What is the Bible? Part 70: Wear the Shirt.
We’re on a roll here…
Matt 22:1-14.What’s the point? This seems menacing. The original people invited refused to come, so the king “destroys” some of them and their cities. Then king invites everyone else to the wedding, regardless of who they are, good and bad people. But then he finds the dude who wore the off color Hawaiian shirt to the wedding and throws him into utter darkness? Over bad taste? Then says “many are invited, but few chosen”? I don’t blame the people for not wanting to hang out with this guy.
Yep, that parable is an odd one. Especially the part about the off color Hawaiian shirt. (adwills what translation are you reading? Haha.)
Four thoughts: One about parties, one about what Jesus is up to, one about the politics of Jesus’s first century world, and one about shirts.
First, parties. The backdrop of this parable is a wedding banquet. That’s what drives the story. The generosity of the king. It’s important to keep in mind that again and again when Jesus tells about what God is up to in the world, the metaphor he chooses is that of a party. A feast, a banquet, a celebration that lasts for days. Invitation, then, is what’s happening. People are being invited to this party. We should note here that a wedding celebration was not a new idea–the ten commandments were seen as a wedding covenant between God and Israel. Love, coming together, consummation, vows, parties, food, music, celebration–these are the images the writers of the scriptures turn to again and again to describe what God is up in the world. If someone were to ask you what one of the central themes of the Bible is, is that how you would answer? That God is throwing a party and everyone is invited?
Second, what Jesus is up to. In this section of Matthew, Jesus is talking to religious leaders who want to arrest him. Note that at the end of chapter 21 the religious leaders realize that these parables he’s been telling are about them and their hard hearts. It’s beginning to dawn on them how subversive his message really is, and they don’t like it. This is important to note because when Jesus tells these parables (the one at the beginning of chapter 22 is the third in a row) they’re about these leaders. They’re the ones rejecting Jesus, the ones in the story rejecting the invitation. And to the hard of hearing, you usually have to shout. Which leads us to a third point…
Politics. It’s easy to read this parable and assume that Jesus is teaching something about the violent and destructive nature of God, who naturally is assumed to be the king character in the story. But there is context here. Lots of people in Jesus’s day were itching to rebel against the Roman Empire in violent and destructive ways. There were a number of movements urging people to join the cause and take up arms against Rome. Jesus keeps insisting that if they take up swords and rebel Rome will crush them. Jesus wants his people to know that there is another way to be Israel, one that involves nonviolence and generosity and loving your enemy. But a number of them won’t have it. His warnings in this parable and others are about the very real world consequences of rebelling against Rome. In rejecting Jesus they are bringing their own destruction. Yes, he wants to save them, but that salvation has a very real world edge to it: He wants to save them from bringing the wrath of Rome down on themselves. Which of course happened, roughly a generation after Jesus. His people rose up and rebelled and Rome crushed them, destroying the temple and everything in it. His warnings proved to be true. (To take this point farther, remember that Matthew’s gospel would have been compiled and circulated after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, making his warnings all the more poignant.)
Can you see how people easily miss the point of a parable like this? To make it about God destroying people someday is to miss the very real and pressing possibility in Jesus’s day that his tribe would miss their calling and end up being violently defeated by Rome. He’s trying to save them from that…
Which leads us to the part about the robe. The king finally arrives at the party, notices
a man there who was not wearing a robe, and he said to him, Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? And he was speechless.
So the king kicks him out. Which seems random, but it’s actually very significant. Some say that it was tradition for the person throwing the party to provide clothing for everyone to wear as a gift. To not accept this gift and wear these clothes was rude and offensive to say the least. So it’s not that the king is randomly kicking people out for something as trivial as what they are or aren’t wearing, it’s that this guest can’t summon the energy to pay even the slightest bit of respect to the host going to all this trouble to throw a party. It’s not petty at all, given the story Jesus is telling. He’s aiming this particular detail at the religious leaders who are standing in front of him. They insist that they are God’s gatekeepers, but they don’t have the slightest interest in listening to what Jesus has to say about the new thing that God is doing through him. The brilliance of the story is that Jesus ends with this little detail, essentially saying to them
You have so lost the plot you don’t even realize it…
The message for us? You can resist the invitation. You can choose destruction. You can choose to be miserable. You can choose to create your own hell here and now. You can be petty and selfish and mean and greedy. You can reject the invitation to the party.
But the party will rage on anyway. Without you. This is why lots of talk about God’s love can sound squishy after a while if it doesn’t include very real reminders to choose life, love, joy, peace, surrender and generosity. Our choices matter. Our behavior matters. Our intentions matter. Our beliefs about who we are and what we’re doing here matter. God is throwing a party, and we’re all invited.