We have many superior hostesses and hosts in our church family, so I’d think that the parable from Jesus that we’ll get to today would cause you a fair amount of consternation, which is exactly what Jesus wanted it to do when he first told it and what he hoped would happen whenever someone might tell his story after him. To get in the story’s groove, I want you to take just a second to think about the largest banquet or feast for which you have ever been the primary planner; the weight fell on your shoulders to see that all the details were done by you or by those whom you paid to do a portion of the work. Even if you’re supervising many assistants and not doing most of the hands-on work yourself the pressure is on for making certain that everything is done just right. Once it’s all over, and not until then, you realize how exhausted you are, how much work was collectively done, and how many problems were solved so that the food did not distract from the reason for the feast. At that place of physical and, perhaps, emotional exhaustion is where I want you to keep yourself for a while, though on the back burner for most of the sermon.
Part of the reason we want a banquet or feast for which we are responsible to go well is to “save face.” We don’t want people to remember the event because of the bad food, and we as hostess and host also want to save face as competent hostesses and hosts. We can’t stand the thoughts of having people tell their friends invited to an event at our homes, “Oh, no. You’d better find an excuse or create one. Don’t go. They’re nice people, but there are only three possible responses to the cuisine they serve: 1) food that tastes bad; 2) food that gives you an upset stomach; and 3) food that gives you food poisoning, hopefully not severely enough to require the planning of another reception, the one to be held after your funeral.
Dr. John Pilch was for many years a Roman Catholic lay scholar of religion at Georgetown University. Dr. Pilch lived in Baltimore so while I was serving there so we were able to get him over to our church a few times for lectures, discussions about his latest books, and so on. He was a brilliant, engaging, and most humorous speaker. I remember the Wednesday evening when he taught us the importance of “saving face” in the culture in which Jesus lived and to which Jesus contributed. It was much more intense than in our day where the president of one world power can throw up on the president of another world power and only be mildly embarrassed.
In Jesus’ world one always had to be the best and the most with what financial resources she or he had. Some of you may remember the story from the Gospel of John in which Jesus changed the water into wine. He performed this sign as the wedding feast was coming to a close, and at least one of the guests–probably more–noticed distinctively that, unlike the typical feast where the best wine was served first and the Mogan David goatskins brought out toward the end of the multi-day event (when most guests were already three mats to the wind), here things were reversed. One half-sober guest finds the wedding feast host and says, “My compliments to the family and the professionals working with them here. They have saved the very best wines till last”–major face saver that most feast-planners couldn’t have hoped to arrange. Always remember that most of those with whom Jesus ran and rubbed shoulders were poor.
Is there a standardized check list for a banquet planner or a feast planner? It seems to me that if there isn’t there should be–just for purposes of reminders. Anyone juggling tons of details can overlook one or two. I attended a wedding reception once, a pretty big to-do in New Orleans, and the catering staff had forgotten to bring serving spoons. A fairly large group of hungry well wishers were rather comical though amply disgruntled as everyone was having to serve herself or himself from the large serving dishes with teaspoons. Add to that the extra time required for people to get through the food line.
Well, as it turns out, there are numerous such lists for those who can remember to find them and use them. Here’s one from the internet, picking up a week before the event:
1 Week Before
___Meet with all committees for last-minute details
___Finish phone follow-ups
___Confirm number attending
___Finish seating/table arrangements
___Hold training session with volunteers; finalize assignments
___Secure two or three volunteers to assist with emergencies
___Distribute seating chart assignments to hosts/hostesses
___Schedule pickup or delivery of any rented or loaned equipment
___Double-check arrival time and delivery times with vendors
___Reconfirm event site, hotel, transportation
___Deliver final scripts and timelines to all program participants
___Finalize catering guarantee
___Make follow-up calls to news media for advance and event coverage
___Distribute additional fliers
___Final walkthrough with all personnel
___Schedule volunteer assignments for day of event
___Establish amount of petty cash needed for tips and emergencies
___Write checks for payments to be made for the day of the event
1 Day Before Event
___Lay out all clothes that you will need the day of the event
___Recheck all equipment and supplies to be brought to the event
___Have petty cash and vendor checks prepared
___Arrive early (with your change of clothes)
___Unpack equipment, supplies and make sure nothing is missing
___Be sure all VIPs are in place and have scripts
___Reconfirm refreshments/meal schedule for volunteers
___Go over all the final details with caterer and setup staff
___Check with volunteers to make sure all tasks are covered
___Setup registration area
___Check sound/light equipment (It’s too late for this. If something isn’t working it’s too late to get it fixed. Just saying….)
All of this, and not a single guest shows up!
If you have done any parable study on your own or heard someone competent person offer an informed interpretation of one of the parables, you know that generally speaking when Jesus told a parable he had one overarching saying or point that he wanted to get across. If there are some interesting sidelines and subplots in the longer parables they might be worth taking note of, but they are not generally seen as part of a parable’s central message.
In this case we have a parable about a banquet; it’s not just any banquet, but a banquet put on by a king. It was the occasion of his son’s, of the prince’s, wedding. Naturally there would be a big banquet to accompany the ceremony itself, and while the king was involved with his servants ensuring that all the details went according to plan, the king did very little of the work himself. Nothing surprising about that.
In keeping with what one would expect from the king, the finest of everything was planned for; nothing was too good for the prince. The finest musicians were hired; the finest cooks and caterers were employed. The finest menu items were selected. Everything that could make this the best of the best among banquets was arranged for. The guest list was attended to with great care and on the day of the wedding, the feast being held after the ceremony itself, the foundation had been laid for perfection.
The king was perplexed, and he thought he might also be angry; but he wasn’t sure if he should be since he couldn’t understand why not a soul who would’ve been invited to the banquet would bother to show up. Worse, maybe, or almost as bad at least no one bothered to send word that she or he would be unable to honor the invitation they’d responded to with a “Yes.”
The king sent some of his slaves out to the homes of the invited guests to remind them that there was a banquet in process to which they had been invited. The slaves were barely acknowledged, and they brought their report back to the king. OK, now some royal anger is definitely slipping into the picture. A different group of slaves then goes out to the same guests, and they go into great detail about what energy their king had invested in planning this event. How could they choose to miss out on the celebration? More significantly, how could they dare to flat out ignore their king? The second set of servants talked about the delicious menu items prepared for the absentee guests, food just sitting there because there was no one to eat it.
This time a couple of absentee guests offered vague and flimsy excuses about why they weren’t present. For example, one said, “Well, I had every intention of being at all the wedding festivities, but things just got out of hand on my farm all of a sudden. I have several workers out, and I have to be there to make sure all goes well.” Yeah. Yeah.
There’s this horrible turn in the story, and we’re going to have to say more interpretively about exactly what Jesus was trying to convey. Some of the absentee guests called on by the king’s servants a second time didn’t appreciate being bothered again about their decisions to do something else in place of attending the banquet so they killed some of the servants who had done no wrong; they had only done what their king had commanded that they do.
We are beginning to think in this sermon series on memorable biblical meals that no one ate a thing. Not so. There was a shocking third effort to try to get people to come to the king’s feast.
This time, the king’s directive to the slaves who thought the feast was jinxed was to invite anyone and everyone whom they might encounter out on the streets. By no means, though, were they to favor society’s higher ups who paid large sums of money to get seats at an intimate dinner for 5,000 people supporting a political candidate, and no effort whatsoever was to be paid to those who’d been formally invited initially but who ignored the invite. Wealthy people could be invited as could the destitute. Yes, those largely ignored by society at large on a daily basis were to get invitations to attend a banquet at the palace.
There were many takers, rich and poor. It was customary to wear certain attire at a wedding feast. Maybe some of the poor people didn’t own the proper attire. Maybe some of the rich invitees did own the proper attire but had no time to retrieve it as the banquet was already in progress. Thus, the king provided a proper wedding garment for everyone who FINALLY came to his feast.
The characters in Jesus’ parable were fictional, but they symbolized someone or some group in the real world. It means everything for understanding the parable to know whom each of the characters in the story represented. Again, the parables themselves do not narrate history. The stories are all fictional, but with very important focused spiritual meanings and messages. We surely know that the truth is not the captive of so-called historicity. Many great truths have been made known to us, to humanity, in stories that weren’t historically factual. Think of the amazing power of the mythology found in any number of ancient cultures.
Okay, so the first character, the central character, is a king, and the king represents God. It is God Godself who has arranged for a massive feast to honor the prince on the occasion of the prince’s marriage. Some scholars of the sociology of Jesus’ time, like Dr. Pilch, tell us that there was no social event in any community more important than a wedding ceremony. Almost everybody in any town would’ve been invited to almost every wedding there. Think “Fiddler on the Roof,” a different time and place but a reasonable example communally of what a wedding would be like to the inhabitants of a small village.
The son of the king, the prince, would be a reference to Jesus although in this parable Jesus has a very small role, let’s say a cameo at best. In reality from most indications Jesus was not married and did not celebrate at his own wedding feast although not all scholars and writers, notably Dan Brown, would agree with such an assessment, but that is another sermon or maybe another series of sermons.
Anyway, here’s the king and in the background the king’s son who will celebrate his marriage just prior to this magnificent feast thrown by none other than his own father, the king. The people who are invited first represent those who first understood the reality of a one and only loving God desiring relationship with humanity, the ancient Hebrews following the leadership of Abraham. I know Jesus was a devout Jew; so do you, but he could be constructively critical of his own faith tradition despite the pain it brought him. So the people first invited to the great banquets represent the ancient Hebrews who for time had a strong relationship with God but who according to how the ancient Hebrew prophets interpreted history finally, largely ignored God meaning that as time passed fewer and fewer of the Hebrews gave any concern or attention to God. Even so, they are the ones represented in the parable and as those getting fancy invitations and first choice seats at the banquet but not bothering to show up.
God is not erased from their experience, but in time God is not important enough to warrant any investment of their time. The servants who go out to try to bring in these first choice guests would be none other than the ancient prophets themselves: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on; but their pleas for the people to come to God go ignored.
Another round of prophets is sent to the people of Israel, and these would be prophets like John the Baptist and others in his generation whose names we don’t know. Jesus could well have been considered one of those second generation servants to bring the same people back into intimate relationship with God represented by attendance at the great feast. In this case, not a lot is different than the first effort. Notably, a few people do bother to offer excuses though they’re essentially pointless excuses as I’ve said, and in their frustration that they are even asked again to bother with God they have a hand in killing the servant-messengers like John the Baptist and Jesus and many others whose names we don’t know.
So, there sits the big banquet table filled with food that has been there quite a while, and still no one is eating any of the food because there are no guests. God sends out some more servants to invite anybody and everybody to the banquet; forget the Hebrews who are ignoring God’s love and just ask anybody regardless of religious background if any to come and take a place at one of the tables set up for this great banquet.
I have to pause here enough to say that this is not an anti-Semitic diatribe, although some writers do color a handful of Jesus’s teachings with anti-Semitism trying to teach that Jesus grew to dislike his own people and the religion to which he was devoted. That is absolutely untrue. Jesus loved his people and his religious grounding in Judaism. He was a proudly practicing Jew from bar Mitzvah to burial. This parable is told at a terrible time in Jesus’ life; he was frustrated with some of his sister- and brother-Jews. The recent execution of his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, was freshly in his mind as was a keen awareness that his death could come soon because of Rome’s anger and paranoia.
Guess what? The third effort to get people seated at the banquet works. All kinds of people come to the palace’s banquet hall for the grand to-do. Some are nicely cleaned up for the occasion; some dirty and smelly, but they come.
As we’ve mentioned, while the guests enter the banquet hall, the king has monitors to make sure that each one is dressed appropriately in wedding feast attire. As they enter the great banquet hall the king’s staff made sure that each one is appropriately dressed.
It makes absolutely no sense, but one of the guests did not bring his own garment and would not bother to put on the garment the king’s staff tried to provide for him. The king kind of goes berserk here; with all the other things that could’ve made the king lose it, this one rebel gets the brunt of the king’s anger and frustration. The king has him bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness; he cannot rescue himself or be rescued by anyone else. This is not a very pretty picture of God and in reality not the way God operates, but this is a parable making points for thoughtful reflection.
Jesus had no idea of exactly what was on the horizon in terms of religious groups that would be functioning when he was no longer living on this earth. He wasn’t concerned that Christianity would be lost because there was no Christianity until a good while after his execution. He was a Jew, but he was convinced that his beloved religion was more or less moving toward some kind of extinction because his sister- and brother-Jews were giving less and less of themselves to what really mattered in connection to God, which was relationship rather than the keeping of rules.
The Pharisees, the chief rules keepers in Judaism, would’ve been highly offended by this parable, which of course Jesus knew, because they were keeping the rules and assuming this was their guarantee of an invitation to the banquet, but Jesus is saying in the parable that that’s not a way to get on the guest list. Of all things, the poor guy who refused to put on the proper garment represented the Pharisees who, in reality, took great care and pride in their attire. They refused, however, to put on the proper garment for the feast to which they desperately wanted to be invited. Jesus’ story had them being tossed into a place of darkness from which they could not be rescued.
This should be an alarming parable or at least something to cause raised eyebrows. If Jesus had the courage to say that his beloved religion, which unbeknownst to him, would be the founding religion for monotheism let us be equally as brave and say that the message Jesus had for his fellow Jews can apply, must apply to any religious group in our day or in any day. In our country, Christianity has been regarded as God’s favored religion; if I’m being polite I say that’s a serious misunderstanding. Ignoring me, the same people who believe that Christianity is God’s favored religion believe that Christians, especially American Christians, are God’s favorite people among all the people in the world. Again, if I could still manage to be polite, I’d say that this idea also is a serious misunderstanding.
In the extreme, these folks believe that being American and being Christian are essentially the same thing. Even those who know they don’t care squat about religion or have a milisecond to minister to the needy people to whom Jesus gave almost all of this time believe that their nationality will get them in good with God here and hereafter. Let me say that in another way. There are numerous US Americans who have no particular connection to God relationally, but because they are Americans many of them assume that the benefits of Christianity spill over onto them. Therefore, we get the horrible responses from would-be theologians in the face of crisis saying all this happened to us because God is punishing God’s favored people, us, because we are slipping in our devotion to God.
Heads up! Here’s the message from Jesus’ for today. Christianity may not always speak and/or show God’s love to the whole world. In fact, we may become so caught up polishing our religion that we can’t make time to get over to God’s banquet when invited. Let me take this is a step further and be more blunt. God does not need organized religion to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, but if there’s going to be organized religion it must be concentrated on encouraging adherents to share relationship with God and live out the love of God, which has overtaken us and them. Otherwise, it has no purpose. There’s no long term need for dogma, which often changes from generation to generation anyway. Church buildings age, fall apart, and typically are eventually torn down. The arguments within a church community that cost many members friendships are forgotten in a handful of years.
When Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth he said at the end of the day, at the end of the world as we now know it, there will be only three realities that remain: faith, hope, and love with the greatest of the three being love. Everything else that humanity has done in the name of any religion will fade away or will have already long faded by the time this chapter in human history comes to close. There should be a lesson as we connect the teaching of Jesus’ parable with the insightful words of Paul at his best.
If we want to be connected to what God is all about why concentrate on anything else? Faith is not saying, “I believe that God exists.” Faith is confidence that God is love and that every human being deserves the benefits of the full measure of that love. Hope is not wishful thinking; hope is a vision of humans living out God’s love so that the world cannot help but become a better place. Love isn’t nurturing, mushy feelings for everyone you meet; it is a specific act, often selfless, for someone who has a need, even if you happen not to like that person.
Those who are extraordinarily attached to organized religion, the people in Jesus’ parable too busy to come to the banquet, cannot imagine a world without their religion influentially at work. There are Christians who cannot imagine this world without the dominance of their religion overriding all others even though demographics tell us that in the next 38 years if things keep going the way they’re going Christianity will be in decline, and after having been the largest organized religion in the world will take the second seat as Islam takes the first.
God does not need any religion to be God or to accomplish divine acts. God does not need any religion in order for truths about God to be made known. Organized religion is a nice accessory, potentially, and meaningful for some people if it holds together well enough; indeed, some organized religious movements have done exactly what they were supposed to do without making themselves their own reason for being.
Usually what happens when religions decline is that they begin to see self-preservation as their reason for being; finally, they have nothing else to live for. They forget all about being catalysts of divine love to the second- or third-stringers initially uninvited to the banquet, those who thought the king didn’t even know they existed, and before you know it you mostly read about those religious movements only if you order a history book for your Kindle. Amen.