Parables

The Rev. Canon Connor B. Gwin. 

“Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…”

If you asked most church-going people, “What makes Jesus’ teaching style unique?” they would respond with “Parables! He teaches in parables.”

This enigmatic pedagogical style is a hallmark of Jesus’ teaching ministry.

Of course, Jesus was not the first to teach in parables. He is living into a style of teaching that was at the forefront of the wisdom tradition in Judaism.

The basic definition of a parable is a story or illustration used to make a point. One glance at the Gospels, however, and you realize that definition is just the tip of the iceberg.

The truth is that Jesus spoke and taught in “strange, bizarre, disturbing ways.” His teaching tools were little help to the crowds and even the disciples who, more often than not, were confused and brought up short. Some were stories, some one-liners, and even many of the actions Jesus took could be parabolic.

If the goal was just teaching the facts, there are much better ways to do it.

And perhaps that is the lesson: Jesus was not teaching the facts. He was not teaching a propositional faith, but a new way of being and interacting with the Divine.

So what about today’s parable?

This was one of those weeks when I read the Gospel text, sit back in my chair, and take a deep breath.

What is happening?

Jesus tells this story in Jerusalem, presumably to a crowd of priests and pharisees. That should be the first indicator that this story will have an edge to it.

There is a king who wants to throw a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out his slaves to invite the guests, but “they would not come”.

It is worth noting here that Jesus is very clearly speaking about the religious leaders and their rejection of the invitation to believe in him, but this parable is saying so much more.

Episcopal priest and author Robert Capon writes, “Score a happy point for the all-reconciling party and its preeminence as a biblical image. God, the King, is not mad at anybody: because of his Son, God wills to celebrate. Score a sad point…for the unhappy truth that the world is full of fools who won’t believe a good thing when they hear it.”

Jesus does not stop at the guest’s rejection. He says that the King was insistent on throwing a party, he would not be stopped, so he sent a second round of invitations.

“But they made light of it”, choosing instead to focus on their work and responsibilities. Some even took the King’s slaves and killed them – just to show what they thought of this King’s unwavering desire to party.

And the King responds in kind with a blood bath of his own.

The text does not say, but it can be assumed that the first round of guests are the wealthy and elite – the types of people a king would want at his son’s wedding banquet. They are the A-list, the top of the line up. And now they are lying dead in the ash and rubble of their destroyed cities.

Capon writes, “And so they take their place in Jesus’ cavalcade of winners who lose: they are the Pharisee in the temple reading off his list of good deeds; they are Zaccheaus with his speech about what an honest crook he is; and they are you, and they are me.

They are all of us who live in the twin certainties that our good works will earn us the right to attend the Supper of the Lamb, and that God’s good nature will absolve us from having to sit through it if we happen to have other plans.”

But we and the wedding guests could not be more wrong about those two assumptions, so Jesus paints a ferocious scene.

Showing, as Capon says, that “salvation is not by works and the banquet is not an option.”

So Jesus lays it on thick, having the King go to his Plan B, which happens to be God’s Plan A:

“Then [the King] said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

“Both good and bad”

Remember, this is what Jesus is comparing to the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s the point of this story – to show us what God’s Kingdom is really like.

Both good and bad are invited and drawn in to fill the hall.

The problem of evil is no longer a problem through the death and resurrection of Jesus, through God’s own power and action.

The problem now is the refusal of God’s invitation, the refusal to accept that God has “solved the problem of evil all by himself, and without ever once having mentioned the subject of reform.”

And the outcasts, the downtrodden, the sinners – the woman standing in the median begging for change and the man drunkenly wandering the streets – they are the ones who simply said ‘yes’ and came to the party.

Capon, in his reflection on this parable, makes a note here that one can assume the guests are given the proper attire by the King upon arriving. For surely, the good and bad wandering the streets would not just happen to have a wedding garment with them.

Instead, Capon suggests that the King threw open his wardrobe and provided the have-nots and rejects with a robe fit for royalty.

But when the King surveys the scene – this banquet hall filled to the brim with second and third-string guests – one man stands out. He is so utterly out of place that the King rushes over and accosts him.

“Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?

And he was speechless.”

What do we make of this?

Robert Capon is very helpful here. He says that the man who was speechless had no good reason to be without a wedding garment, but he had some bad reasons.

He could have been with the first group of invited guests and he didn’t want to wear the King’s second-hand wedding garment.

He could have been with the second group but refused to conform to the King’s charity.

He even could have been a wedding-crasher, who was hoping to blend in.

The fact is that if he had said anything at all to put himself in relationship with the King, he would have been fine.

Based on the previous behavior of the King, it can be assumed that the King would have engaged the man and welcomed him in.

But the man was speechless; he said nothing.

All the reassurances the king might have given him remain unheard and the man is thrown into the outer darkness.

And judgement has the the last word, falling like a thunderclap on the refusal of grace.

It is the refusal of grace that defines the true nature of hell.

Capon again, “…Hell, ultimately, is not the place of punishment for sinners; sinners are not punished at all; they go straight to heaven just for saying yes to grace.

Hell is simply the nowhere that is the only thing left for those who will not accept their acceptance by grace – who will not believe that at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, free for nothing, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world actually declared that he never intended to count sins in the first place.”

This is a shocking story for me because I can see myself in every scene.

I am with the first guests, those who don’t quite trust a free gift.

I am with the second guests, those unworthy folks – both bad and good – who are invited in, not because of what they have done but because of who the King is.

And I am the ill-prepared guest – I do not belong, I am not prepared, and when I am trapped by my own ego and sin, I remain speechless before the offer of grace.

The truly shocking part of the parable comes in the last line: “Many are called, few are chosen.”

The guest list is long, in fact all are invited to dine on the meal prepared from the beginning, but few take the King up on the invite – few trust the free gift.

The Eucharist is our rehearsal for this grand Feast. That we gather each week and share a meal we did not make and cannot earn is an enactment of our acceptance of God’s grace.

The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a King who doesn’t act like one because our God is a God who refuses to behave like we think a deity should.

God refuses to get caught up in our competitions and score-keeping. God just smiles and keeps the door open, continuing to look for the party-people.

The judgement is found in the refusal to walk in, the refusal to accept the offer.

It is just that easy.

The table is set. The feast is prepared.

God says to each of us this morning:

“Look, I have prepared my dinner….and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”