Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive.
“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”
And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand.
At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?”
WWJD— what would Jesus do?
Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way.
And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes?
And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself.
Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself.
Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor.
I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!”
Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.
In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali.
So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.
But the problem is—
We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.
As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed.
An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it.
So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.”
Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party.
It’s a nice thought.
And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.
I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.”
And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier.
What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke.
What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior.
“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”
Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed.
“You there— yeah you.”
Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.”
“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”
“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.”
And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…
I know you—
It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…
At what exactly?
Failure to RSVP?
A party foul?
We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”
We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.
We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God.
We don’t want this God gone wild.
We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party.
No matter the costs.
I mean— that much is obvious, right?
As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King.
Which puts us where in the story?
Who are we supposed to be at this party?
Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”
“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.
Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense.
It’s: “They were not giving a rip…”
That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it.
Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it.
Is that us?
Obviously, you all give a rip.
You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care.
But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans.
Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom.
As though the King’s call is a countdown.
Going twice…tick tock.
What about that second batch of evites?
The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already!
It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered.
It’s that they’re too busy.
Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party.
Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party.
It’s not that they don’t give a rip.
It’s that they give too many.
Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.
These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them.
They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute.
Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them.
And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity.
Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story.
Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance.
Is that who we are in the story?
Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?
Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you.
In other words: yes, yes grace, but…
Yes, salvation is by grace.
But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party.
Yes, all are invited, gratis.
But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion.
Yes, yes grace, but…
Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them.
Free of charge.
Upon arrival not prior to departure.
So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.
The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him.
This guy didn’t change his clothes.
He refused to change.
Is that it?
If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?
That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins.
And the only thing the dead do is stink.
So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor.
The Cross is Exhibit A.
Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them.
“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”
And the word Paul uses there is repentance.
The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.
Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off.
No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable.
It’s not about you.
It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story.
Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.
You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”
You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”
But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?
Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.”
Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.”
Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers.
As one college dean of admissions explained it:
“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”
If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…
You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable.
We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable.
We’re not in the parable— yet.
Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what?
The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet.
A wedding feast for his Son.
His Son to be married to whom?
We’re not in the parable— yet.
You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage.
We’re not in the parable.
We’re in the parlor.
A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod.
This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party.
No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage.
All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.
No wonder he acts so bezerk.
This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says.
Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going.
He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you.
Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it.
I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.
In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.
I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too.
Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?
As a bride for her bridegroom.
So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?
Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”
Hear the good news—
You’re not the one who blows off the party.
You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party
You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party.
Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.
Because the party’s for you.
By your baptism—
A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed.
You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone.
Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder.
No, you are his.
And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you.
This is his solemn vow.