I read a story about a family, where the parents were regularly cooking dinner and sitting down with their three children to eat. Over the years, however, their children became pickier and pickier eaters, until the parents, when the kids were ages eleven, thirteen, and sixteen, were fed up with all of the complaints and pickiness. They told their kids they would be buying them cold cuts and cereal and that they could fend for themselves, while the parents would begin to cook a variety of meals that they enjoyed eating, just the two of them. This went on for some 6-8 weeks until one night their youngest child walked by as they were sitting down to dinner and said, “Mmmm…that looks pretty good. May I have some?” The parents replied that they had only made enough for themselves, but told their child what they would be cooking the next night and asked if they would like to join them. The answer was “yes,” and so that child began to eat dinner with them again. So, too, did their other two children follow, not too long afterwards. And there were never any more complaints about the meals prepared to be shared in that family.
Oh, if only such an approach could work for every parent who has ever had a child complain about the dinners prepared for them!
Oh, if only we humans, when presented with the Feast prepared for us by God through Christ Jesus, could fully receive this gift of redemption and grace, and then fully participate in Christ’s redeeming work as God intends it to be carried out through us and others for the sake of the redeeming and transformation of this world!
We have been invited and given – granted freely within no strings attached – the gift of pure grace and mercy from our Savior Jesus. Yet even as the early Christian community at Philippi and every other community, human brokenness can veer us off track and away from remembering this incredible, good news and God’s invitation to us to share this good news through the words and actions of our individual and communal lives. Oh no, let it not be so! Instead, as the Apostle Paul writes, we need to stand firm in God, let our gentleness be known to everyone, pray with thanksgiving, and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts as we seek to build community together and for the sake of the world.
This parable that we hear today from the Gospel of Matthew circulated in a variety of forms in early Christianity, including the source called “Q,” the gospel of Luke, the gospel of Thomas, and here in Matthew’s own gospel. (New Interpreter’s Bible, pg. 416) Matthew places this parable as the last of his triad of judgment parables (the parable of the two sons, the parable of the vineyard, and now the parable of the banquet). Parables, writes Professor Yung Suk Kim at Virginia Theological Seminary, are not real-life stories, but fictional and subversive stories intended to surprise the reader (Working Preacher, October 15th, 2023) Subversive, as in turning the assumed norms of society and people upside down. Huh, Jesus is sharing a subversive story? Now I am listening because I do like a good subversive story! It’s also important to note that all three of these parables that we’ve heard over the last weeks are being told within the context of Jesus confronting the Pharisees, and admonishing both them and the reader/hearer (us!) to bear fruit worthy of God’s loving and redemptive intent.
Don’t be like the son in the first of these parables, who says he will do what his parent (God) asks and then does nothing. Don’t be like those vineyard workers in the second parable, who seek to set themselves up in authority in place of the vineyard owner (God). And don’t be like those in this third parable who are invited to the king’s (God’s) banquet and who refuse the invitation – or who attend but do not fully participate as intended (the poor dude without the robe who gets thrown out).
These parables - fictional, subversive stories (Did I mention that I do like a good subversive story?) are not intended to be read literally as allegories (where each person, place, thing, and action in the parable exactly represents a real-life equivalent) or as literal guidebooks to lives of faith as individuals and community. They are meant to shake us up, and knock us free of the complacency that, by virtue of sin and brokenness running amok in this world, can get entrenched in our hearts and lives, displacing Christ from the center of our lives and beings, and even leaving us complaining (like the kids in that story that I told) about the banquet to which we have been invited.
We are saturated in the promise and reality of God’s freely given grace. We are not required to do anything to earn this grace. Yet God in Christ longs and desires that we will respond to this freely given grace first with gratitude to God and then by building lives as individuals and communities that reflect God’s kingdom of compassion, mercy, justice, forgiveness, love, and truth. If you haven’t already noticed, you will soon enough, how often I mention this or a similar list describing the principles of a Christian – Christ-centered – life to which we are called. We have been freely saved by grace through faith planted and enacted by Christ in our lives and now everything – everything – that we think and consider (within our heads and hearts, in our conversations with loved ones and strangers, in the news and other media that we consume); everything that we seek to do in our lives (through our work and volunteering, in our family lives, our life within the church, and as global citizens) – everything ought to reflect God’s goodness and this list of Christ-reflecting principles: Compassion, mercy, justice, forgiveness, love, and truth.
And we should probably be regularly checking ourselves and each other to make sure that we are…not whining while sitting at the banquet table…
After all, there’s too much good work that we might do on Christ’s behalf to waste our precious lives on whining! There are too many children that we need to raise to love God, neighbor, and the earth. There are too many elders who need care and encouragement and support with dignity as they age. There are too many peace vigils to be held and wars to be ended. There are too many divisions to be broken down, be they divisions by politics or race, gender or sexual orientation, socio-economic status or religion. There’s too much work that we might do to whine! Too much work that we might do – not because we have to do it but because, as we contemplate God’s freely given gift through Christ, we will want to build better lives and a better world that reflects the goodness and grace of God. Where we don’t just say we are followers of Christ, but we live like we are followers of Christ.
Parables, the one from today and these past weeks included; parables may be fictional stories with a shocking and subversive intent but the most shocking and subversive story is God’s unending love and devotion for God’s Creation, including all the rocks and plants and animals and humans that are a part of it, and that God did not and does not stay distant from this Creation, but has worked and is working the great work of redemption so that all things that are broken may be made new again. Contrary to the brokenness and divisiveness and greed and hatred and war that like leftover food in the back corner of the refrigerator breeds only mold and bad smells, Jesus is subversively showing up left and right to work the new work of love that time and again subverts and converts that which is broken in us and this world so as to bring forth new life and new hope. And maybe to discourage our whining…
This is the banquet to which all are invited – to which we are invited. And all of us – all of us - are invited in turn to share of this banquet of compassion, justice, forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace with the those around us – with the whole world.
I did mention that I really like a good, subversive story, didn’t I?