6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare,
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain God will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8 God will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
and remove the people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
9 In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God;
in whom we have trusted and by whom we are saved.
This is the Lord, the one in whom we have trusted;
let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.”
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son…” So begins Jesus’ third parable addressed to the chief priests and elders of the Temple who are aggressively plotting to get rid of him. Now suppose that we take Jesus seriously here when he says, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who does x, y, and z, and understand that with his “may be” Jesus also invites us to think, “may be the kingdom of heaven cannot be compared to this king who does x, y, and z.” Maybe Jesus really wants the religious leaders and us to think about whether the portrait of this king really works as a metaphor for God.
In the gospels of both Mark and Luke Jesus tells a similar parable about a person who throws a great banquet and invites folk to attend. When the banquet is finally ready—the best china adorns the table, the calligraphed name cards are in place, the lamb and veggies are perfectly cooked, the flatbread is hot from the clay oven—when all is finally prepared and the invited guests are called to come, they all have other plans and decline to attend. So the host of the party sends servants, not once, but twice to invite folks from the highways and the byways—the poor folk who never get invited to banquets—to come on down. The music is playing, the wine is flowing, the vittles are plated. The host wants the house to be filled with feasting, talking, dancing, joy and delight. The host of this banquet behaves very much like a God who is full of grace, mercy, and love.
By contrast, the king who throws the wedding banquet in Jesus’ telling of the parable in Matthew looks entirely UNLIKE the God the Psalmist describes as merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! This king is so hyperbolically horrific that the story comes as a whack upside the head for the chief priests and elders in their context, and confronts us head on to think on the reality that the church has, and in some quarters still does think of God as vengeful, eager to punish those who offend against God, righteously furious and justifiably violent as necessary.
You may reject this portrait out of hand, but if you search the corners of your heart and mind, you may also discover that you still hold onto this idea (even though you don’t want to) that when things don’t go well for you because of something you did, God is punishing you. And maybe you hold onto the hope that the really wicked people, or the people who caused you immense harm will also experience some kind of painful punishment from God—at least temporarily, if not for eternity. But, I am pretty sure that Jesus’ story about this hyperbolically horrible, petty, violent, capricious king is intended to close the door on the idea that this is what God is like.
But, I think Jesus is opening another door here. It may be that with this story Jesus invites the Temple leaders and us to see that there are human kings, rulers, governmental leaders (call them what you will) whose behavior is, to some degree, reflected in this king who is so offended that the first invitees brush him off–he feels so dishonored, so disrespected, so demeaned, so ego-bruised that he lashes out violently. He does invite others, but, at the point these second string guests arrive he is fuming mad, incapable of celebrating anything, not really interested in the guests, but eager to boast that no one has ever hosted such a large wedding reception. When the king enters the party hall he doesn’t offer welcome. Instead, he homes in on the guy who isn’t properly attired, he feels dishonored all over again, and orders the man bound and thrown out.
In the 1st century, it is King Herod, who rules over the Jewish community, that Jesus likely has in mind when he tells this story. Herod is petty. Jealous for his power and position. Reckless. Brutal. When Jesus is born and the wisemen come to Herod’s palace in search of the newborn Jewish king, Herod is threatened and slaughters of every Jewish male baby in hopes of killing Jesus. At Herod’s birthday party his niece’s dancing so pleases him that he promises to give her whatever she asks. She asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter and to impress his guests, the King orders it done.
The chief priests and elders dare not confront Herod about any of his behavior, because they too want to keep their positions and power. They know that if they disagree with what he says or does he will toss them out like so much trash. With their silence they support Herod’s arrogance and violence. And when they are looking for a way to be rid of Jesus, they will enlist Pontius Pilate, their Roman governor, to execute this spiritual trouble-maker. And here’s the thing I think Jesus is trying to get across to these spiritual leaders and to us. We cannot turn a blind eye and remain silent where God’s intentions are thwarted. We cannot condone or tolerate or be complicit in the evil done by those who abuse their political power.
In this highly charged time in U.S. politics and social relations, I am intensely mindful of the dangers that come when religious institutions, leaders, and true believers get in bed with the government and turn a blind eye to actions that thwart God’s intentions. I am intensely mindful of our prophetic calling as the church, as followers of Jesus, as sons and daughters of the living God, as human beings. We are called to think; to seek, name and support all that is good, true, and beautiful. We are called to speak out, to protest, to do what we can to change governmental leadership, policies, and practices that do harm. There is no one political party that has a monopoly on thwarting God’s intentions. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. Independents do it. Heck, the church itself does it. And so do I, every day.
If we say that we are citizens of the kingdom, the commonwealth of God, we are saying that we have pledged our allegiance to no human government and no national, socio-political reality. We have pledged our allegiance to God and we have committed ourselves to live out God’s intentions for the world and for creation within our national, socio-political situations. We may love this country whole-heartedly which means that we will pray for it and for our leaders, and we will critique its history and present reality, and we will do whatever is in our power to do, to manifest the vision of God’s commonwealth.
The prophet Isaiah speaks this vision: The Lord Almighty will prepare a banquet of rich food and the best wine for all peoples. The prophets paints this picture of the time when God’s commonwealth has fully come, on earth as in heaven. We can see God the creator, not carrying a sword of vengeance, but holding a wooden spoon, wearing an apron, cooking up a storm. We can see the beloved Son folding the napkins, setting the table with his scarred hands. We can see the Spirit, calling the guests to come to the love feast where the shroud that enfolds all people and covers the nations is shredded—the shroud of blindness, the shroud of arrogance, the shroud of grief, the shroud of fear, the shroud of death—all the shrouds are lifted forever.
When I read Isaiah’s vision this past Tuesday morning, I sat and wept. I wept in grief because as a nation we are so divided; and we are so far from this beautiful picture of all nations and people’s sitting together, eating and talking at one table. And I wept in joy because, somehow, God gives us the faith to trust what we cannot see. God is now preparing a cosmic banquet. We have this Table in our sanctuary where we receive the signs of bread and grape juice to remind us of this truth, this future, this cosmic banquet. God is now lifting the shroud that covers all peoples and nations. God is here and now welcoming all peoples and nations, dressed in all kinds of clothing, to share in the feast of love, to join in the Trinity’s eternal dance of love. Today we can say: “This beautiful host, this grand party-giver, this gracious love, this is the Lord in whom we have trusted. Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation.”