My modeling career was short lived. My mom enrolled me for fun in runway and etiquette classes at Columbia’s well-known Millie Lewis School of Modeling. It turns out my mom and I had different ideas about why this experience might be fun. Much to her embarrassment, I was the girl who refused to walk down the runway with a boy accompanying me. I didn’t need the help of anyone to walk anywhere, and I wasn’t sure why the runway was any different. At the end of one of our classes, they took us out to dinner to demonstrate the table etiquette skills we had learned, and instead of politely obeying instruction, I decided it would be fun to show everyone how my dad ate spaghetti at home. So, I ordered a beautiful dish of pasta and showed my classmates and their parents who were standing by how to slurp the long pasta noodles up without twirling or cutting them. After that night, my mom decided that she had had enough fun and that not even Millie Lewis could compel me to stop being a clown and to adhere to table etiquette. Dinner tables have a way of revealing so much, don’t they? What kind of food is served, in what order the food is served, who sits where, what plates and utensils are used, and who is even invited to the table all make a statement about the hosts and the guests. One’s social class is quickly revealed at a dinner table. One’s relationship with the hosts and the guests is quickly revealed at a dinner table. Whether or not one has come prepared for the occasion is quickly revealed at a dinner table.
Our text for today centers around a dinner table, an elaborate dinner table at a wedding banquet, where I can assure you that no one was allowed to slurp their spaghetti! Jesus tells a story about a wedding banquet for the king’s son, an extremely important affair. It’s another parable told to the religious leaders. I know it’s hard to imagine, but this parable is even more intense than the first two Jesus told, the parable of the two sons and the parable of the vineyard owner. These are all stories told in conversation with the religious leaders after Jesus has ridden into town on a donkey to proclaim he is a different kind of king, after Jesus has gone into the sacred space of the temples and knocked all the tables over, after Jesus has railed the religious leaders for blocking people’s access to God. Jesus is still demonstrating for them story by story, parable by parable, to whom the kingdom of God belongs. The dramatic nature of this particular parable shows how intense things are getting as they inch closer and closer to Good Friday. This conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders is not pleasant at all; it is intense; it is uncomfortable; it is like many of our dinner table conversations with our extended family members at Thanksgiving. It’s a heated discussion that will end in the religious leaders helping put Jesus on the cross.
This parable is violent and terrifying. There’s no getting around that. The king has prepared an eloquent wedding banquet for his son; the best oxen and calves have been slaughtered; the finest cheeses and the best wine have been secured. The king sent his slaves to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Some others who had been invited made light of the invitation; they took care of ordinary life matters instead of taking the time to respond, to show up to this important dinner. Some of the would-be guests seized the slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and burned their city. Afterwards, he told his slaves that clearly those invited to begin with weren’t worthy, so they are to go into the streets and invite everyone they could find – both good and bad –to the banquet. The wedding hall was now filled with guests. The king notices one guest isn’t wearing a wedding robe, asks him why he isn’t, and when the man doesn’t respond, the king has his attendants bind him and throw him into the outer darkness. After telling this horribly intense story, Jesus comments on it by saying, “Many are invited but few are chosen.”
By this third parable where Jesus is calling out the religious leaders, it’s clear that the religious leaders are the would-be guests, the ones who don’t show up for the dinner, the ones who care about the matters in front of them instead of stopping for this important invitation, the ones who do violence towards God’s messengers. The guests who wouldn’t normally have been invited who end up filling the wedding hall represent the people whom the religious leaders have tried to keep out of God’s house, the ones who would never make it on the A list. You know how A guest lists and B guest lists go; it’s only if the A list people decline that the B list people even get considered at all. It calls to mind a bride’s family in Sacramento last year who, after the groom called the wedding off the week of the wedding, invited the city’s homeless instead of the intended wedding guests to an extravagant dinner reception. This parable of the wedding banquet is a reminder of God’s radical inclusion of everyone, the wide-open invitation of Jesus for all to come. Jesus tells this intense story full of hyperbolic language to make a point: that all are invited, even the ones declared unworthy by the religious leaders but that there are consequences for one’s actions, that how one responds to God’s call or invitation matters. The religious leaders find themselves condemned again, but the second part of the parable takes a different turn and speaks to a different audience. Those on the B list – the good and the bad – are invited to God’s table, but they too are expected to do the will of the Father, to produce fruit, to clothe themselves with righteousness. Even after the guests accept the invitation, there is still more to do; they still have to conform their lives to the gospel. The audience here is those who will accept Jesus’ invitation in the future, the church that is to come, the new religious leaders. Those who accept Jesus’ invitation must do more than show up; they must be changed; they must be transformed.
It’s telling that the king picks on someone who did not wear a wedding robe. Remember this is a parable. It’s not about condemning people who show up to a fancy party without the right clothes and slurp their spaghetti. It’s a word of caution that all are invited, all are called, but few choose to be changed into people who clothe themselves with the gospel, few do the will of the Father, few produce fruit, few allow themselves to be transformed by their encounter at God’s great table. Our scripture is rich with references to clothing oneself with the gospel, to clothing oneself in the values of the kingdom, to demonstrate that one is following Christ. Galatians 3:27 says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Romans 13 calls us to lay aside the works of darkness and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Colossians 3:12-16 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, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” We have work to do if we are to put on the clothes of baptism, the values of the kingdom. We have to allow God to transform us into people who are holy, people filled with love, people of compassion and forgiveness, people who do not wear the marks of our world but who wear the marks of God’s kingdom.
Lauren Winner in her book Wearing God writes, “God doesn’t just clothe us with skin…; God clothes us with God’s own self… If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in a world; if to clothe yourself in a particular type of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape — then what is it to put on Christ?”[i] To put on Christ is to do more than try on a different outfit for a few hours or to try on a different way of being in the world on Sunday mornings. It is to totally transform the way one shows up in the world at every single moment. Winner tells us that in order to remind herself to put on Christ every day, she has taped this quote from Alexander McLaren, a nineteenth-century Baptist minister in Manchester England, on her closet door; he says, “It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus; it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us, have we ‘put off the old man with his deeds’? Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?” Winner goes on to say, “I become professional or hip, depending on what I am wearing. I feel differently when I am wearing different clothes. I act different. I let my Talbots suits and my vintage shirts remake me in their image. I want to let Jesus do the same.”[ii]
It’s a daily decision we make isn’t it? None of us have arrived; we are ever beckoned to change. Craig Barnes talks about how in Benedict’s rule, written in the sixth century, there are specific instructions about what to do with the clothes – both the street clothes and the habit, the new spiritual clothes – of a new monk being received into a community. Right after the monk took his new vows, he was to put on his habit. However, he was not to get rid of his street clothes; he was instructed to put his street clothes in his closet. Every morning for the rest of his life, the monk would be faced with a decision – to put on the habit of the monk or to put on the habit of the streets and leave the monastery. He had to keep choosing what he had chosen;[iii] he had to decide to keep being transformed by the gospel.
How do we go about being clothed with the values of the kingdom and continually be transformed by the gospel? I think we have to keep showing up at dinner tables together like many of you did who participated in our discipleship retreat this past Friday night. We have to keep inviting brothers and sisters in the body of Christ who we might not normally invite to sit at our tables because they aren’t our age or they don’t do the same type of work we do or they don’t have kids at all or kids or same age or they don’t look or act like us or make as much money as we do. If, as the Colossians passage says, we are to clothe ourselves with holy clothes and bear with one another and forgive one another and dwell in Christ’s word and teach one another and dare to admonish one another and sing and cry out to God together, then we have to share our tables together; we have to share our lives together; we have to bind ourselves together so that we can be one body together; we have to be vulnerable enough to share with one another how we are really doing in our relationship with God and in our relationships with one another; we have to read scripture together; we have to connect our stories with God stories; we have to hold one another accountable to spiritual practices; we have to expect one another to immerse ourselves in scripture and prayer.
In order to clothe ourselves with holy clothes, we also have to keep showing up at God’s table, at the great banquet of the kingdom of God, and inviting everyone, particularly those on the B list, so that we can all be fed Christ’s body, so that we can all be nourished by Christ’s blood, so that we all might have the opportunity to transform our lives, to be clothed with God’s very self, to put on the gospel, to wear the values of God’s kingdom. To whom does the kingdom belong? All are invited to the great banquet table, but the kingdom belongs to those who put on the right clothes.
[i] Lauren Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, 36 & 40.
[ii] Ibid, 40-41.