In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the previous chapter from last week’s lection, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”
But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!
When you preach on Matthew, don’t choose “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” for the service!
The concluding incident in this parable is the second shock of the narrative, the first having come when the king orders the complete annihilation of those who spurned his invitation to dinner. All in all, then, the king of this parable is not someone to be trifled with! Whatever is going on as symbolized by this parable, the stakes are clearly on the high side.
Because the center of this parable displays the reach of God’s gospel to the least likely of people—a theme Matthew has been hammering away at since his opening genealogy and then the appearance of also the Magi—it is fairly easy to see how and why this is finally a parable full of grace. But that grace is nestled in pretty closely to judgment as well. And just here is a tension for us preachers.
All of us like to proclaim grace. Indeed, I would contend it is our #1 task as preachers to do just that. We are not supposed to morph into Oprah or Dr. Phil mode when in the pulpit, dispensing good advice or pithy moral aphorisms meant to inspire people to aspire to greater things in their lives (even though plenty of preachers in recent years seem quite content to do exactly that). Nor is it our first task to preach Bad News sermons of finger-wagging condemnation or in which we Christians are encouraged to take on morally superior airs to all the greasy losers all around us in society. Too many sermons do make it sound as though the difference between the saved and the unsaved is that the former group does better things, generates more moral wattage, and so attracted God’s attention in the first place on account of all the merit points folks had racked up on their own. Too often sermons make it sound like it’s finally up to us either to get saved or to stay saved.
No, no. We preach grace. We preach the supreme merits of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is what we preachers were ordained to proclaim.
But does that mean we may never talk about the other side of the coin? Does it mean we should not mention the fact that if people spurn the Gospel or refuse grace or refuse to turn from their selfish ways that they may well face a dire fate? There is no question that Jesus exuded grace. There is no question that far from being afraid of him, sinners and those shunned by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus attractive and welcoming. And there is no question that salvation is indeed a free gift such that at the end of the cosmic day—as in this parable—more people and not fewer people will come, and a good many of those who end up at the king’s banquet table may well be those whom religious types had long ago written off.
There will be surprises. But that’s grace for you.
But the same Jesus back to whom all of that can be traced was not adverse to mixing into all that good stuff darker notes of judgment and ultimacy. It is possible in some sense to tell the God of all Grace to take a hike, and if someone does that in one way, shape, or form, the consequences are real and trend toward the dire end of the spectrum. What Jesus came to offer the world was the most precious thing God could offer: a divine sacrifice of such gargantuan dimensions we’ll just possibly never finish plumbing the depths of a love so great. But precisely because of the value and the beauty and the majesty of all that, to have it rejected, spurned, or chalked up as being of no account is no small matter.
Augustine once discussed the idea—current among some critics of Christianity in his day—that the notion of an eternal punishment for sins committed in this temporal world was patently unfair, if not sheer nonsense. How could anything people could manage to do across a few score of years be so bad as to warrant a punishment into eternity? But Augustine countered that we don’t tend to mete out punishments even on this earth based on chronological distinctions. It may take a man no more than four minutes to rape a woman. It takes a matter of seconds to pull a gun, fire it, and take a life. But no judge or jury ever would claim that given the short duration of the crime in question, a sentence of years and years is unjust. It is the monstrosity of the crime, the value of what was lost or taken, that leads to a just punishment.
I’ll not comment here on what we should think about the prospect of eternal punishment but let’s indeed pick up on Augustine’s notion that we properly assess things in life based on what is at stake in a given instance. In the case of Matthew 22, what is at stake is the Gospel, the free invitation of grace to sit at the king’s table of grace. What’s at stake is of infinite, precious value. Yes, you can receive these glorious riches by grace alone but if you cannot be moved by that same grace—if you look at what is proffered and find it less interesting than other things that are occupying your heart and mind and life—then the result cannot be a simple shrug of the divine shoulders. Offer a person a chocolate chip cookie and have him turn it down and it’s no big deal. Offer to donate a kidney that he needs to have his life saved only to have him spurn also that and your eyes widen at such a thing.
Even as preachers, we may well undermine the very beauty and glory of the Gospel if we leave the impression that there are few, if any, severe consequences for rejecting the Christ of God and the invitation to come to the banquet.
Dale Bruner is at his usual trenchant self in commenting on this passage by highlighting for us the interplay in Matthew 22 between the concepts of being “called” (the Greek kaleo, which in many translations is rendered “invited”) and the concept of being “chosen” or “elected” (the Greek elekto as in verse 14 where many are called/invited but only a few are in the end elected). In verse 3, the servants are told to go out and invite those who were invited (literally in the Greek, to call those who had been called). Apparently there was a general invitation issued and when the banquet was ready, those who had been so invited are summoned. But in the end most of those initial invitees declined, revealing that although called, they had not been elected or chosen. But Bruner reminds us to be cautious. Matthew’s use of the concept of election is not the same as the Apostle Paul’s later use of it. For Paul election is the source of a person’s salvation. For Matthew election is the goal or end-result of truly responding to God’s call with a joyful life of gratitude.
Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game (“Three homileticians walked into a bar and . . .”). Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”
Probably to some of the people there at the ballpark that day, the reference to a “wedding garment” seemed to come from out of nowhere and made no sense to them. If you do not know this parable in Matthew 22, then how could you know what Craddock’s wise crack meant? But really, even within this parable, this mention of a wedding garment comes as a bit of a surprise in that such attire had not been mentioned earlier. It’s even a little hard to know what it means or what it stands for.
But at very least it may mean this: the party is finally God’s party and everyone there is there by grace alone. You had to be clothed with grace to be there and no matter what you may think of the wedding garment of grace when it is handed to you, you either put it on or risk getting pitched out of the party. There is no other way to be at the party without wearing the attire the master assigns. Those who think they got there some other way or who think they can do without the clothing of grace everyone else is wearing will soon find out how wrong they are.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2017
Matthew 22:1-14 Commentary