Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon can be found here.
In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt invited John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, to accompany him on a trip to what would ultimately become Yosemite National Park. Though this trip was the catalyst for the creation of more than a dozen national parks during Roosevelt’s presidency, Muir was not terribly excited about the prospect of guiding the President through the California wilderness. He initially wanted to decline the invitation, but a friend told him that one must always accept an invitation from the president. While this offended Muir’s populist sensibilities, he eventually relented, allegedly quipping, “I suppose I shouldn’t refuse just because he happens to be president.”
As John Muir learned, there are apparently specific rules around when it is permissible to refuse a presidential invitation. According to a guide published in 1880, one should only refuse such an invitation when one has reasons that are sufficiently “grave.” In 1988, Miss Manners herself cautioned, “Only illness, a death in the family, or hardship in making the trip are legitimate excuses for declining such an august invitation.” The expectation is pretty clear: if the president invites you to go somewhere, you go.
The reason for these stringent rules about presidential invitations is that it is so very easy for refusals to be construed as political. A handful of people from history have famously declined opportunities to spend time with the president. Nearly all of these individuals intended their refusal to broadcast their personal dissatisfaction with the president or their disapproval of his policies. In other words, refusing a presidential invitation is less about one’s availability and much more about what one thinks is important.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel intimates that there are consequences for declining more than just presidential invitations. Matthew uses the phrase that ends today’s reading (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) several times during the course of the gospel narrative. In most of these cases, the punishment appears to fit the crime: those sent to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness are wicked, unfaithful, hypocritical, or disobedient. It is only in this parable that someone is sent into the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit to a party. This is a terrifying proposition. Is there anyone here who hasn’t misinterpreted “business casual” and ended up wearing a polo shirt while everyone else was in a suit? The way this parable is constructed, it seems as though this kind of faux pas could have eternal implications. It doesn’t seem fair at all. This guy didn’t even know he was coming to the wedding feast until he was dragged from the side of the road and brought into the hall. How on earth was he supposed to be appropriately attired for this event? But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, given this king’s track record of overreaction. In the first part of this parable, he literally orders the execution of those who decline his invitation to the wedding banquet. Sure, they made light of the invitation; sure, they mistreated his slaves; but did the king really have to destroy the whole city? It seems as though the message of this parable is that we had better be on our toes, because God is capricious and willing to consign us to hell for offenses that most would regard as merely impolite.
Part of the challenge of this parable is that it is easy to become distracted by the king’s overreaction (as I did a moment ago); the punishments are so unreasonable. If we remember, however, that this story is a parable, we can recognize that the punishments are not the point of this story; they’re simply intended to make it more vivid. When we recognize this, we can pay attention to the other details in the parable, particularly to those who refused to attend the wedding banquet. I think our assumption is that these people were simply unavailable, that they had too much going on and would have loved to attend the wedding but could not fit it into their schedules. But the text tells us that the king sends his slaves to call those who had already been invited. They had already agreed to attend; they had already committed themselves to participating in this celebration. Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that they kept refusing to come. Even in the face of this obstinacy, the king sends another set of slaves who are instructed to say “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” In other words, “this is what you have been waiting for; why on earth would you reject this offer?” Once again, the guests refuse the invitation. Like those who refuse presidential invitations, these guests made a profound statement about what was important to them by saying “no” to the king. These guests affirmed that their own petty concerns were more important than God’s call. Their self-centeredness led them to stay on the periphery instead of experiencing the fullness of God’s redemptive love. Their refusal to participate led them to turn away from God and consign themselves to self-destruction.
The same dynamic is at play with our robeless friend. There is some scholarly division about the reference to the wedding robe in this parable. Some scholars suggest that in first-century Middle Eastern culture the host was expected to provide a wedding robe to his guests, while others contest that there was no such thing as a wedding-specific robe in the first place. In either case, it’s pretty clear that the man is not to blame for his robelessness. What he is to blame for is his failure to participate. Notice that when the king asks him “how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the man is speechless; he refuses even to answer the question, in spite of the fact that “what are you talking about” would apparently have been a legitimate response. Ultimately, this man is consigned to the outer darkness not for his failure to wear a wedding robe, but for his refusal to participate in the banquet to which God has invited the whole human family.
A few years ago, the Pew Research Council released a survey about religion in American life, the results of which were alarming to those who are part of religious institutions. In short, religious engagement and participation in this country have taken a nosedive during the past several decades. Perhaps the most striking statistic to emerge from this survey is the rise of the so-called “nones,” those who profess no religious preference whatsoever. These are not people who necessarily deny the existence of God; these are people who, when asked if they had any religious conviction, could muster no more than a noncommittal “Meh.” It seems to me that a significant reason for the rise of these “nones” may be our failure to engage with the gospel proclamation. As a community, we have been called to live our lives in light of the fact that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, we have behaved like the people invited by the king: happy to have an invitation, but not particularly interested rearranging our schedules. Or we have acted like the robeless wallflower at the banquet: willing to attend the wedding, but uncertain about participating. We have been invited to a wedding banquet, yet too often we live our lives as though we have something better to do. If the gospel doesn’t matter to us, how can we expect it to matter to anyone else? This parable reminds us that God calls us not to be spectators, but participants. We are called to engage with the gospel and allow it to transform our lives. We are called to participate in the life of the Church and help it to reveal God’s glory. We are called to embrace what is truly important: to accept and share the invitation God has extended to each and every one of us.