Invitation and Response
It is easy to be aghast by Sunday's Gospel text Matthew 22:1-14 in which the king invites everyone to a wedding banquet, but then later condemns a guest who arrived without wearing a proper wedding garment. It seems like such a reversal, a refutation of grace. How can a free gift be extended and then later ripped away because it wasn't received correctly?
We Lutherans err on the side of grace — as we should. We baptize babies not because they've done something to earn God's grace, but because they are helpless infants. Entirely dependent on others for survival, their reality perfectly captures the nature of our relationship with God — entirely dependent, deserving nothing, receiving everything. There is nothing that child can do to reject the grace given in baptism.
And apart from our baptismal theology, we receive God's gift in the sacrament of Holy Communion, freely given and shed for us. Jesus gives his life on the cross not because we deserve his self-giving, but because of his love for us. We love God only because God first loved us.
Yet alongside this unambiguous message of grace, we hear time and again in Matthew's gospel a call to produce fruit, to respond to the call of Christ with changed hearts and lives. In the parable Jesus tells in Sunday's Gospel, a man invited to the banquet gets tossed out for not wearing the proper clothing — that is, for not responding appropriately to the banquet invitation.
Our faith is not just one of passive reception or of universal acceptance. "All are welcome," yes, but there are expectations for those who choose to accept the invitation. We are called to act in faith and in love, to live in grateful response to what God has done for us, to show forth the goodness of God in how we care for our neighbors and the world around us.
How much goodness? In what ways? 10% tithe? What if I give or do less? Does this mean I have to give to everyone who asks something of me? I don't have all the answers, but I hope we are faithfully stirred by the questions. The danger comes when we bring out the measuring stick and turn our faithful response into a law and an idol that determines our worthiness. We cannot get deep into the business of evaluating what and how much work must be done to somehow "keep" the grace of God, to somehow remain in good standing at the banquet feast. That is a fool's errand that only erodes our confidence in God's grace.
I don't want to over use the images of this parable — all parables break down at some point — but it seems that the bar was set pretty low for the invited banquet guests. Here's what was expected: show up, and wear a proper garment. In the Army we say that 50% of the mission is showing up at the right time, in the right place, wearing the right uniform. It's that easy.
Perhaps that's what we see here. The invitation is wide and full of grace. "Invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet!" All are invited. But for those who seek to join the feast, to labor in the fields, to go forth ... for those who accept the invitation, something is expected.