Pentecost 19A: God’s Terrible, Terrific Expectations

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.


As we listen to Jesus as church members, we are generally okay with the first part. The king is God, the son is Jesus, the banquet is for us. Those lazy, distracted people at home watching the football game, playing golf, working on their laptops, or shopping online – they aren’t us. We are the good folk from the streets. We are the gentiles/Protestants, not those Jews who crucified Jesus.


But then there is the part about the king who sees the man with no wedding garment. “How dare you? Slaves, throw him out into the outer darkness!”


Martin Luther called this a “terrible gospel.” His first thought was ours, “How could a king expect a person swept up off the streets, to have a wedding garment?”


But there is something terrific in this terror. It is bad news at the service of the Good News.


Matthew shows us Jesus, from the moment he sets foot in Jerusalem, showing us how radically universalistic God’s gathering is. But Jesus accompanies this with a word about how terrifying and terrific God’s expectation of us is. The two things are essential to each other. God’s gift of welcome and belonging is the thing that empowers our actions of love and justice. And our love and justice activates faith and enriches us with faith’s fullness.


All this is laid out in dramatic fashion in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ first days in Jerusalem. Immediately upon his entrance, Jesus cleanses the Temple of those who would cheat and rob the poor who need to buy those little doves to sacrifice. He opens the Kingdom to the poor.


Then it’s the blind and the lame. Since the days of David it was customary to think these people must have been impure and deserved their punishment from God. Surely they were not worthy to enter the holy Temple precincts. But Jesus heals them and opens the Temple and Kingdom to the “invalid ones” or “the handicapped.”


Then it’s the children. It’s just like people to say they love the children, yet neglect and overlook them. The official gatekeepers thought surely the Temple is no place for children! But Jesus says, “Haven’t you heard, out of the mouths of babes and infants, God’s praise rings loud. We need those praises here. And so Jesus opens the Kingdom to children.


And the gathering is more radical—more universal still. What about the grave sinners like the prostitutes and the hated tax collectors? Jesus says, “Well they recognized that the way of righteousness is one of repentance. They repented, and so they will be in the Kingdom before you who are only self righteous.” He opens the Kingdom to the worst of sinners.

So, Jesus was opening the gates of God’s Temple and God’s Kingdom wide. But he was also telling the terrible and terrific truth that God expects great things of all who are gathered.


In a dramatic, prophetic act he curses a fig tree that is not producing figs. God expects us to grow and produce.


To those who hate him—those who think Israel is God’s precious vineyard—and don’t like Jesus disturbing its peace–he tells the parable of the of the two sons: One tells his father, “yes,” I will work for you in the vineyard. The other says “no,” but thinks better of it and does go and work. It’s obvious the God who gathers all people into the Kingdom expects the people he has gathered together to help him gather others.


Further with this idea of vineyard work, Jesus reminds the self-righteous gate-keepers of Temple and Kingdom that there will be dire consequences if they keep refusing to join in the gathering.


Then it’s our gospel reading for this Sunday. Yes, the king has every right to expect those gathered into the Great Banquet to at least wear a wedding robe. Yes, God has every right to expect us to help him in the gathering of all the others–good and bad alike.


But this isn’t just about God’s right to expect. It is about the fact that gathering is a beginning not an end. It is about the truth that the only way to enjoy the life of faith is to live it. The only way to be a person of faith is to live that faith through acts of love and justice.


Since its earliest days people have formally entered the church through baptism; and as they are baptized they are given new clothes. In ancient days it was a white robe. Today it might be a pretty baptismal gown for a child. And the robe or gown is an outward symbol of that inward great expectation. In our baptism we die to our old selves and rise to the new. We profess faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church. We renounce the devil, all his empty promises, and the forces that defy God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God.


In our lives we affirm our baptism as we hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.


Jesus calls this the way of righteousness. This is the fruit he expects from the vineyard he has planted in our hearts. This is the robe of the wedding banquet.


And only when we live toward these expectations do we experience the fullness of what it means to be invited, gathered, and welcomed into the Great Party that is the family of God.


Today, as never before, the global pandemic, the fresh awareness of inequity and injustice, and the ways that the world is bleeding over hidden resentments, together make it more important than ever for Christians to help God in the gathering. The only way the world will know that God is gathering is if we become open our ears, our arms, and our hearts to one another in the name of God. the only way our nation and world will heal r many wounds is if those gathered live toward God’s expectations.


God expects us to wear masks, care for one another, stand up for justice and fairness, and be his people. It is a terrible, but terrific expectation.



About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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