Steve Lindsley

Matthew 22: 1-14 (Selected Verses)

Today’s parable is a weird parable.  A very weird parable.  There is a reason you probably don’t recall this parable from your Sunday school class or Bible study: it’s routinely skipped over for better-known and easier-to-digest parables like the Parable of the Lost Sheep or the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Those parables progress in logical fashion.  Those parables have a storyline that makes sense.  This one?  Not so much.

In this parable, there is a king; and the way Jesus tells it, this king throws a wedding feast for his son, who is about to be married.  It should be noted that, as big a deal as weddings are in our day and time, they pale in comparison to the week-long, food and drink extravaganzas that took place in first century Palestine.  It was a big deal to put on one of these celebrations, and even bigger to be invited to one.  Especially if the one you’re invited to is hosted by the king.

Which leads us to the first of many head-scratchers in this parable, and that is the fact that no one responds to his invitation.  No one.  Not a single person tells the king – the king! – that they are going to come to his son’s wedding.  Undoubtedly confounded by this, the king sends his servants out to poll the invitees one by one.  Hey, we’re here on behalf of the king.  You know the king? He’s having a wedding party for his son.  You got an invite; maybe you misplaced it.  It’s gonna be great – all the best food, vintage beverages, a great retro BC band playing the reception.  Any who, we didn’t get your RSVP, so the king sent us here just to confirm you’re coming… you are coming, right?

Nope.  The way Jesus tells it, all of them turn the king down.  Every last one of them.

What, pray tell, could trump a royal wedding?  Here we encounter our second head-scratcher – the excuses offered as to why people can’t come.  They simply do not match up.  I’ve got my farm to tend to.  I need to put some time in at the office.  The carpet needs steam-cleaning.  It’s bizarre.  And not only that, but some of the invitees, for whatever reason, chose to disregard the wise old saying, “don’t shoot the messenger” and instead do just that – abusing the king’s servants, mistreating them, even in some instances (gasp) killing them!

Now, a quick little side note here – Matthew, the gospel’s writer, Matthew loves hyperbole. Loves it.  Hyperbole is, of course, an intentional exaggeration, designed to overstate a point for the purpose of drawing attention to it.  Matthew has Jesus doing this all the time, and it’s usually pretty obvious when he does.  For instance: it is highly unlikely that Jesus actually thought it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s Matthew, and that’s hyperbole.  And that whole bit about tearing your eyes out if you look at someone a certain way?  Hyperbole.  Overstating a point to draw attention to the point.

So, we are probably okay to surmise that, in telling this parable, Jesus is not in fact suggesting that these invitees actually took the lives of the king’s messengers.  It’s much more likely that they were exceedingly rude in declining the invitation – and that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. They’d been invited to the party of their lifetime, and not only did they turn it down, but they did so in the most ungrateful way possible.

None of which, however, dissuades the king.  And this is worth noting.  The king is determined to have his party.  And if it won’t be with the people he invited initially, it’ll be with somebody.  And that’s what happens.   It winds up essentially being open-invitation with the bar set pretty low – if you have blood flowing through your veins and breath in your lungs, come on in!  The party goes on with none of the people originally invited.  But it goes on with people who are grateful to be there.

Now there is this little matter of the end of the story, an odd postscript.  The day of the wedding arrives, guests are coming, and one of them apparently did not get the dress code memo, whatever that might have been.  The king’s response seems a little over the top, throwing him out of the affair in fairly dramatic fashion – again, hyperbole.  And it is here, at parable’s end, where Jesus offers an editorial comment that we all know well: For many are called.  But few are chosen.

 It’s tough making heads or tails out of this parable.   Maybe it’s because all the hyperbole gets in the way.  Maybe the storyline lacks the more nuanced narrative of something like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan.  Those stories have an understandable evolution and cohesiveness that make sense.  This one would make a great Stanley Kubrick movie, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

And maybe for all those reasons, it would be helpful to hear a similar story, an old rabbinic tale from that same era, one that Jesus no doubt would’ve heard countless times growing up.  In this story, there’s a king who invites his guests to a feast.  Sounds familiar.  Except that here, the king does not tell his guests when the feast will take place.  He sends out an invitation with no day or time given.  Even so, he directs those invited to go ahead wash and anoint and dress themselves and be ready whenever the summons comes.

Now some of the guests go and immediately get themselves prepared, taking their place right at the palace door – because their thinking is that a king’s kitchen can pull a feast together in pretty short order; so whenever it happens, they will be ready.  Others, though, don’t feel the same sense of urgency – so, as the story goes, “they went on with their work – the mason to his lime, the potter to his clay, the smith to his furnace, the fuller to his bleaching-ground.”  In other words, they’re not waiting around, they’re getting on with their lives.

So, when the summons does come, those who had already prepared and are waiting at the door are obviously the first ones in.  They take their seats and receive the full praise of the king, and with him enjoy the grand feast.  The others who are unprepared have to scrabble to get ready; and by the time they arrive there is no room for them.  So they are forced to stand outside, sad and hungry, looking in at the joyous feast taking place without them.[1]

Interesting, don’t you think, the similarities between the two?  There’s a king, there’s a wedding party, there are those invited and there are those who show up.  But the similarities do not end there – there is also the way in which some are prepared when the invitation comes, and the manner in which they present themselves when they arrive.  Let me repeat that: the way in which some are prepared when the invitation comes, and the manner in which they present themselves when they arrive.

We have a word for that in the English language – a word that cuts through all the hyperbole of Matthew’s gospel and gets to the very heart of Jesus’ message.  That word is gratitude.  Gratitude to accept the invitation and come to the party, and gratitude to present oneself in the appropriate manner when you get there.

Now you look up the word “gratitude” in the dictionary and initially you might find this less-than-helpful definition: the quality of being grateful.  Well, thanks!  You read on, though, and you encounter, as I did, this little gem: a readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness.  A readiness, it says!

That means gratitude is more than a feeling or sensation we experience in the moment – a gift we receive unexpectedly, a surprise arrival, a moment of bliss watching the sunrise one morning.  Those things can evoke gratitude for sure, but this definition and our parable today suggest something more: that gratitude is something we prepare for, intentionally, in response to an invitation we’ve received.

How does one prepare for gratitude, exactly?  How does one set the stage for gratitude to take hold in them and demonstrate “a readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness”?

I have a good friend who I used to play a lot of music with back in the day.  We got our first gig at the local coffee shop in town and, from it, our name: Acoustic Blend.  Ken is one of those souls who’s certainly experienced life’s hard times, like we all have, but has in his spirit this amazing ability of not just keeping a positive outlook but embodying gratitude.  His mantra – both something he’d repeat frequently in conversation and also sing about in a song he wrote by the same name – is “life is a gift.”  Life is a gift.  And when he says it and when he sings it, you know it is more than an intellectual exercise, more than simple recognition of the fact that life is not something we originated on our own, therefore it has to be a gift.  No, it is something he tells himself over and over again, to the point where he is literally speaking it into existence.  Life is a gift.

That’s gratitude.

I remember John, an older member at my first church, a retired realtor who was more than happy to offer unsolicited advice on the home I eventually bought in town, making sure I was getting a good deal on the loan and positioning myself for a good investment in the long run.  John had a go-to response anytime someone asked him how he was doing – he would always say: “Better than I deserve.”  I mean, every single time, with his syrupy southern drawl: Hey John, how you doing?  Better than I deserve.  I never got around to asking John why he always responded that way – maybe he thought it was a cute, unique response to an otherwise rote, everyday greeting.  Maybe there was something painful in his past that hung on him like a heavy weight so that he really did think he was doing better than he deserved.

But if I had to guess, I’d say that this man, in his 90 years of living, had seen and experienced it all, the good, the bad, the ugly and so much more; and so his response was a heartfelt expression of the appreciation and kindness he had long been preparing for.

That’s gratitude.

“The proper response to the king’s invitation,” one commentator observes, “is to run breathless to the banquet, dressed for the marriage of heaven and earth, wondering how we ever got on such a guest list.”[2]  Everyone who was initially invited failed to do that.  Only those who weren’t expecting to come to the party in the first place did.  Tell me – which of the two lived gratitude?

German theologian Paul Tillich once described gratitude this way:

(Gratitude) has taken hold of us, not because something special has happened, but just because we are, because we participate in the glory and power of being. It is a mood of joy, but more than a mood, more than a transitory emotion. It is a state of being. And it is more than joy. It is a joy that includes the feeling that it is given, that we cannot accept it without bringing some sacrifice — namely the sacrifice of our thanks.[3]

Let me ask you, Trinity Presbyterian: how are you preparing for gratitude?  Not waiting for it in ways you might expect, but living in a state of readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness?  How are you preparing for gratitude in this church?  In your families?  In your neighborhood? At your places of school work?  What invitations have you received as of late that elicited in you a quick RSVP, a readiness and preparedness for when the party arrives?  What invitations have you turned down that, on second thought, you might’ve chosen otherwise?

For as Jesus himself tells us, many are called but few are chosen.  Meaning – all are invited to a most wonderful party where the fellowship is fabulous, where everyone enjoys the finest bread and wine, where all the invitees get to celebrate together and sometimes even grieve together.   But few experience the gratitude that comes from being part of that.

Let’s be better at preparing for it, shall we?  Let’s do our part to ensure that that “few” is a whole lot more than just a few.

In the name of the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 297-298.

[2] A Preacher’s Guide To Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B and C. Compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 70.

[3] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 176.