--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Ah, another Sunday, another gospel reading that seems to portray God as vindictive and violent, and uses religious differences to back that up.
Another Sunday where we misunderstand parables and their symbolism. So let me start out asking these questions:
Do we believe that God is a slave-owning king willing to slaughter anyone who offends him?
Do we believe that scripture portrays God that way, and do we ourselves experience God in that way? Do we believe that people are FORCED into the kingdom of heaven, measured, and then found wanting?
To be specific, do we believe God would condemn to eternal hell people who do not wear the right clothes to a party to which they were not initially invited? And if so, should we put that on our website in the section for visitors under “What to expect?”
Once, again, NO. And for those of us who are survivors of the kinds of Christianity that DOES promote ideas like that, let me say this: HELL NO.
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says this about hell:
“I am among the 78% of American Jews who do not believe in hell. On the other hand, I do like the idea. In my less generous moments, I have delightful thoughts of sentencing people there. Then I stopped, both because I realized such thoughts are ungracious and because I do not believe that eternal pain helps any one. To whether there are postmortem punishments in hell, or rewards in heaven, that I do not want to know personally for a very long time: getting through each day on earth is complicated enough.”
And yet, some of us WANT a God who smites sinners and leaves people we don’t like to roast in hell for all eternity. We especially want that when we ourselves feel victimized or powerless. But I wonder— is this a case of making God in our own image, rather than allowing God to remake us in God’s own image?
We know that this parable has been especially misused by a whole lot of people who like to imagine God to be vindictive and violent to justify their own vindictiveness and violence, which is usually tied to a toxic masculinity and patriarchical model of Christian leadership. This has become, in particular, a deeply dangerous political idea.
To be frank: we know that this parable has been misused historically when it has been about who is thrown out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. We gloss over the images of abundance and welcome that are embedded in this story, and in the readings we heard before this gospel in our lectionary. And we may be allowing our resistance to real gospel values to suppress the growth of our spiritual understanding.
First of all, we need to stop believing that we can separate our spiritual lives from our daily lives. We modern Christians keep wanting to separate our daily lives from our spiritual lives—to think about the kingdom of God only on Sundays—and not even every Sunday, since our lives are overscheduled and there are other things to do.
But here’s a truth: your spiritual lives ARE your everyday lives. It is how we live outside these walls that truly reveals our spiritual values and our spiritual compass. And so we are being urged here to understand that we are being called to spiritual renewal.
We overlook the fact that the king invites EVERYONE in, and asks only that they put on the clothing of abundance. I wonder if a more fruitful interpretive lens to hold up to this passage is the universal abundance and universal grace we hear in our first three readings.
In our passage from Isaiah, we hear of rich feast prepared by God for those who live in exile and oppression. Hardly the image of a God who seeks our everlasting torment.
Then, there is the 23rd Psalm. Is there any more beloved and precious depiction of God’s determined love, care, and protection in scripture than this beautiful poem?
And then Paul’s closing thoughts to the Christians at Philippi, urging them to not let a disagreement between two of their members to keep them from embodying the “mind of Christ”—specifically describing the mind of Christ and therefore the mind of God, as being true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
The three parables that we have heard the last three weeks about Jesus’s authority make it clear that those in power had rejected Jesus’s invitation. This third parable makes it clear that Matthew’s community believes that because the leaders and now Jerusalem itself have rejected God’s message sent to them through numerous prophets and finally God’s own son, as last week’s parable made clear, the invitation is going to be extended to people that powerful people usually wouldn’t associate with and denigrated: the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the riffraff, the nobodies, the blind and lame, the people who thought they’d been forgotten. People just like us, just as broken as us, just as in need of grace as us.
When we start trying to exclude people from entering our doors, from sharing in communion with us, from hearing that they are beloved by God, we are behaving EXACTLY as those Jesus is shown here as criticizing.
There is no dress code for God’s kingdom.
When God invites us into the wedding feast, God provides everything that is needed—including the robes. But the robes are not something external. The robes symbolize the inner transformation of living by embodying that same grace and mercy we have received for others.
What if the person who is found without a robe does not symbolize not being the right sort of person by birth or ancestry, but by refusing to be transformed by the banquet? What if that lack of robe is actually a refusal to adopt the mindset of community and gratitude that Jesus makes central to one’s ministry in the world?
Once you’ve come in to the feast, you are expected to put on the garments of love—the same characteristics that Paul lists as necessary to living the faithful life: whatever is true, honorable, just, and pure—and this is about internal purity in the sense of allowing love, not condemnation, to shine out of us.
The Church may bill itself as the representation of God’s banquet—the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s terminology on earth. That’s beautiful—except for the times when the Church falters in living up to the ideals espoused in the gospel. The fact that we fail as the Church should surprise no one, since the Church is made up of fallible human beings who do not shed their pain, wounds, or sins at the door, but bring them right on in. After all, this community is where the healing can take place. Jesus’s healing of people’s physical ailments throughout scripture was all about restoring people to relationship. And that is necessary work today as much as it was in Jesus’s time.
We as the Church can start to embody the kingdom of heaven rather than mirroring the wounds of our society--IF we are intentional about recognizing that fact, and become very intentional about how we respond to each other and treat each other as we learn this new language of love and life that Jesus’s gospel calls us to. IF we start by constantly examining the way we treat each other here within our communities of faith, and try to change the ways we relate to each other so that we put on those wedding garments.
When we align this parable with the epistle and the gospel, we are led to a reminder that our spiritual life and our daily lives must align within a joyful embodiment of sharing what we have received from God with those around us.
We are led once again to awe at the abundance of God’s mercy and provision in all four of our readings. We are also led to an understanding of the way that God calls us into true community with each other, regardless of our differences. If God can prepare a rich feast for us even while we are inclined to fear and anxiety with our enemies surrounding us, and if God invites EVERYONE to the wedding feast of the kingdom, who are we to harbor hatred, division, or defeatism ESPECIALLY in our spiritual lives OR in our daily lives when we are confronted with the opportunity to toss people out or condemn others?
I have known people throughout my life who were angry, judgmental, and unkind. I have known people who have held others to impossible standards of behavior that they themselves did not meet, but were always searching for some pretext to feel superior to others and to cast others out with curses and condemnation. And all too often, they justified division and cruelty and even aggression in the name of Jesus. And the worst part was, many of these people call themselves “Christian.” And in doing so, they have tarnished the gospel of Christ in the eyes of thousands. We hear actual statements of this from people who have left the church—especially young people—because not only were they not welcomed, but they saw people who claimed to believe in Jesus acting absolutely opposite of Jesus’s example.
What if this parable is meant to remind us that God does not call the perfect, but God asks the called to work toward perfection—and by perfection, I mean those hallmarks of Jesus that actually imitate Jesus: being true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, as Paul puts it in our epistle.
Grace is grace because it is not only generous, it is unexpected and unearned. Grace goes against everything for which our human-made systems stand. As Rachel Held Evans writes in our book study book, Searching for Sunday:
The church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here…starting with me. But the table can transform even our enemies into companions. The table reminds us that, as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family and invited to God’s banquet, we’re stuck with each other; we’re family.
We all are invited to the banquet, and we bring with us our anger, our flaws, our fears. But just as we are accepted as we are, we are also invited to allow the grace of the sacraments and the community to change us and heal us. Putting on the wedding garment means allowing yourself to be transformed by the miracle of community that the wedding feast is, that we are called to truly re-enact every time we worship together. The point is not to just sit and observe and then go back to our business. The point is to be amazed and transformed by the abundance God places before us in every moment—and to take that into our hearts and souls and share that good news with the world.
Come in to the feast—and let the feast change you. Let the feast change our communities by changing us. And by that, we change the world. No dress code required.
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings, p. 101, Kindle edition.  Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving Leaving, and Finding the Church, p. 152.