A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

The Wedding Feast and the Fire of Mercy

Parable of the Great Banquet by Brunswick Monogrammist (circa 1525)

Pentecost +19
The Wedding Feast and the Fire of Mercy
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:4-13, Matthew 22:1-14

I always get teary-eyed at weddings, and this can be a challenge when I’m conducting a marriage ceremony. Years ago, when I officiated at my brother’s wedding, I was choked up and my brother was choked up. He couldn’t look at me for fear of crying, and he couldn’t look at his bride for fear of crying. There is something holy and mysterious and joyous in a wedding. Weddings have stopped wars, healed fighting tribes, and created the future.

Last year I received a note about a wedding I had conducted in the mid-90s. The woman and her husband to be were from different church backgrounds, and neither church would marry them. They asked me, so we had a little wedding on a farm near the barn. It was a glorious moment with family and friends. Last year, she tracked me down to thank me and tell me she spent many wonderful years with her husband until he died last year. It was bittersweet to hear of their joy and her sorrow.

Today’s parable is one of the many wedding stories we find in Scripture. Jesus is addressing the religious leaders. He is also addressing the disciples. This story is written for the early church, so the first church communities are being addressed, and of course, the words of Christ resound to the saints across the ages. Even today, He is addressing us.

We begin with the story. A king hosts a wedding feast for his son and sends out his servants to invite the honored guests of his kingdom. They ignore his request. Their own activities and interests are deemed more important than his kingdom. In this sense, these lords are in rebellion to the king. In fact, some even beat and kill the servants who bring the invitation.

The King will not stand for this insolence. He sends out his troops and destroys these rebels even burning their cities to the ground.

Now he sends his servants out again to the main roads and tells them to gather anybody they can find. Because they are gathering from the roads where people travel, they probably bring back people from all walks of life and possibly people who are not even part of the kingdom. Thus, they gather good and bad alike. Now the feast commences.

At this point, it seems the parable should end. In fact, Luke does end his parable here. It becomes a story of the wedding feast spurned by the elites but embraced by the outcasts, the outsiders, the good and the bad. It ends in celebration.

But wait a minute.

Matthew is not done. He tells one last detail and turns the parable on its head. The kings walks among his guests and discovers a man with no wedding garment. He doesn’t say, “Hey somebody get this guy a wedding garment!” He says, “Bind this man hand and foot and cast him into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The parable ends with the dark saying, “Many are called but few are chosen.”

It seems to have shifted from a story of celebration to a terrible parable. A parable that strikes terror in the hearts of children and adults alike. As a child, this is the kind of story that would cause my imagination to take flight. I’d find myself gathered with my family before the throne of God and suddenly the Lord would look at me, “Bind his hands and feet and cast him into outer darkness!”

This is the kind of parable I would tend to avoid preaching in search of something more comforting, more affirming. This is a judgment parable, but judgment isn’t bad. It’s good.

It is a judgment on the state of the soul. In the cross of Christ, judgment and mercy are intertwined. It is both a judgment on human sin and a provision for restoration. The judgment reveals the need for conversion. The judgment reveals our need for conversion. As we hear and meditate upon the Word of God, we encounter afresh our need for repentance and conversion. This drives us back to the throne of mercy and grace afresh.  

This morning I pray we will hear with open ears.

We begin in celebration. The wedding feast is a time for celebration, a time to look toward the future.  It plays a central role in many cultures. The wedding feast can signify a treaty between two warring kingdoms. This ritual of binding husband and wife together as one is also time of communal bonding. The values and norms of community are reinforced in the great celebration.

For Israel, each wedding feast rehearses a great and glorious feast to come: the consummation of the ages, the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises to Israel. It is the raucous explosion of joy echoing through every fiber of creation. It is Psalm 150,

Praise the Lord!
       Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
   Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
   Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
   Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
   Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
   Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
       Praise the Lord! [1]

Every instrument, every voice, every breath resonates with joy before the Lord of Glory. All creation beholds the faithful love of God for His people Israel, and all creation sings out.

The church fathers also anticipated this great and coming wedding feast. The eucharist is seen as a weekly entrance into this wedding feast, into the holy of holies where the heavens and earth join together in festal song before the Lord.

In another sense, the parable points to an event that is happening now. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” When Jesus speaks of a coming judgment, he is usually pointing to this moment. Even now the word is being fulfilled in your midst. We might think of this great and glorious wedding feast as the Day of the Lord. Today is the day. As Paul writes, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[2]

As the religious leaders, the disciples, and all who have heard this story across the ages, we hear Jesus us inviting us to the wedding banquet. Today is the day! He calls out to each of us, “Come all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest!” This invitation to the feast is both a now event and a coming time when the fullness of the kingdom is made fully known.

The parable tells us about one group who refused, one group who accepted, and one guest who came unprepared. The first group ignores the invitation. They are pre-occupied with their own activities and lives. They turn from the day of salvation to their own dreams and desires. Their own little kingdoms take precedence before the King of all kings.

This is like the Episcopal Ghost in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. He is a ghost from hell who loves to discuss and study theology. He is looking forward to the next Theological Society meeting below: that is in hell. He has little interest in the visit to heaven when given the opportunity for a day trip to heaven. He is more interested in his theories about God than in the reality that stares him in the face.

Our petty kingdoms amount to nothing and yet, our reputations, our power, our achievements, our amusements, our distractions far outweigh the true value of relation with God and others in the kingdom of Heaven. Before he died Johnny Cash made a video of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt.”

Cash transforms this song into a confession of his own desperate need for grace. The video opens with his aged face and hands playing the guitar while interspersing flashbacks of his life and successful career. He sits at a table prepared for a feast and yet the food is not appealing. At one point, he even pours the wine out on the table. It is all empty. All the accolades, all the wealth, all the glory, amount to dust. He sings,

And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

He sings on our behalf. Our kingdoms, our amusements, our power games, our distractions are lifeless without the life of God. Just as Jesus called the Pharisees and the Temple priests, he calls us to turn and behold Him. He calls us today. Come.

Every day is a call to turn to the Kingdom of God. Every moment is a call to turn. Whether we eat or drink, we do it all for the glory of God. In our dreams and drives and in our brokenness and tears, we turn to the Lord. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.”

We are learning to be a people who are open handed: willing and ready to let go of our egos, our glories, our kingdoms in light of His kingdom. This is a lifelong discipline of learning to lean into the goodness of God.

Next we consider the outsiders. These are the people that don’t fit at a royal feast. They may be of the wrong status or they may be from the wrong kingdom. They have been gathered. In the outcasts, we discover again and again that those whom we might presume to judge for their ignorance, for their weakness, and for their struggles. They may be closer to the kingdom than us. Lord gives us to see and heart to love your people.

I want to focus on the last characters because he seems the most troubling. If he came in the second batch of guests, then he came with the good and the bad. He came with those who did not fit, but why is he singled out for humiliation and expulsion?

As I thought about this character, I feared that we may be more like him than we think. It appears that the other guests have secured a wedding garment. In fact, there are suggestions that the ancient host could provide proper attire. This last guest rejects the wedding garment. He presumes that he can set his own terms for meeting the king.

He looks like a consumer. In our market driven culture, companies are always adapting to customer demands, the market pressures, and even to political pressures. The customer lives by the freedom to switch brands and products if one company fails to deliver.

This guest expects the king to adapt to him; to meet his or her own demands of warmth, encouragement, therapy, good music, or whatever else is expected. The call of the kingdom is, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He rejects this call.

As we heed the call, we discover that repentance is both a turning and a transforming. As we follow Christ, we are being changed; we are being clothed in garments of righteousness. These garments are a gift of God and even our transformation is dependent on his Spirit leading us into all righteousness.

The parable is not to cause doubt, but to invite the hearer into the transforming work of grace. This work of the Spirit is sometimes likened to passing though fire or walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Paul’s letters are filled with images of outward weakness and inner strength: a purification that is bringing us to glory. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes,

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. [3]

This fire could refer to some ultimate purification but is also refers to an ongoing purification that was clearly evident in the life of Paul. As we turn to the call of God, we are being turned from glory to glory. We are moving from a life of self-consumed love to a love that pours out freely like the love of God poured out upon the cross. We are becoming lovers even as we approach the wedding feast.

May we be clothed in the glory of your holy love, revealing the spotless lamb to the world.  

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 150:1–6.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 6:2.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 3:11–15.


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