Exodus 32:1-14 – The Hebrew people create a golden calf to worship while Moses is receiving the law and commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. Moses convinces God not to destroy them in response to their disobedience.
OR
Isaiah 25:1-9 – On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast…and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever. This is the Lord for whom we have waited.

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 – Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior.
OR
Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Philippians 4:1-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Matthew 22:1-14 – The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Prayer of the Day
Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. This is the LORD for whom | we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in | God’s salvation. Alleluia. (Isa. 25:9)

Are All Welcome?

We’ve just come through the vineyard parables. The vineyard owner needs workers for the harvest. 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. That was 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 finished 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, but she is not allowed to read or write, go to school, vote, or own property, and she has her whole life ahead of her. She is able to 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, makes seemingly absurd accusations, and is thrown out of her home. 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. She is the counterpoint to their imagined self-righteousness. She is jeered, and when in the wrong place, her life is in constant danger of stoning by the “righteous,” some of whom are her clients. She is treated with contempt. She has few options.

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 intended to go, by forces beyond our control. He treats her as a person. She is welcome to fellowship with him and his followers, even though they 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 love, acceptance and grace she never experienced at home, by a Jesus who understands that grace transforms, while 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 because she is not welcome. She is a sinner. But she cares for the sick, even those who are outcasts. She feeds the hungry. She invites the homeless poor into her house. This sinner embodies Isaiah’s kingdom values (see Isaiah 58).

“Which of 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 owner’s 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 who produce the fruits of the kingdom. (The preacher might give some clarity as to what Matthew and Isaiah might say those fruits are.) This is a parable of judgment.

Now we arrive at this coming Sunday’s 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 A.D. 70, but these very subtle ones sometimes get overlooked. Many fundamentalists take it for granted that this “destruction” is hell, a place where God tortures people forever. You decide.

It fascinates me that, more often than not, the kingdom of God is portrayed as a party. Those who aren’t at the party generally choose not to come for their own reasons. They are not locked out; they are invited guests. But in this parable, they choose not to come. They are like the older brother in Luke 15, who refuses to come into the party because he doesn’t want to be with his sinful brother.

When the invited guests can’t (or won’t) come, (they are “unwilling” in some versions), the doors are thrown open to all. The doors to the kingdom are open: Come on in and join the party. Even you who are unrighteous can come in – eat, drink, serve, love…

Then 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 Levites. Pharisees and prostitutes. The appointed ones didn’t get the job done, so now the doors are open. Just as anyone who is willing to work in the vineyard is welcome, regardless of the hour, likewise, all who are willing to celebrate in the feast are welcome]. Come one, come all.

One could see this as a critique of the Judean leaders who refuse to come to God’s lavish party, who choose self-righteous separation. As a result, Jerusalem gets sacked. Consequently, the kingdom’s doors are opened. All (including the Gentiles) are now welcome to the party.

This new community in Christ will not be built around purity, but instead around faith in Christ and his kingdom coming. It will be a community of those who fall short of the law, fall short of God’s righteousness, but who trust in God’s mercy nevertheless. This new community will be marked by love, not by moral superiority.

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 for free, 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 (chapters 8, 22, 25), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, this phrase used seven times in the New Testament, six times in Matthew and once 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…”).

We once had a consultant come to our church to 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.)

Our Leadership Gathering this year is about those who are not part of the church community. How might we engage those outside our churches in what God is doing in the world, without expecting them to believe everything right away, or without expecting them to join or become card-carrying members? What if the paradigm shifted from making members to engaging entire cities around life-affirming, kingdom-focused, Sprit-breathed community efforts?

Why not throw a lunch this month, and invite the community (for free)? Share your plans to serve the world in Jesus name this year. Peru? CAR? Habitat? ESL? Homeless shelter? Have sign up sheets. Recruit people to help. Even non-members. Especially 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.”