A Banquet of Love

A Banquet of Love

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In reading through the Sunday lessons bit by bit, week by week, rather than reading through the gospels from start to finish, one of the things we often miss is the flow of these narratives. The gospels were never written to be received in isolated sections—but as a whole. When you read them with continuity, they present details and messages and truths that can be missed when we consume them piecemeal.

Our lesson for today, for example, comes immediately after last week’s gospel reading. Unless you read these parables together, or show up and really pay attention both Sundays, you will miss something. In both readings, Jesus tells parables about a man and his son. Last Sunday, you heard about the vineyard owner who sent his son to receive fruit from his tenants. Today, we hear about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

In both instances, Jesus is presenting God the Father to His listeners as the father in the parables. In the first, the Father is a vineyard owner, and in the second, the Father is a king. The main theme is the same: God the Father has a Son. But what happens to this Son? Last week, the Father sent the Son to the tenants to collect what was due Him, and the tenants killed the Son, thinking they would receive his inheritance. This week, the Father throws a wedding banquet in honor of the Son and His Bride, and many refuse to come. And, of those who do, at least one attendee isn’t properly prepared and attired.

What, then, is Jesus saying to us in the flow of Matthew’s narrative, from the telling of the one parable to the next? Although it is cloaked a bit within the shroud of the parables, we have the benefit of historical perspective, knowing what Jesus’ listeners at the time did not. We understand that Jesus is foretelling His own death and resurrection!

In the parable last week, Jesus has been sent by the Father to evil, rebellious humanity—to you and to me. What happens? Jesus is put to death. What happens after Jesus’ death? He is resurrected, of course, to be honored at the head table of a banquet. This banquet has several dimensions. Jesus is resurrected to preside over a wedding banquet here at St. Paul each Sunday. Here, He meets His beloved Bride, the Church. We know this feast as the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus is also resurrected to preside over an eternal, heavenly banquet. Both of these are the wedding feast of God the Father’s Son! In the reading of the two parables, then, from Matthew 21 last Sunday, and Matthew 22 today, we hear Jesus proclaiming what for us is very good news: Even though He would be beaten, cast out of the vineyard and put to death, He would still bring life from death, being resurrected to both serve and be honored as the bridegroom of the Church.

For His Son, God the Father throws a wonderful wedding feast. Though the feast is one which always commemorates His Son’s death, it also celebrates His life—a life which has no end; a life which He will share with all who trust that His death and resurrection will bring them, too, through death and into everlasting life.

The parable we hear today challenges us to consider what this banquet means for us. It poses the difficult questions of who is invited and who isn’t; of who will come and who won’t. Finally, the parable teaches us that though the invitation is freely offered to all, there are still certain expectations of those who attend.

As has been the case with the several parables we’ve heard from Matthew lately, it is traditionally understood that the first group invited to the banquet were the Jewish leaders. It was common in ancient weddings in Southwest Asia for the host to send his servants to the invited guests twice. The first visit was to announce the date and time of the event. Then, on the actual day of the wedding, the host would send his servants again, this time to remind the guests to come; that all was now ready.

Jesus tells us that many had been invited to the wedding, but when the servants were sent the second time to call the guests to come, there were all kinds of reasons and excuses why they couldn’t or wouldn’t. The king said, almost pleading to share his generosity, “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.’”

But Jesus says, “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

Justifiably enraged, the King sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” And those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But Jesus makes a point to communicate to us that, once invited, there is such a thing as appropriate attire—a garment that is required in order to be acceptable at this celebration. To be invited by the King is one thing; that makes one acceptable to come. However, one is still to put on clothes fitting for a royal wedding.

What is this garment, then? What is the wedding robe? It’s not a literal item of clothing or wardrobe, a demand that we must dress in a particular way to come to church or to receive the Sacrament. Yet we certainly ought not to treat God and His gifts with less respect than we show in our workplaces or schools, either. But there’s no requirement for specific worldly attire. St. Gregory the Great asks, “What do we think is meant by the wedding garment? For if we say it is baptism, or faith, is there anyone who has entered this marriage feast without them? What then must we understand by the wedding garment, but love?”[1]

And surely St. Gregory is right. As St. Paul writes in Colossians 3:14: “above all, clothe yourselves with love…”

Just as those who were first invited to the wedding feast (and would not come) were not worthy because they rejected the one true God and His only begotten Son, so also are those not worthy who would accept the invitation, but do not come with love in their hearts—love for God, love for His Son, and love for the other guests at the banquet. St. Gregory is giving an allegorical interpretation to this parable, as was the custom in his time—but still the interpretation fits. If faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love, then certainly our finest and most fitting attire to wear to God’s wedding banquet is love.

It is one thing to be invited, by God’s grace alone, to the wedding banquet of His Son. It is quite another to presume to come to the feast, without love; without clothing oneself in the garment of the Kingdom; without love of God and neighbor.

Which brings me to our congregational situation today. As you well know, we often struggle with our financial obligations here at St. Paul. In our most recent fiscal year, in spite of the challenges of a faltering economy, many of you responded in love and generosity to our encouragement to consider where you stood in having your priorities in order—both worldly and spiritually.

Unlike the wicked tenants in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, you did not deny to the vineyard owner what was rightfully His. You discovered the great joy and comfort of setting aside a first-fruits portion of God’s blessings, of taking a firm stand and commitment, of pledging to avoid the weekly battle with Satan and your weak flesh to hold back and hoard things in fear. What a great joy it was, then, to finish last year without the usual struggle and last-minute appeal for people to “dig deeper” to meet the budget. Our Lord truly changes hearts when we surrender our wills to His.

Now we see on the horizon a new potential challenge to our financial health—the departure in June of our own tenants, Concordia High School. We will need to address this challenge in the coming weeks and months, always remembering that God has promised not to forsake His people nor turn His back upon them when they remain faithful and committed to Him.

It might seem a stretch today, to speak about our potential financial challenges in relation to our Gospel parable. Yet, when you get right down to it, within the Church, it’s all about the banquet of the King’s Son isn’t? The banquet here in time, and the banquet in heaven for eternity. Everything we do finds its center in the banquet of the King’s Son: Who is in, and who is out. Who should be invited and welcomed to the wedding feast of the King’s Son.

Granted, in many churches today, and even in many Lutheran churches today, the wedding banquet, the heavenly feast, the Lord’s Supper, has little or no place in mission or ministry. Many would suggest that the feast of the Lamb who was slain is irrelevant to people today—that being certain people are receiving the feast with proper preparation is an obstacle to outreach; not helpful for inviting others into the Church. But what do we hear today, in the banquet parable Jesus tells?

We hear that it is God’s banquet, given in honor of His Son. We hear that God the Father wants all to be invited, all whom the servants could find—both good and bad! We hear that God the Father wants the wedding hall to be filled with guests—and the guests are to be gathered around the banquet table.

We cannot prescribe or dictate the practices of other congregations and faith communities, but for us Lutherans—for those of us who are sacramental Christians—how can we not hear in this parable a wonderful invitation for us to invite others to come, to hear the Good News of Jesus’ crucified and risen for their salvation, and to come here to be properly informed and sufficiently prepared to share in the banquet of the Lord’s Table?

Is this not a Gospel mandate to invite others to come, to learn, and to share in the Lord’s Supper? In the same way, are not our stewardship efforts—our giving of the worldly financial resources with which God has blessed us—aimed not merely or even primarily at meeting an annual church budget, but rather on reaching others with the good news of Jesus Christ through our church and in our school? To share with them His saving death and resurrection?

That’s really the sole reason we exist as a congregation, the reason we have this wonderful building and all the rest of this property: To serve as a mission center for outreach? We are here to connect with those whom the church often finds unaware, confused, resistant, disconnected, and absent from the Body of Christ. That’s why stewardship and financial generosity are important. It’s not just to raise funds to serve our own needs for ongoing spiritual care, but also to be able to serve the needs of those yet invited or received into the kingdom. It’s so we can continue to equip and encourage each of you to keep reaching out into the community in your schools and jobs and clubs and neighborhoods to invite all whom you can find.

Our task and our goal is clear: To invite and welcome the good and the bad; the younger and the older; those who are single, and those who are married; with children and without; the rich and the poor. To invite all of them to come to the wedding feast, celebrated each week here at Saint Paul; celebrated eternally in heaven!

And, as those who have already been invited and welcomed to the banquet, let’s be sure we put on, always—our wedding clothes. Whether it’s at church on Sunday mornings, or at our desks on Tuesday afternoon. Behind the wheel, or behind a stranger at the checkout counter. In a crowd of thousands, or in the quiet of our own homes; whether at work, or at play—let us always have our wedding clothes on. That is: Love.

The love of God for us in Jesus Christ, and the love we are to have for one another. Love for the neighbor. Love for the stranger. Love for those who are not yet believers. Love for those in wheelchairs and with walkers. Love for babies and toddlers, children and teens, young people and old.

Gregory the Great concludes his teaching on this parable by saying, “Only God’s love brought it about that his only begotten Son united the hearts of his chosen to himself. John says that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son’ for us.”

To enter the banquet hall, to sit at the table of the Lord, we are to put on our wedding garments—the love that God Himself has given us, in Jesus Christ, His Son. So clothe yourself in love, and then, come. Come to the wedding banquet. Come because everything is prepared and ready!

In the name of the honored Bridegroom, (+) Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume I(b), Edited by Manlio Simonetti, General Editor Thomas Oden, p. 146.