Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kingdom Manners, Kingdom Rules

Text:    Matthew 22:1-14

     I MISSED A WEDDING YESTERDAY.  THE groom is the only son of some friends of mine from way back, and I wish I could have gone.

    But they live all the way over on the far side of Illinois, and the drive was too far. So I followed custom and returned the RSVP card with my regrets.

     It's good to exercise good manners and follow the rules, especially on important occasions like weddings.  On this Worldwide Communion Sunday and every day of our Christian lives, Jesus wants us to know that when it comes to the marriage supper of the Son of God, we're both bound and set free by Kingdom manners and Kingdom rules.

    "The kingdom of heaven," Jesus begins in Matthew 22, "is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son."  Jesus told this parable in the Temple courts the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  A delegation of chief priests and elders of the people had marched up to Him to challenge His right to teach and act the way He did.  In response, He taxes them with their failure to carry out the responsibility God gave them as leaders over His people Israel.  Even now, when they should be the ones getting the people ready to receive God's Messiah and take their places at the great feast that will usher in the kingdom of heaven, these very leaders are deliberately ignoring the gracious call of God their King.   Will this parable wake them up, or will it make them more hardhearted still?

    This is no ordinary wedding Jesus is speaking of, it's the marriage for the son and heir of a mighty king.  Some of the customs will seem strange to us, and we may think that Jesus made them up for the purposes of His parable.  In fact, the manners and rules Jesus describes were expected behavior in ancient royal and aristocratic society.  The ancient Jewish Bible commentary called the Babylonian Talmud tells one parable of
    . . .  a king . . . who distributed royal garments to his servants.  The attentive among them folded them and deposited them in a chest.  The foolish among them went and did their work in them.  Days later the king asked for his garments.  The attentive among them returned them to him all sparkling; the foolish among them returned them to him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.1

And the king gives orders that the foolish should be locked in the prison house.  Another parable tells of

    . . . a king who summoned his servants to a banquet but he did not set a time for them.  The attentive got themselves dressed and sat at the door of the king's house.  They said:  "Is anything missing at the king's house?"  The foolish went on with their work.  They said:  "Is there any banquet without toil?"  Suddenly the king summoned his servants.  The attentive gathered before him all dressed up while the foolish gathered before him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.2

    Both these rabbinical stories and Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet reflected the customs of ancient Jewish society.  The priests and elders could never say, "That's impossible, Jesus!  You're just making that up to be mean!"  What the king did and what he expected from his guests exactly matched what everyone knew about good manners and obeying the rules.

    The two-part invitation, to begin with.  It took a long time to prepare a royal feast, and the king would give notice of it well in advance.  He'd invite his princes, his noblemen, and the head men and chief elders of all the towns under his rule.  As we saw from the Jewish writings, the king would send a beautiful festal garment, often made of shining white linen, to each guest.  They were expected to keep it safe and clean until the day they were summoned.  When you accepted the garment, you were committed to go.

    Then, when everything was ready, the king would send his servants around to his invited guests, saying, "Come to the feast!  Put on the wedding clothes I sent you and celebrate the marriage of my son!"

    The king in the parable is Almighty God.  The invited guests were the nation of Israel, especially their kings, priests, and rabbis.  These leaders claimed to love the Lord their God and to be waiting for His Christ.  And now, God the king has sent His servants the prophets to say, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  And what do you think?  These guests refuse to come!

    Still, God didn't give up on His people Israel.  He sent more prophets to plead with them to get ready.  In that very time He sent John the Baptist and Jesus' disciples to announce the good news that the wedding feast was prepared.  You can hear the pleading in the king's voice in verse 4, as he says, "My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding banquet."  Come, please, come!

    But, Jesus says, the invited guests pay no attention and go on about their business.  This was not something these men had a right to do.  These noblemen owed their positions to the king, and to disregard the wedding of the royal son for the sake of their everyday activities was an insult to their lord.

    But this is what the leaders of the Jewish people were doing.  Do you realize that if they had obeyed and welcomed Jesus, God could have brought in His kingdom in all its fullness, then and there?  But the priests and elders of His chosen nation thought their business, their speculations, their rules and manners, were more important than Almighty God's.

    And see how some of the other invited guests respond!  Jesus says in verse 6, "The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them."  Just so, the Jewish authorities from time immemorial had arrested, abused, and murdered the prophets God had sent; John the Baptist was only the latest to meet that fate.

    How ought a king of that time deal with this injury?  Could he just brush it off?  Absolutely not..  You harm a messenger of the king, you've harmed the king himself.  It's an act of open rebellion. No sovereign could let such a crime pass unpunished and expect to remain on his throne for any time at all.  So Jesus says, "The king was enraged.  He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." 

    You may be thinking, "That's no fair!  Why not just arrest the murderers?"  But think of an ancient walled town, with the people inside of it loyal to the nobleman who is in rebellion against the king.  All become guilty together, all must be put down.

    In the same way, at the end of the age, God will send His angels to punish and destroy all those who remain in rebellion against Him, all those who killed His prophets or approve of those who did, those who hate His name and despise His word.  By God's grace, let us examine ourselves, that that crowd may that never include you and me. 

    Meanwhile, in the parable, the marriage banquet is ready.  In ancient Jewish tradition, the feasting together of the bride and groom and their guests, was the wedding ceremony.  The royal son cannot be wed until the guests have sat down.  Says the king, in verse 8, "‘[T]hose I invited did not deserve to come.'" What will he do for guests?

    The king does the unthinkable.  He commands his servants to "‘Go to the street corners and invite anyone you can find.'" Common, ordinary people.  Non-chosen people.  Whosoever will must come.  "So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests."

    By saying this Jesus departs from every rule and custom of His day.  How could a great king dishonor his son by filling his wedding hall with the dirty, stinking rabble?  It was bad enough that the servants bring in the respectable common people, "the good," but they also gather the low-down, disgusting, "bad" people, like tax collectors and prostitutes and even-- heaven help us!-- Gentiles!

    But this is exactly what our amazing, loving Lord did.  God willed that when His people Israel rejected and crucified His Son, that His death should open up a wonderful avenue of mercy to you and me.  Few if any of us here have Jewish blood.  We were not His princes and noblemen, originally invited to the wedding feast of His royal Son.  No, we were foreigners to his promise, disobedient to God and lacking His law.  But now through Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Son of God, we, too, are invited to sit down at His feast with His faithful people in all times and places.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."

    This promise is for you!  You and I had no right to the kingdom of God, yet the mercy of Christ extends to us and bids us come in to the feast.

    In the parable, then, the king comes in to view the guests.  And he notices a man sitting there in his ordinary street clothes, not wearing a wedding garment.  That tells us that all the other guests had shining wedding garments on.  Where did they get them?  The king hadn't sent wedding clothes to their homes; there hadn't been time.  Clearly, they got them at the door to the banqueting hall.  They put them on in accordance with the rules of the kingdom and made themselves ready to celebrate the feast.

    Isn't it the same way with us?  Here in this holy sacrament we participate in the wedding supper of the Lamb.  The church is the King's banqueting hall, and we enter through the door of baptism.  At our baptism the filthiness of our sin is washed away by the blood of Christ, and we put on the new robes of His righteousness, shining with His purity and brilliant with His truth.  As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." Solely because of the finished work of Christ both the so-called good and the truly bad are made clean and fit to celebrate the marriage feast of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    But here is a man who somehow has slipped in without a wedding garment.  There he sat in his own clothes, violating the rules, not fit, not ready-- as so many people try to come into the presence of God today.  They say they don't have to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ for God to accept them.  They think they can sit down and enjoy the good things of heaven in their own human righteousness.  The king challenges the man on his lack of wedding clothes, and the man is speechless.  And speechless everyone shall be who refuses to be covered by the righteousness of Christ that He won for us on Calvary.

    The king orders that the man be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where, Jesus says, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 

    What kind of rule is this?  Aww, Jesus, he only showed up in the wrong clothes!  Can't you cut him some slack?

    No.  Brothers and sisters, the marriage feast of the Son of God is not a casual dress affair.  We're worthy to sit down at His table only if Christ has dressed us up in His righteousness alone.  He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.  To insist there is any other way is to insult God our King and call Him a liar.

    By His Spirit and His grace, may we know better.  Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "For many are invited, but few are chosen."  Don't be afraid of this teaching, brothers and sisters.  Those who were invited but not ultimately chosen-- who were they?  The ones who despised their invitations.  The ones who hated and rebelled against the King who gave it.  The one who wouldn't mind his kingdom manners and refused to submit to the king's rules, who tried to get in by his own way instead.

    But you who acknowledge your unworthiness and have been cleansed by the blood of Christ your Saviour, come.  You who despise your own good deeds as filthy rags and have clothed yourself with the obedience of Christ, come.  You who realize that it's all the overwhelming love and grace of God your Father and King that brings you to this Table, come.  The feast is spread, the wine is poured, it is time to sit down.  With Christians around the world today; with the faithful in all times and places, let us celebrate the wedding feast of the Son of God.  In His name, come.
1.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 152b
2.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 153aB

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