Scripture readings: Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
Our neighbors across the street got married this weekend! What a wonderful time – handsome young man, beautiful young lady, starting out life together. It’s got everyone on the street excited for them.
It made me think back to the days when my husband and I were planning our own wedding, not so long ago. It was his second marriage, my first – and at the age of forty I was a neophyte in the world of weddings. I had no idea what I was doing.
I can remember when I first started telling people I was engaged – I was amazed, it seemed like everyone was almost as excited as I was! “A wedding!!” they would say, grinning from ear to ear. It didn’t matter how bad their week was, or how mean their boss was, or how many bills were piling up, or even if they’d had a fight with their own partner that morning. A wedding!! Time to celebrate! A new family, with all the hopes and dreams that go with it – a home, and children, and love that will hopefully last a lifetime. And a great party with friends and good food and dancing. We had people coming from Philadelphia and New Jersey and North Carolina and Tennessee and Ohio and probably a few other states that I’ve forgotten, just to be with us on that day.
And when people heard about our plans they immediately started offering all kinds of help. One friend did the flowers, another friend made the cake. Another, who drove a school bus, decorated the bus and used it to take the wedding party from the church to the reception. You should have seen us going out the Parkway West with all the streamers flying behind us – even the other drivers were getting into the celebration, honking and waving. A wedding!!
What kind of a person would say “bah humbug” to a day like this? But look at the wedding guests in today’s scripture. Look at them! They’re invited to a wedding, and they make fun of it and refuse to come. Who does that?!
And to make matters worse this wasn’t just any wedding Jesus was talking about. It was a royal wedding! Think about the royal wedding in England not so long ago. Can you imagine if Will and Kate had sent out nearly 2000 invitations, only to arrive at Westminster Abbey on the morning of their wedding to find the church empty? It would never happen! People were fighting for invitations to that wedding! One young English girl even went on a hunger strike to try to get her hands on an invitation. But in Jesus’ story the king’s subjects not only blew off the wedding, they beat and killed the messengers who hand-delivered the invitations. Who would do that in response to a royal wedding invitation?
I think it’s important to step back at this point and ask, “who is Jesus talking to?” He’s not talking to the disciples, to his followers, though we are meant to over-hear the conversation. But Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders of his day – the priests and the Pharisees.
This parable comes the tail end of a conversation that starts back in the middle of Matthew chapter 21 when the priests come up to Jesus and demand to know by what authority Jesus is doing what he does. The priests and the Pharisees are already planning Jesus’ death – in fact we’re only a few days away from the cross at this point.
As Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question, he answers indirectly – first by replying with a question of his own, and then by telling parables. The first parable describes a vineyard owner who has two sons. He tells the boys to go out and work in the vineyard and one son says “yes sir” but doesn’t go, while the second son says “no way” but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus explains that the son who says ‘no’ but later goes represents the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ – people who say ‘no’ to God at first but later have a change of heart. Jesus says they will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the Pharisees.
In the second parable Jesus tells the story of another vineyard owner who plants a vineyard and sets up a wine press and then leaves the country for a while and rents the vineyard out to tenants. When harvest time comes the owner sends servants to the tenants to collect some of the produce – but the tenants beat them and send them away. The owner tries again and they do the same thing. Finally the owner sends his own son thinking ‘they will respect him’ but instead they look at him and say ‘this is the heir – let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours!’
Matthew tells us the priests and Pharisees knew these parables were about them. Jesus is exposing them for the hypocrites they are – because they knew all along who Jesus was. They were even more sure Jesus was the Messiah than Jesus’ own disciples were sometimes. The problem for them was, when the Messiah comes, their jobs were done. Priests are go-betweens between God and the people. But when God’s own son is here, priests are no longer needed. The Pharisee’s job was to teach the people the meaning of God’s word and how to follow God’s law. But when the Word of God is standing right in front of you, the job of the teacher is done. These men knew who Jesus was, but they had no intentions of stepping aside and allowing Jesus to take what they saw as their place.
So Jesus tells a third parable, about the wedding of a king’s son. In the parable the King sends out invitations to his son’s wedding, but the King’s subjects laugh at the invitations and go about their business, making money, living their lives, while others take the messengers and beat them and kill them. In this story, of course, God is the King and Jesus is his son. Throughout its history the nation of Israel has been described as God’s ‘bride’. The prophet Isaiah says for example: “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Is 62:5) The prophet Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride…” (Jer 2:2-3)
So the time has come for the greatest wedding in earth’s history, between Israel and her Messiah, between Jesus and His people, but the religious leaders will have none of it. God is planning a wedding, and they are planning a funeral.
And a few days later the funeral happens. It amazes me that God didn’t end the world right then and there. Instead he brought his son back to life and invited others to the wedding. As Jesus says in the parable, God “destroyed the murderers and burned their city.” About 30-35 years after Jesus’ resurrection, the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground. At that point the Pharisees as a religious order ended – they were no more.
But what about the rest of the parable? Because Jesus doesn’t end there. He says the King sends his messengers out into the streets to invite people in to the wedding banquet – anyone who will come. The wedding is back on! The king invites the misfits, the outcasts, the poor and the sick and the homeless, and everyday Jewish people like Peter and James and John, fishermen and tax collectors, and Gentiles – people like you and me.
So today we hold an invitation in our hands – an invitation to a royal wedding banquet. God has invited you. The groom is Jesus, and the bride is the community of people who love him.
But the parable doesn’t even end there. There’s also word of caution: Jesus warns that people coming to the wedding banquet need to wear proper attire. At William and Kate’s wedding, the invitations included instructions on what to wear. Jesus says, “when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.” This man is asked how he got in without one, and when he doesn’t have an answer, he is thrown out of the banquet.
So what is the proper attire for a celestial wedding? The righteousness of Christ, received by faith.
In ancient cultures the tradition at big weddings like this one was that the host of the wedding would give each guest a brightly colored robe to wear. The person coming to the wedding wasn’t expected to make a wedding robe for themselves, or to buy one or bring one. It was provided by the host as a gift. And that’s how it is at this wedding. The robe of righteousness received by faith – which leads to eternal life with God – is a gift, provided by God, the royal host.
I saw something on TV this week that gave a beautiful picture of this. The show was called Something Borrowed, Something New – it’s on TLC – and on it a bride is choosing a wedding dress, and she has to choose between buying a new one or remaking an old one that has been passed down through the family. On this particular episode, the old wedding dress was one that had been worn by the bride’s mother and grandmother, and was made of expensive ivory silk and handmade lace. It was an amazing garment, but after being worn twice and then stored away for years it was badly stained and yellowed. It could never have been worn looking the way it did – until they gave it into the expert’s hands. The dress expert removed the stains, restored the original color of the dress, repaired and repurposed the lace, and the result was stunning. The bride never even looked at the new dress. And I thought… how much like God that is! We come to Him with our own self-made righteousness in tatters and stains and He restores us and makes us new.
So today you hold in your hand an invitation to a royal wedding. How will you respond?
If there’s any doubt in your mind, I recommend to you the words of Paul from Philippians, where Paul describes life in God’s royal household. He says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing… if there is any excellence… anything worthy of praise, think about these things…. and the God of peace will be with you.”
A life marked by truth, honor, justice, beauty, excellence, and peace – who wouldn’t want that?
The invitation is in your hand. Will you come?
Lord Jesus, for those of us who have heard this message before, we say ‘yes’ to your invitation once more and renew our commitment to you. And for those of us who may never have responded to your invitation before, may the joy and peace and truth of your Spirit shine in their hearts and lead them to say ‘yes’ to you. Thank you for your generosity to everyday people. Thank you for the wedding attire you have given us. We love you Lord and we look forward to the great wedding day. AMEN.