Who Can Be Saved?

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:1-14

So…when it comes to accepting a dinner invitation, is it the person who does the inviting that makes the difference? Or is it the menu for the dinner?

Today is “Leif Erikson Day”…you know that brave Norwegian explorer who set foot on these western shores almost 500 years before that Italian fella. Thanks to a period of global warming way back then, Leif’s father, Erik the Red, had discovered and settled a place they called Greenland. And it was! Green! It was from there that Erik’s son went exploring and landed in what is now Newfoundland and built a settlement there, 500 years before Columbus! Ja, and the best way to celebrate those hardy seafarers would be to sit down to a feast; to a feast of lutefisk! Ja, what a feast that is!

The lutefisk dinner season is soon upon us, and it makes the opening question an easy one to answer! Because for some of us it doesn’t matter who extends the invitation. If there is lutefisk on the menu, ja we’re there! Hot boiled lutefisk drenched in butter. Boiled potatoes, likewise drenched in butter. Lefse, buttered and sugared and rolled up. Ja, sure! If it’s a lutefisk dinner, it’s the menu that counts.

Or…not! For there are some strange folks, who actually repelled by lutefisk! Think of that! For them the answer to the question is likewise very simple. If there is lutefisk on the menu, no way they’re going. Even if Sven and Ole, or Leif Erikson himself, extended the invitation…the fish stinks! It’ll be a hot day in Scandinavia before they’ll eat that stuff. But…change the menu, and they’ll come…

So…is it the menu? Or is it the one who invites? The answer, for good and for ill, is “yes.” In this parable the dinner is a reflection of the King who has set the table. And the King’s nature is revealed in the sort of feast he has set. To accept the one is to accept the other. To reject the one is to reject the other. And Jesus is talking about something far tastier than a lutefisk dinner!

As I mentioned with the parable last week, this one too was told during Holy Week. It also captures the soon to be unleashed violence against the King’s Son. God is that King. That Son is Jesus. The dinner guests are the descendants of Abraham. The event is the fulfillment of Abraham’s ancient promise. Great joy!

But…those who long had been invited to this day of culminating joy refuse to come. As St. John puts it, “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” From the call of Abraham, through the Sons of Israel, into Babylon and back again…all of Israel’s history was straining toward the days that were being fulfilled in Jerusalem in that week we call Holy. All of it, the promises and the prophecies, pointing to Messiah and His day of glory.

Isaiah in the Reading foretells about the day when God would destroy the shroud that enveloped humanity. Death would be swallowed up in life. Good Friday. Easter. All of that history from Abraham, was calling the people to come and share in Jesus’ feast of salvation. The messianic age had arrived.

And some do…men and women of faith from Abraham and Sarah to the 12 and the women who followed Jesus, and all those in Judea and Galilee and Samaria. Many come to the feast that is called Jesus. But many do not…the chief priests and elders, first among them. Perhaps they don’t like the One who invites. “Blasphemer,” they declare. Perhaps they don’t like the menu. “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.” And the long, sad history of ignored and abused prophets comes home to roost in their rejection of Jesus. “Crucify Him!”

And, as Jesus says, the angered King will send His army to destroy them and their city. The Babylonians had been the hand of God’s judgment on Jerusalem in the 8th century BC. The Romans would be that judgment about 40 years after the crucifixion.

But the dinner is still prepared. The invitation still stands. So while Israel crucified their Messiah, the resurrected Jesus sends out His 12 sons of the New Israel into all the world, to extend the invitation to the feast by baptizing and teaching. “Those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Hey…did He say “both bad and good”? Ah…I was wondering whether you’d pick up on that little detail. So how come these bad people get in to the feast and those other bad people get destroyed?! As the critics say, “God had better be more consistent if He expects us to believe in Him!” The dinner gets complicated.

Complicated? No, not really. It is very simple. The King is God. The Son is Jesus. The marriage is the Church, this life with God through Jesus Christ. The feast is the rich banquet of Holy Gospel, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion through which a Holy God creates a holy people around His holy Son to inhabit His holy presence now and forever. Some hear and rejoice to come. Some hear…and find other things to do.

But for those who join the feast it is so very simple: it’s both the king and his dinner. It’s God and His gifts. Wherever God serves up His Word to be heard, guests will come to listen. Wherever He spreads the feast of His Son’s table, guests will come to eat and drink. The people of God will be drawn to the gifts of God through the Son of God by the Spirit of God. And there is great joy. With St. Paul, “I will say it again, joy!”

But those others…well, maybe they don’t like what the Word of God says. Too difficult. Too personal. Too demanding. Too generous. Perhaps its that menu of water, bread and wine. Too ordinary. Too superstitious. Perhaps it’s the other guests who are present. Or perhaps it’s the plain, old-fashioned pride of Adam that says, “I don’t need it. I can have my own little feast all by myself.” Whether it’s big ego “I” or little ego “I,” self is deemed more important than God’s invitation, more important than God’s gifts. Still, the King spreads His feast of Word and Sacrament in Christ, and the King’s servants spread the invitation: “Come! Partake! Share the joy!” And many do. Many, many do.

Now the whole story could end here. And for St. Luke in his Gospel, the parable does end here. Lots of guests. Great joy. “The End.” But for St. Matthew…the story does not end yet. There’s this guest who arrives at the wedding in jeans…well, technically, he’s a man “who had no wedding garment.” He’s like the guy (and there’s always one at a lutefisk dinner), the guy who tries to spice up the lutefisk, add some color. “Uff da! Who let him in?” And the generous king…well, suddenly he’s not as generous as we thought! “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness…For many are called, but few are chosen.”

It’s a little dark cloud hovering over this otherwise joyful parable. It’s the dark cloud of judgment that always hangs over the parables which Jesus tells in Holy Week. The cloud of Jesus’ own impending judgment by a sinful world: “Cast Him out! Crucify Him!” At the same time, it’s the cloud of God’s judgment on anyone who is not with Him by the crucified and resurrected Son. “Cast him out into the weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We’ll hear that note of judgment, sometimes strong, sometimes muted, in the parables coming up in November.

Now it’s not that this man is “not good enough” for the banquet. The King has already welcomed both good and bad. It’s not that he’s not good enough. It’s that the man has no wedding garment. He’s not there because of the Son. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man, he is not there because of the Son. And without the Son, there is no feast.

So this is not St. Matthew’s backhanded command tacked onto the end of the parable to get out there and get good for God. It’s what has been called “the scandal of particularity.” In all the Gospels, there is only one door to the feast, a narrow door with one name: Jesus. Yes, all may enter by Jesus—good and bad, Jew and Gentile, east and west—all may enter with Jesus…but only with Jesus.

So then…is it the dinner? Or is it the one who invites? In the end, it’s yes…so very encompassing, yet so very focused. Because in the end it’s God’s “Yes.” And God’s “Yes” lies with Jesus. It’s always Jesus, isn’t it?! And those who do come to feast know this. We know this so well…and we rejoice greatly. Skål!