A few years ago a consumer research firm did a study about gift cards. Gift cards for coffee, books, music, clothes, food, etc. It represented about one billion dollars in unredeemed gifts. You know, grab one at the check-out, for Target, Best Buy, Home Depot, etc.
Here is what they found in the study – most folks don’t use their cards:
%50 did not have time. Half did not have the time.
%37 did not find anything that they wanted.
%14 lost the card. %12 let the card expire.
Folks are willing to give, the question is how well are others ready to receive? It is the thought that counts, we like to tell ourselves.
What happens when God is the one sending the gift card?
Jesus is tangled up with the Chief Priests and the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. He has come to Jerusalem, and he is nearing the end of his time on earth.
Back in Chapter 21:23-27, the political and religious leadership have asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” How can you say what you are saying? Do you not understand that you are treading on thin ice?
Jesus and the disciples have already left Bethphage at the Mount of Olives. Jesus has already been greeted with Hosanna to the Son of David on the streets of Jerusalem – palm branches laid at their feet. Jesus has already turned over the tables in the Temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Afterwards the blind, the lame, the weak, the small, surround Him then and there for healing.
Jesus comes to the holiest of places, the Jerusalem Temple, in earnest, and that is where He is asked, “By whose authority?” “By whose authority do you do these things?”
It is an escalating situation; dangerous. Jesus knows this. Rather than give his accusers the satisfaction of answering their questions in kind, tit for tat, Jesus answers them with stories, with folk tales, with parables; there is a left-handedness to his response. Jesus is swinging a truth hammer, but it is a velvet hammer, and God’s love is the force behind it.
There are three parables that Jesus gives in response to the question of authority – One, The Parable of The Two Sons and the Vineyard; Two, The Parable of the Vineyard Owner and the Tenants, and now Three, The Parable of the Marriage Feast.
This third response or parable contains a message for Christians, a warning.
The story of a King giving a feast is mostly self-explanatory. The King goes to great trouble for his guests; however the guests all seem to have other things to do. The King gives the benefit of the doubt and sends messengers to the guests; and still there is an aloof response; perhaps it is a matter of being too self-involved to be interrupted by God. And for those who were cruel to the King’s servants, the King returned their cruelty. Instead the King gives the feast to the unusual suspects, those perhaps farthest from the minds of the original guests.
The King also means to maintain order within the Feast, so that those who are not properly prepared or attired will not be welcome. The King is in earnest, and will only have those guests who are prepared to change, to be transformed into his expectations of a proper guest, who will be feasting.
Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”
The message is clear – there will be a gathering with God, whether we like it or not. God means to have a feast whether we like it or not, and God means to have the feast with or without us.
Biblical scholars would have us remember a few things, a few historical parallels that might illuminate this parable with light from behind:
Those servants sent with the King’s invitations are perhaps the Old Testament prophets, as well as New Testament missionaries. They are the mistreated messengers.
The burning of the rebel’s city may be an allusion to the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70AD; an event that may have occurred as this Gospel of Matthew was being assembled in the early years of the Church.
The final invitation to “all comers” is the fruit of the mission of Paul to the Gentiles – there is no filtration process in the call that comes from a desirous and loving Maker.
It is a challenging message; challenging that notion that sometimes creeps into our minds and our hearts that God exists for me as far as my imagination, mind, or desire are willing to travel. Somehow God is at the end of a string that I carry in my pocket.
The end of this Third Response is what perhaps some of us should stay up at night and think about. “The wedding feast” of this King is not meant to symbolize any reality known in this life – it is the life to come. And the garment required of anyone who attends is a grace, a wholeness, a healing, a “rightness” that is a gift from God alone. Some might say we need to see the marks of the Carpenter in our lives, in our behavior, in our consciousness, before assuming that we are robed in righteousness as a wedding garment.
Lest I misspeak, I am going to quote biblical scholar Douglas Hare on this point – “This man is speechless because he has no defense; he accepted the invitation of the Gospel, but refused to conform his life to the gospel.”
The motivational urge of this parable is for us to live our lives with God with a sense of urgency, gratitude, and humility. The message is that there can be no substitutes for the first place in our minds and hearts; no substitute for our first allegiance and obedience.
Another writer, Fred Craddock, puts it this way – “Matthew knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness,” and that a misplaced sense of confidence, or a posture of naiveté, may in the end have fatal and eternal consequences.
Another note of clarity is offered by scholars Davies and Allison, who make the pointed observation, “Christian readers of this parable who necessarily identify with those at the King’s banquet, cannot read the text and feel self-satisfaction over the wrath that overtakes others.”
They must ask themselves the question, that has been asked by Christians throughout the centuries, “am I like the man improperly clothed?”
Am I perhaps among the “many” who are deaf, despite my profession that I am among the “few”?
God’s judgement comes as a blanket spread over everyone.
I am reminded of that old saying from childhood – “be careful about pointing a finger at another, because what you will see is three fingers pointing back at you.”
And so we stand beneath the light and the lens of this parable: am I living the sort of life where I am too busy to be interrupted by the notion that I am living on borrowed time, land, and resources?
Am I too busy to be interrupted by a reality that includes God?
How do I find myself oriented when these invitations are issued?
What and when and where is that invitation being offered in my life?
I believe the apostle Paul is given to us in the lectionary today as a boon and a compass in what might feel like the deeps waters of anxiety.
The apostle Paul is giving some very good advice to the Philippians –
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Find a way to be busy, but become busy with Kingdom busyness.
Fill the spaces of your life with things that are commendable.
It can be hard – life is sometimes so noisy, so busy. Sometimes so repetitive, so boring. Perhaps the most difficult task is listening for God in our lives, in our hearts, when there are so many other things pressing upon us. Our family, our work, our friends, our pleasures and leisure; all of which are gifts from God, but also each of which can become the very things that keep our compass needle spinning.
The message of the apostle is essentially the message of Jesus within the parable, live with a sense of urgency for the things that we know are of God, and if we are confused, simply return to what we have learned and received and heard and seen.
There is a wonderful story about some young men applying for a job in a telegraph office as a Morse Code operator. A young man answered an ad in the paper for the job and entered a large and noisy office. There were people coming and going and throughout the building there was the loud clackity clack clack, of Morse Code tapping in the background.
A sign on the desk said – Applicants. Sign your name. Fill out the form. Wait.
This young man sat down with seven others. After a few minutes the young man got up, went into the office, and walked in.
The other seven sort of looked around at one another. “What’s going on? That guy is cutting in line. What does he think he is doing?” They sort of complained and muttered and groused. They nodded their heads at the thought this last one to come in would be shuffled out as presumptuous and not really with the program.
And so they looked around at one another and said a collective, “Yeah.”
After a few minutes the young man came out of the office and stood by the boss.
The boss said, “Gentleman. Thank you for coming today. The job has been filled by this young man.”
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. He was the last one in this morning. We did not even get a chance to interview, and he get’s it. That’s not fair. That’s not fair.”
The Boss, nodding his head, said, “You fella’s have been sitting here for the last hour. Carrying on, talking to each other, laughing, having a big ol’ time. The telegraph has been ticking the whole time; the whole time in Morse Code. It has been ticking out this message, “If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.”
“Not one of you were listening. Not one of you understood, or bothered to ask. So the job is his.”
Today is a day to ask ourselves, “Are we listening? Are we hearing and inwardly digesting the message?”
The message is from God: I love you, and have better things in store for than you can give to yourselves. Let me give it to you. Accept my invitation. Use this gift card that I am bringing to you.
God intends to have a feast, and God intends for us to be there; the question is will we live a life in order to be interrupted by God’s gift? Is this a gift card that we can afford to ignore?