Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 & Mark 6:14-30
We heard two gospels this morning and that’s because today is both Sunday and the Beheading of John the Forerunner. Strikingly, both of these gospels tell us about a feast, but they are two very different feasts. The gospel for the beheading of John centers on the birthday feast of Herod and the gospel for this Sunday tells us about a wedding feast. Remarkably, too, both stories involve murder. But while Herod’s birthday party (with its themes of lust, vanity, and murder) may serve as an image of hell, Jesus’ parable about the wedding feast is, he tells us, an image of heaven (Matt 22:2).
Still, for a wedding story, this parable is rather violent. Now, some of the guests invited to the wedding feast simply make light of it and – excusing themselves by this or that trifle – do not come. Others, however, shamefully seize and abuse and kill the servants whom the king sent bearing the glad news and invitation. Understandably outraged at this, the king sends in his troops. But they not only kill those heartless murderers, but also burn their entire city.
Having no guests left and finding his first-invited guests unworthy, the king invites in a multitude from the streets. This is where we come in, I expect. But the violence does not end here.
The king sees among the guests a man who has on no wedding garment and asks him how he got in so inappropriately dressed. The man says nothing. He is speechless. He has no defense. Some sources even say that the wedding garments would have been provided by the king in a situation like this. So what’s really going on here, once again, is refusal of the king’s hospitality. So the king has him bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What is the meaning of all this violence? What kind of party is this? What party comes with such stakes? This is rather like getting a wedding invitation – but in fine print at the bottom is written, “come celebrate with us or die.” It becomes rather clear that we are not talking here about the usual kind of wedding party. We might not want to be invited to a wedding like this – it sounds rather dangerous – but, like it or not, we are invited.
It is a free invitation to celebrate, but it’s an invitation we’d better accept. It’s an invitation with teeth. It is an occasion of great joy, but it is deadly serious. Those unwilling to partake joyfully will have hell to pay. Because this wedding feast, as Jesus says at the outset, is like the kingdom of heaven. The wedding garments we are to put on as we enter this feast are like those we put on at baptism and again at the second baptism of holy repentance. That is, they are Christ himself, for all those who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. To be thrown out of this wedding hall is to be thrown out the gates of heaven.
But, you know, this party isn’t just exactly like heaven either. For one thing, it’s a party to which both the good and the bad have come. I’ve been to a few parties like that.… In fact, we’re at a party like that right now, if you think about it. This church – this Eucharistic celebration, is like a party to which both the good and the bad alike are invited. The sinners and the saints sit together…. For that matter, they’re usually sitting together in the same seat. If you’re wondering whether you’re a sinner or a saint, remember: you can be both. This struggle between the good and the bad happens mostly on the inside.
This parable reminds me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, which I highly recommend. It’s framed as a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to a junior demon – his nephew Wormwood – with advice on the best way to tempt a soul to keep him out of heaven and secure his place in hell. The demons sardonically call their victims “patients.”
Well, Wormwood gets in trouble one day when his “patient” converts to Christianity. Screwtape is mightily displeased. But, he assures his nephew, their hope of damning the poor soul to hell is not yet lost. “One of our great allies at present,” says Screwtape, “is the Church itself.”
You see, Screwtape is well aware of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel: both good and bad guests fill the wedding hall – and the devils can use the bad ones to help corrupt the good. The Church in this world is a mixed bag. Don’t we know it.
Screwtape points out that the new Christian will get to his pew, look around himself and see just those neighbors “whom he has hitherto avoided.” You’ll want to “lean pretty heavily on those neighbors,” he advises Wormwood “It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains,” writes Screwtape. “Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.… Never let him ask what he expected them to look like….”
It may be, of course, that “the people in the next pew” are actually good and holy people. Of course, if they’re not, writes Screwtape “– if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge player or the man with squeaky boots is a miser and an extortioner – then your task is so much the easier.”
You see, the demons will use our sins not only to drag us down but also to drag others down with us, if they can. Our neighbors see our sins and our hypocrisy and it sometimes convinces them that the Church itself is hypocritical or ridiculous or even evil. Of course, I’m reminded of that old retort to the common complaint that there are too many hypocrites in church: “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more.” So, let us not judge one another. Let us look instead to our own sins.
That’s the point, I think. All are invited and welcome to the feast, regardless of their sinfulness. But those who accept the invitation have a serious duty. This love feast is not a free-for-all, come-one, come-all, do-as-you-please, orgiastic bacchanalia, no matter how it has been treated by members of the Church at all levels. This is a wedding feast – a celebration of commitment, fidelity, fruitfulness, life, and love. A wedding is where two become one, and at this wedding, we the Church become one with Christ our Lord. Those unprepared to celebrate these things – those unwilling to put on the wedding garment freely offered by our king – cannot remain in the kingdom of heaven. We are now before the gates of the kingdom of heaven and our king is inviting us in. His invitation is this: Repent, and know the joy only Christ can bring.