We’ve just come through the vineyard parables. The vineyard owner needs workers. Some workers clearly feel superior to others, because they arrived earlier and worked harder and are more worthy. But the vineyard owner loves them all the same. This is a parable of grace.
The two groups of people listening take note, the chief priest and Pharisees on the one hand, and the tax collectors and sinners on the other. Let whoever has ears listen.
One group is like a son who refuses to work in the vineyard, but finally goes. The other group is like another son who agrees to go but doesn’t. I wonder which is which. Jesus flourishes with, "Truly I tell you, the prostitutes and tax collectors go into the kingdom ahead of you." Ouch. One person posted on my blog, "Thanks for that encouraging word."
Imagine a beautiful young girl. She is smart. She is not allowed to read or write, to go to school, to vote, to own property, but she has her whole life ahead of her. She can marry. But then, this growing girl is sexually abused by her father. Over and over, for years. She develops dissociative disorders. Her self esteem sinks to unbearable lows. She tries to take her life. She lashes out at her father, making absurd accusations, and is thrown out of the house. In an honor/shame society she is without status. She has no visible means of support. Men, however, will pay her for sex, and pay her well. She finds a way to survive.
She is shunned and shamed by the upstanding of society. She is the bad girl that everyone loves to hate. Her father, meanwhile, is spotless, an upstanding citizen. Society is sleeping around too, just quietly, and not getting paid per se. She is the counterpoint to their imagined self-righteousness. She is jeered, and in wrong place, her life is in constant danger of stoning by the "righteous," some of whom are her clients. She is treated with contempt.
Then along comes one who "sees" her. He is neither client nor threat. His angle is not judgment, but compassion and understanding. He understands that life is complex, and sometimes leads us to places we never wanted or untended to go, by forces beyond us. He treats her as a person. She is welcome to fellowship with him and with his followers, even though he will draw contempt and scorn for associating with her. Rule number one: Never show kindness to society’s outcast.
Imagine this beautiful young girl-turned-woman is transformed by a love, acceptance and grace she never experienced at home, by a Jesus who understands that grace transforms, law cannot. Imagine this woman with no options (but sufficient resources now) provides a safe home for abused or runaway girls. Suppose she supports orphans, cares for widows and welcomes aliens. She does not go to the Synagogue or Temple. She is not welcome. She is a sinner. But she cares for the sick, even outcasts. She feeds the hungry. She invites the homeless poor into her house. She embodies, this sinner, she embodies Isaiah’s kingdom values (see Isaiah 58).
"Which if these two do you think did the will of the father?"
"Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom ahead of you."
For they are not blinded by illusions of their own self-righteousness.
In the third vineyard parable, the tenants attempt to take over the whole vineyard, killing the vineyard owners servants/slaves and, in time, his son. In the end, the wicked tenants are destroyed. Could this be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem? We might balk at this theology, but it is in line with the theology of Isaiah’s Vineyard Song (Isaiah 5) which gives the case for Judah’s destruction. Sour grapes. Jesus tells the religious leaders that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. (The preacher might get some clarity on what Matthew and Isaiah might say those fruits are.) This is a parable of judgment.
Now we arrive at our parable, fully briefed to hear it. The image shifts from a vineyard to a wedding banquet. The king has very specific guests to invite to the party (Scribes and Pharisees), but they can’t come for some ridiculous reason. He makes a second overture, but they won’t come, so he gets furious, and destroys them. Scholars like to count Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D, but these very subtle ones sometimes get overlooked. Fundamentalists take it for granted that this "destruction" is hell, a place where God tortures people forever. You decide.
When the invited guests can’t (or won’t) come, (they are "unwilling" in some versions), the doors are thrown open to all. The kingdom doors are open. Come on in and join the party, even you unrighteous can eat, drink, serve, love…
And the parable shifts from one of judgment to one of grace. The kingdom is open to all now. The church is a corpus mixtum. Wheat and tares. Tax collectors and zealots. Pharisees and prostitutes. The appointed ones didn’t get the job done, so now anyone who is willing to work in the vineyard is welcome, regardless of the hour. Come one, come all.
This new community in Christ will not be built around purity, but faith in Christ and his kingdom coming. It will be a community of those who cannot live up to the law, but trust in God’s mercy nevertheless. It will be marked by love, not moral superiority.
But one last wrinkle. If you’re not wearing a wedding garment (an extra-long, whitewashed robe for special occasions), you’ll get thrown out. The host/king will provide one for you, since most people can’t afford one (just like most people today don’t own a tux). You don’t have to provide your own robe of righteousness, you only need wear the one given to you. Don’t get caught without the robe of mercy and grace. Beware if you think you can get by with the dirty rags of your own righteousness. They won’t do. You’re likely to get thrown out on your… Well, you know.
You will be thrown into the "outer darkness," a phrase only used by Matthew (8, 22, 25), where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth a phrase used only seven times in the New Testsment, six times in Matthew and only one time in Luke. Some read this literally. Other point out that just about everything in Matthew 20-22 has been clearly metaphorical (see 22:1, "The kingdom of heaven is like…").
One angle on this passage is the kingdom of God as a huge party at which all are welcome. We once had a consultant come to our church and meet with a fellowship hall full of key leaders. "Who is welcome at this church?" he asked. "Everyone," someone replied. "Really?" he said. "REALLY?" the group conceded that while they’d like it to be true, it probably wasn’t entirely. Who is welcome at your church? Who is welcome to serve the poor with you? Who is socially qualified? Unqualified? Who is theologically appropriate? Are you ready to throw open the doors to the riff raff, and invite them to join the dance? How will you do that? Who will invite them? Are you inviting them to a ritual on Sunday morning, or to be part of God’s transformation of the world? (Hint: They’re more interested in the latter, but if they engage, they’ll come to recognize how much they need the former.
Throw a lunch this month (Oct 31?) and invite the community (for free). Lay out your plans to serve the world in Jesus name this year. Peru? Habitat? ESL? Homeless shelter? Recruit people to help. Even non-members. Have children’s events. Publish it in the paper. Have a fall or Halloween theme. In worship sing "All Are Welcome" (ELW 641). Sermon theme: "What if God really needs everyone?" Or "All Are Welcome. Robe and Wine Provided."