R.S.V.P. – Respondez s’il vous plait!
Sometimes we say we are coming and we fail to make it,
other times we forget to respond and calling at the last minute begging to be
included. Maybe because there is so much going on in the world these days,
people often forget to RSVP. A host assumes it is because of the frantic pace
of life and not because the guests are holding out in case something better
comes along. In the case of the King in this morning’s parable, it seems he had
already sent out the “save the date” cards – and all that was supposedly needed
was a reminder. For whatever reason, and Matthew doesn’t clarify, one after
another the guests drop away which sets up the point of the parable just read.
This is one of those Parables of the Kingdom that Matthew
is so fond of weaving through his Gospel. A related parable is the one from
last week about the Vineyard Owner who provides a beautiful setting for his
tenant workers who, never-the-less, refuse to pay him the portion of the
harvest which is his due as the owner. He sends a series of agents to collect
what is his, and each time they are rebuffed. Finally, he sends his only son.
When the tenants see him coming, they surround him and beat him, throwing him
outside the walls where they kill him. This morning's parable follows in a
similar vein. The issue is a combination of attitude, commitment, and
A great feast is
being offered; the tradition is clear. An invitation to such a feast is an
opportunity for a gracious king to gather his grateful subjects around him.
There is a wonderful painting in one of the palaces in Vienna of such a feast. Empress
Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is having a party to celebrate the
wedding of her son, the future Emperor Joseph the II. At the wedding feast, in
addition to the very large royal family, 300 people were invited to attend, but
not to eat, just to stand and quietly watch as the royals ate. It was
apparently considered a great honor, and it is said that the feast went on for
five hours. That is a lot of standing!
Those who first heard this parable would have understood
the honor being accorded to the guests who are invited to the wedding feast of
the King's son. Not just to watch, but to participate. But, those who were
invited did not come...offered no excuse. At this point we need to realize that
it doesn't pay to be too literal about the events that take place in this
parable. These are highly symbolic stories...grounded in everyday occurrences,
but pointing beyond the occurrences themselves. The story says what happens
next is that the king puts out orders to hunt down those who have offended him
and put their cities to the torch. He is not pleased. But the meat is already on
the grill, the potatoes are boiling and the bread is already baked. The party
is going to happen and the king sends out his servants to collect sufficient
folks to fill that banquet room. He finally packs the hall, but the folk who
are there are a very ragged lot, some good and some bad, the parable says.
Here is a newer parable which might help us get the
point: A bishop and a young used car salesman were going together for a test
drive when the unthinkable happened and they had an accident. Both of them were
killed. When they got to heaven, St. Peter was standing at the pearly gates and
welcomed them both inside. A great crowd had gathered and a shout went up and
several angels hoisted the used car salesman up on their shoulders and paraded
him through the streets paved with gold. There was music and a wonderful
banquet table was laid at which the young man was the guest of honor. Finally,
the bishop could contain himself no longer. He had been in service to the
church and to his Lord all his life. He sought out and found St. Peter in the
crowd and pulling him aside he said, "What's going on here? I have been a
man of God all my life and no one is paying any attention to me. This young
man, however, is being celebrated like some hero." "Well," said
St. Peter, "You've got to understand. There are lots of bishops around up
here; but this is the first used car salesman we have ever had!"
Instinctively, I think, we know that within the reign of
God, things are not ever going to be, as they seem. God has God's own way about
doing things. We have heard enough parables in our time so that we are not
really amazed by the surprise ending. That must be why there are so many jokes
about folks standing at the pearly gates. We expect a little twist, when it
comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, things are often not as they at first seem.
The Kingdom of Heaven is going to be peopled with folks
who may not have been on the guest list, if we had compiled it. What
about ourselves – will we be there?
Returning to Matthew, let's look for a minute at the
wedding garment. The King comes into the hall where all have assembled and
spots a guest who is not wearing the proper wedding outfit. From a literal
sense, it would seem highly harsh and unloving to have the guest cast out
because he didn't bother to follow the dress code. Setting that feeling aside for
a moment, let's ask what is evoked with the action of putting something on.
The commentators have lots of different ideas but for the
most part, they focus on the act of getting newly dressed as symbol of
response. The invitation is offered to the feast...how will we respond? Just
showing up is not all that is expected. One goes to the feast putting on the
garb of new life. One of the passages I often read at weddings is that from
Colossians 3 in which Paul says, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive
each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above
all, clothe yourselves with love..."
Taylor, preacher and seminary professor notes,
"Like everything else in this story - the wedding robe has a deeper meaning. It is not just a white linen tunic embroidered
with gold thread. It is a whole way of life - one that honors the king, one
that recognizes the privilege of being called into his presence - even if the
invitation arrives at the last minute. The underdressed guest's mistake was not
that he showed up in shorts. It was that he showed up short on righteousness
and thought no one would notice - least of all the king."
Getting into the meat
of it - through God's grace, God bids all welcome to the divine hospitality:
rich and poor, bad and good alike. The
Doors are Open to all through the circumstances of this parable… the
invitations have been issued, why even the bushes have been beaten so that it
is more than the usual suspects at this particular feast. Yet – some are not
A pastor recently described a phone call similar to many
I have received in my time in ministry.
“This is Bethany and I want to have my children baptized”
comes the voice of a stranger on the phone.
“I would like you to do my
“That’s wonderful Bethany, let’s make an appointment to
talk about their baptism, when are you available?”
Bethany is immediately suspicious. “What do we have to
talk about? Are you going to tell me I have to join your church to have my kids
My response would be something to the effect that is what
baptism is, joining the church.
"No, no, I
don’t want to belong to a church. I just want to baptize my kids. All you
ministers want to turn this into something complicated. Just forget the whole
We don’t charge money for baptisms – you cannot buy them
– if that’s your concern, Bethany, don’t worry. God’s grace is free. But don’t
kid yourself, either. Don’t think you can hang out at the party without putting
on a wedding garment. Don’t think you can have God without God having you. This
is the paradox of grace, Bethany. God’s love costs us nothing, and at the same
time, it costs us everything. If you just want to be on the guest list without
giving yourself to the party, if you want salvation without commitment, if you
want grace without discipleship, then I can’t baptize your children.
Of course the conversation never gets this far – Bethany
has hung up. These are those who take the invitation lightly. Wrapped up in
their own agendas, so full of their own plans for self and family that they
have left no room for the spirit to be at work, these folks set aside the
invitation. It isn't God's judgment that keeps them out. (God's love is still
unconditional.) They exclude themselves by virtue of their own self selection. I
often encounter the same phenomenon around weddings when the bride and groom
are happy to spend some extraordinary amounts of time making decisions about
invitations and decorations, attendants and flowers. Yet, when I request a few
hours of their time to talk about what it means to be married – how they will
deal with life and each other after the wedding party is over, they often balk.
Like the man who has failed to put on the wedding garment
in the parable, many people are not ready to accept a role in life that might
involve making some adjustments, changes – giving as well as receiving. If we
are going to "put on the new person," we need to put on new clothes
(new attitudes and behaviors). Woody Allen may be right in the quote that
usually has been attributed to him: "Seventy percent of success in life is
just showing up." But the other thirty percent is participating fully in
the event once we’re there. If we’re not willing to do that, then maybe we
haven’t really accepted the invitation.
These are the people in your typical church congregation,
for example, who never really do enter into the community, but remain aloof,
contributing what they will, when they want to. What they miss and never
understand is the rhythm of life together with others, the give and take, and
the joy of growing through ever changing relationships with others.
The Door is open –the feast is prepared – it is now up to
the guests to determine if they will enter into the banquet hall.
And the question for us is, what does it take to make a
good party? The same thing it takes to make a good church.
Folks who come together not just to get, but to give
something. People who sing every song as if it were their favorite. People who
laugh as if there’s a happy ending ahead. People who love as if they’ve never
been hurt and dance as if nobody’s looking.
People who discover themselves by losing themselves in
the depths of God’s unsearchable love. People who will put on the garments of
joy and join the celebration.
R.S.V.P. Respondez s’il vous plait. Who is on
God’s guest list? We are all in this together. The Door is open, let’s enter