Matthew 22: 1-4
Several years ago our diocesan bishop, Shannon Johnston, took a four-month sabbatical. It was unprecedented, at least in recent memory. Certainly the bishop before him, who had served for twenty four years, had never taken a sabbatical because there was always something pressing to do. Bishop Shannon felt that way too until the day he received a call notifying him that a good friend had died unexpectedly. It was quite a blow. That friend had lived in Richmond as Bishop Shannon did, but even though they were geographically close they had not seen each other in years. You know how it goes, they were too busy - their schedules were full. The sad truth was that in life, Bishop Shannon hadn’t found a way to carve out time for his friend. In death, however, he cleared his calendar to bury him - vowing never to let that happen again. So the Bishop of Virginia took a sabbatical with the sole purpose to put “relationships back into the ‘priority’ category in [his] life.”
This story came to mind as I was reflecting on our gospel lesson this week. A king throws a wedding banquet and invites a group of people, but surprisingly this group turns the invitation down. Their schedules, it seems, are full. There are other things that are pressing - farms and businesses need to be tended to. However they don’t simply send their polite regrets, no - and this is where the story takes a very dark turn - in addition to turning down the invitation they end up mistreating and murdering the king’s messengers. Upon discovering this, the king is so enraged that he orders the people he invited to be put to death and their city to be burned to the ground. Once that is settled, a second round of invitations go out. New folks are invited to the banquet and they come and everyone seems to be happy until the king notices that one man is not properly attired. Apparently the offense is so grave that he’s thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But before we get too worked up about this or check out entirely because this type of God isn’t one that we’re interested in worshipping, let me suggest to you that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole - using exaggeration to get our attention and evoke strong feelings in order to underline a point. The key to understanding hyperboles, in general, and this parable, in particular, is to recognize that although the story it is supposed to be taken seriously, it is not to be taken literally.
So let’s seriously look at this story. It’s about judgment - the first group that the king invites are declared unworthy and by implication the second group is worthy - but and this is a big but, the judgment that is going on here is not what we might naturally think. For God does not judge us in the same way that we so often judge one another. Our judgments usually have to do with exclusion - who’s in and who’s out. But what if it’s just the opposite with God? What if the point that Jesus is trying to underline for us with this shocking story is that God does indeed judge us, but his judgment is all about grace, forgiveness, and invitation? That God’s judgment is not about exclusion but inclusion.
If that’s the case - that the judgment of God is about who’s included rather than excluded - how can it be that the first group of invitees is said to be unworthy and the other group is not? Well, it isn’t because one group is morally better than the other. Obviously the first group can’t take any moral high ground since they killed the king’s messengers. But the second group is likely no better for Jesus makes a point to say that it was made up of both the good and the bad. Neither group is exemplary. And neither group did anything to earn or deserve the royal invitation. Yet both groups are invited - both groups are included. And the king only seems to be motivated by the desire to share his banquet feast with others. He wants someone, anyone, as many people as possible to come and join in the party, the joy, the celebration.
So what then is the difference between the two groups? Apparently there’s only one: Presence - one group actually shows up. Jesus tells us that the wedding hall was filled with guests from the second group. In sharp contrast to the first group, that would not come. That’s it - that’s the difference: showing up and being present. That’s what matters most in any relationship especially in our relationship with God. It sounds so easy, nonetheless, it’s often very difficult to do - to show up and be present because there’s always something else, oftentimes something good that needs our attention. In the parable it was the needs of the farm and the business. For Bishop Shannon it was the demands of our diocese. For us...well, what takes up your time? What is it in your schedule that tends to crowd out showing up and being truly present with others and with God?
Woody Allen was the one who said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” But I suspect that he wasn’t just talking about showing up in body and not in spirit. If you come to a meeting but your mind is elsewhere that’s no good. Or if you’re having dinner with family while being on your phone you might as well not be there at all. Showing up only matters if it includes both body and in spirit - being fully present and attentive to whatever is going on - that is the ninety percent of life that really matters and keeps us from missing out.
Which may shed some light on what’s going on with the poor soul who showed up to the king’s banquet without a wedding robe. The king’s reaction suggests that surely something more is going on here than just a fashion faux pas. Notice that when this guest is questioned by the king we are told that he is speechless. Perhaps his silence was because although he showed up at the banquet in body he wasn’t really present in spirit. Maybe if he had said something - made his presence known - things would have turned out differently.
Because the God we know through Jesus Christ does not turn anyone away - just the opposite. We are always invited to come. God has indeed judged us and has ruled that each and every one of us is to be included. So the invitation goes out over and over again throughout our lives. Come! says the Spirit. And when we say yes to that invitation - and not only say yes, but when we show up and are present we are worthy. But it’s not that showing up makes us worthy. It’s that when we do show up we discover the worthiness that has been there all along. A worthiness that God has always known and recognized in us.
That means that no matter who you are, you are worthy. You are loved. And you are invited. So do what you must to clear your calendar, put this relationship in the priority category of your life so that you may join in the celebration of God’s kingdom, God’s life, God’s joy!