I can tell you this for a fact…Sunday’s sermon got a little off script. Whether that was a good thing or not might be debatable, but one thing left hanging on Sunday – at least at the early service – was this parable in Matthew 22. I never got back to it.
Now, whether you were there or not, this post is for you, because the theme that day may have seemed opposite of what was read from the word. Let me explain. Our theme on Sunday was grace alone, or should I say, grace ALONE! God’s forgiveness and love give us life and hope and salvation apart from ANYTHING we do. We don’t help or cooperate in any way in our salvation. It is a gift. It is totally Christ. Anything we do in response to that love and salvation is something we get to do as a beloved disciple, not something we have to do to get into the club. Author Jeff Harkin says it well, “Grace plus anything equals nothing; grace plus nothing equals everything.”
But grace is also like a double IPA – lots of rich texture and good flavor, but with a bite. God’s grace is not just, “I’m okay, you’re okay” therapy, it is also a challenge to all the ways we might puff ourselves up; all the ways we might rely on our own self righteousness or status or whatever. Grace will nip all attempts to make ourselves right with God in the bud, or according to one take on Matthew 22, completely burn them to the ground.
In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, and to be sure, this is a parable of judgement. It shows God’s power over wickedness, whether it is outside or even inside the church body, something that actually can give us hope. But this passage can also offer a window into the side of grace that goes beyond a warm fuzzy feeling to a powerful weapon against what oppresses us most – apathy and control.
Click here and you will get the full commentary on this text by Erick J. Thompson, and you can skip the rest of this blog… If you are still reading, let me summarize my take. First off, when a king throws a banquet, nobody says no to the invitation. It would be both insulting and unwise. But those who have plenty of distractions and concerns do just that. And their mistreatment of the messengers of the king- bearers of good news – is even more unbelievably wicked. The destruction that follows is to be expected by ancient readers, but it seems harsh to us. However, Thompson compares the people and their cities to all of the ways we build ourselves up – we have worked hard, we are good and deserving people, we don’t need forgiveness/community/God because we have made it on our own hard work, our own merit. In response, he writes, By sending out his troops to destroy the people and their “city,” the king is destroying our human notions that what we have done and built has value when it comes to the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven. In other words, God’s grace tears down our ridiculous notions of self-righteousness. It is a gracious thing for God to destroy what keeps us from seeing our need for God.
And so the invitation goes out to others, even the “bad.” Whew! That sounds more like our friendly God. But there is more. Unique to Matthew’s telling of this parable, someone is caught inside the banquet without the proper clothing and thrown out. What of this!? It is possible – even within the church – for us to still practice self-righteousness (side note: Dana Carvey’s Church Lady from SNL is based on actual people). In other words, while God’s grace is total and complete and forever, we often find a way to wriggle out of it, take off the robe and stand on our own. Thompson again, To put on the wedding robe provided by the king is to take on the garments of Christ; when we come to the wedding feast, we are clothed like everyone else in mercy. If we refuse this mercy by instead relying on our own works or accomplishments, we stand in judgement. And further, If we want to prove ourselves worthy, we will indeed feel the sting of “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Yet, if we remember that God’s grace is what saves us, we won’t worry how we are clothed, or who else God has decided to include in the Wedding Banquet. There is no room for piety or first rate Christians in the kingdom of heaven.
Indeed we are not worthy on our own, but through God’s grace we are saved, claimed as beloved children. This free gift goes against much logic and most of how the world is run. It may even go against how we think things should happen – especially if we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. But ultimately it is this freeing grace – which takes apart our houses of cards and foundations of sand – that stands firm and holds fast in the most powerful storms of self-doubt, tragedy, and oppression. For nothing takes away who we are, and by grace, whose we are.