims and Jews, and Christians too, and everyone in between?
Amid increasing violence and hostility, we’re led to believe we’re only “allowed” to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine – and that we can’t possibly be both.
If we look to our gospel text in the midst of our current global climate, our attention might be drawn immediately to the center of the action – the senseless and gratuitous violence … all resulting from a rejected invitation of would-be wedding guests who seize the king’s slaves, mistreat them, and kill them. And an enraged king who responds, in turn, by sending his troops to destroy those responsible and burn their city to the ground.
Violence begets violence. There is no good news in that.
At the onset of this parable, like so many of Jesus’s parables, is a comparison: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”
Translation: “This is what God’s way of life is all about. So listen up.”
And what it’s about, at the onset, is an extravagant wedding banquet to which all are ultimately invited.
But the original invited guests have other plans – tending to their “farm” … managing their “business” … “better things to do.”
So the invitation is made even wider! Invite everyone you can find – “both good and bad.”
“The guests are corralled in from the street with no notice,” as one commentary suggests, “so the king’s attendants must have given them all wedding robes at the door…”
And then what? One man is spotted without a wedding robe.
The king’s reaction might strike us as excessive and harsh, but this is clearly not a parable meant to be taken literally or as a “realistic morality tale.” And the “outer darkness,” despite what some interpretations might suggest, is not some kind of eternal divine punishment (“hell”).
At its core, this is a parable about rejection. The original guests reject the king’s invitation because they have “better things” to do. As for the guest who refuses to wear a wedding robe? He too lets his own prideful self-importance get in the way – whatever the reason.
The invitation is wide open. There isn’t a single thing to get in the way…
The trouble comes when the guests assert and prioritize their own agenda – when their own beliefs and their inflated self-importance get in the way.
“Oh, you have a party? Well, I have a better idea…”
This is not a parable meant to be taken literally, but it is meant to be taken seriously. This parable shows us what it looks like when we reject the invitation to God’s way of life and the abundant life to which God freely calls us.
This parable comes after a long history of human rejection of divine promise in our scriptures – a history that continues to the present day. Even if it’s just implicitly, we push back against the invitation. We assert our own agendas, take charge, and try to do things our way.
Meanwhile, God keeps inviting – “both good and bad” – and expanding the invitation.
Meanwhile, we keep rejecting – asserting our own agendas over the commonwealth of the kingdom of heaven – and seeking to set limits on God’s invitation.
It’s hardly a coincidence that this parable immediately follows Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, just one chapter before – setting into motion the events of Holy Week – a week which would inevitably end with his execution.
Over and over, throughout his ministry and teaching, Jesus has been extending the invitation to the kingdom of heaven and God’s extravagant and abundant love.
Yet, ultimately, on the cross, in the words of one hymn writer: “God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.”
Here’s the good news: Despite everything, God’s love is still for all.
That might sound overly simplistic, but it bears repeating: God’s love is for all.
There is literally no downside to being loved like that. There is no reason to reject the invitation. God’s love isn’t going to “run out.” Try as we might, we can’t set limits on what is, by its very nature, limitless.
When we set aside our own agendas and instead center God’s limitless love, when we really start to understand what that means (as much as we can, anyway), it’s simply no longer possible to fall into a binary trap of this vs. that … Israel vs. Palestine … us vs. them.
God invites us all to an extravagant feast and lovingly sets a place for each one of us to dine together.
To be perfectly clear, this is absolutely not to suggest that we ought to overlook acts of evil and just join hands in one big chorus of Kumbaya.
Living into the kingdom of heaven as Jesus preached it, of God’s commonwealth of justice and peace, necessitates speaking out against terror and violence – and against a bitter, resentful divisiveness that would have us take sides.
The truth is that God’s people are hurting. And instead of being forced to take sides, God’s love compels us to draw near to those who suffer – Jewish and Muslim, and everyone in between. God’s love compels us to lament the death of innocent Palestinians and the death of innocent Israelis.
God’s love ultimately compels us to side with justice – to condemn both the attack by Hamas and the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
While one narrative would have us take sides in an unhelpful binary – as binaries tend to be – God’s narrative compels us to embrace all who are hurting – which is, ultimately, a narrative with zero room for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or hatred of any kind.
God’s love draws us all, again and again, back to the banquet table – both good and bad, worthy and unworthy.
At God’s banquet table, there is a place for all, calling us to a love that refuses to be party to violence and resentful divisiveness, a love that cannot be overcome by our own agendas.
God’s love is simply too powerful, and the invitation is relentlessly persistent:
Come to the table. Take your place.
At this table, God feeds us with hunger for justice and thirst for peace.