“The Wedding Banquet”
Message preached on
October 22, 2017
“For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). That verse, as well as the chapter within which it is found, has become a key text in my life. After graduation from seminary, the 55th chapter of Isaiah was the main scripture for my ordination to the set-apart ministry. For that occasion, I put all twelve verses of it into a song - one I have sung many times since.
It’s funny how certain verses of scripture serve as a lens through which we view other scriptures. That is the case for me. As I approach this parable of Jesus, the 55th chapter of Isaiah comes to mind, for this Old Testament text is an invitation to come and eat and drink at the Lord’s table – which is like a wedding feast. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (55:2). Of course, this is but one of many invitations extended by God through the prophets and other servants of the Lord throughout the Bible.
“Incline your ear and come to me; listen so that you may live,” Isaiah cried for God (55:3a). “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. May the wicked let go of their sin. May the unrighteous release the thoughts that only serve to pull them away from what is truly good. May they return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them ... he will abundantly pardon” (55:6-7). This is an invitation to a banquet unlike any other, a call that has been extended many, many times through many mouths.
“My thoughts and ways are not yours, thus says the Lord” through Isaiah (55:8). “They’re higher than the heavens above you. My word and my will is like the rain which falls from the heavens and waters the earth and from this sprouts the seed, then the grain, then the bread of life” (55:9-10). And then in this chapter from Isaiah which has become so important in my own walk with the Lord, comes this verse through which I view the parable of Jesus we have just heard:
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:11)... “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace...”
Those words, for me, underlie this parable of the Wedding banquet, which some claim is really not one, but a combination of three stories of Jesus pulled together by Matthew into an allegory of the history of salvation. Whether this is so, I cannot say, for I was not there to hear Jesus speak them, nor there when Matthew wrote his gospel. All I know is what I have received here in scripture, and I pray that as we digest this word of the Lord we might recognize that the invitation to the wedding feast, and the warning about taking this invitation seriously, are not just for some other prospective guests, but are for us.
Both Matthew and Luke recall this parable, though they tell it in very different ways. Most of us who remember hearing or reading this story before, probably have in mind Luke’s version (14:16-24), for it is much lighter in tone. I can still hear the refrain from that song I learned in Sunday School as a child, about how, in the story as Luke presents it, first one, then another invited guest begs off, with excuse after excuse:
“I cannot come to the banquet,
don’t trouble me now.
In Luke’s version, the host of the feast doesn’t vent his anger on the guests he originally invited. Instead he sends his servants “out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, (to) bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame” (14:21). And when his banquet tables still have empty seats around them, he sends his servants out a second time. “Go out into the roads and lanes,” he cries, “and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (14:23). The evangelistic zeal of the church has been fed by those verses.
The way Matthew retells this story, however, we are left with an uncomfortable taste in our mouths. In this version, as you heard, the original guests receive more than one invitation to the marriage feast of the host’s son. They do not respond to the first call. When the host’s servants come with the second invitation, some guests simply ignore it again, while others torture and kill the messengers. In Matthew’s version, the host then strikes out in anger, sending his army to wipe out these ingrates.
Then, as you heard, he sends servants out to gather new guests, “both bad and good,” into the wedding hall, that it might be filled. If I was just walking through “the thoroughfares” after hearing what happened to the people who said “no” to the first invitation, I might be inclined to go, but not because I really wanted to. I’d do so out of fear. As I said, this parable in Matthew’s hand has a darker tinge to it.
But it’s not finished, for once the banquet begins, the host sees someone there who isn’t dressed right, who is not wearing “a wedding garment.” “How did you get in here without one,” he demands of this guest, to which the man is speechless. Folks, I’ve got to admit that I don’t like this story as Matthew tells it. There are holes in it that don’t make sense. Like why this guest is expected to have a wedding garment if he has just been pulled in off the street. Wasn’t he given one at the door if he needed it? The host is downright mean. He commands that this poorly dressed guest be tied up and “cast into the outer darkness, where men weep and gnash their teeth.” While I’ve been part of some pretty crazy weddings over the years, I’ve never experienced one like that. Have you? I know why my Sunday School teachers taught me Luke’s version.
Still, I cannot just willy-nilly disregard scripture. I can’t in good conscience say that Matthew’s memory is faulty, that Jesus didn’t say this. As I said, I wasn’t there. Neither was any scholar who claims otherwise. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth,” God says through Isaiah, “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” That’s not only the admonition I must hear in approaching scripture I don’t like, it’s also - I believe - the underlying message of this parable.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16‑17). So wrote the apostle Paul to his young co-worker Timothy. That includes stories like this one, especially Matthew’s version of it.
So often, in the parables of Jesus, God is implied in one of the characters. That’s obvious to see in the father who waits for his prodigal son to come home. The implication behind this story is that God is like the host of the banquet. I’m not sure I like the picture of God painted with Matthew’s brush. I prefer Luke’s portrait. You know, though, God is bigger than my likes or dislikes. In many ways, us “modern” Christians prefer a tame God, one who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Any other view just wouldn’t be “civilized.” However, God is God - both waiting father and angry host. I am not the one who chooses which is which. Am I? Are you?
Granted, the first recipients of Matthew’s gospel were believers struggling to make their way through very confusing times. They were no longer welcome in the synagogues, no longer recognized as Jews. It was a time of separation. Matthew’s gospel makes very clear the connection to the Old Covenant, quoting and alluding to the Hebrew Bible left and right. In the process Matthew also makes clear the break between the old and the new. It is no mistake that this gospel is placed first in the New Testament as we have received it. The invitation to the wedding banquet of God’s son, Jesus, went out to the children of Israel. Did they accept it?
That’s where we struggle today, knowing that this parable can be and has been used to bash jews or others who did not or do not accept the invitation. The faulty assumption we make is always where we place ourselves in the story. Are we (not someone else) truly accepting the invitation today? Or are we ignoring it? Are we pushing it away? Are we even “shooting the messenger,” so to speak? Are we coming to the table, and if so - how are we dressed? I’m not thinking of “outer” wear, but rather the “inner” garment. Am I coming to the banquet because I truly want to come, hungry and thirsty for the Lord? Would I rather be “spend(ing my) money on junk food, (my) hard-earned cash on cotton candy,” when - as Isaiah said - I can truly “eat only the best, fill (my)self with only the finest,” which God provides free of charge (55:1-2, The Message).
When I come to the banquet with my heart yearning for something else, I might as well be “tossed in the outer darkness,” for the rope is in my own hands. I tie myself up. You see - the truth is, the invitation is like a seed tossed by a sower. We could recall another parable Jesus told or, then again, we could return to Isaiah, who said for God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10‑11).
Like a boomerang, God’s word returns to the Lord. It won’t, however, return empty, without response. It will accomplish what God intends, eventually. If not in or through us, then in or through someone else. Isn’t that what this parable, whether told by Matthew or Luke, means? It will happen. The question is, will we chose to be a part of what God is doing?
Speaking of banquets, the tables are already set for a great meal. No, I’m not talking about our Brethren Love Feast, which we celebrated earlier this month. That meal is but a foretaste of another banquet. One day, God’s wedding hall will be full for a great messianic banquet. The invitations to this feast in the kingdom of heaven are still being delivered by the servants of the Lord. Such a celebration has never before been experienced. If you think you know what a “real” party is, you are mistaken. The question is, will you respond to the invitation with a “yes?”
and reused from 2002)