This parable bothers me. I’m guessing it bothers some of you, too. What bothers us about it? Do we not like Jesus speaking words of judgment? Do we wonder why a guy gets in trouble for being improperly dressed for a party when he left the house that day not even invited to the party? Do we ask why both the bad and the good are allowed, but the improperly dressed are not? These point to what’s bothersome. We want a Gospel that is unambiguously good. I want a simple story where the people who reject the invitation are bad and the people who replace them are good. I want an in group and an out group, and I want straightforward definitions of the members of each group. Each group should consist of people who are all the same.
That’s something we do as people: we “make same”. We lump things into categories to make sense of them. We lump people into categories. I’ve caught myself doing it for my children. We want them to know who is safe and who is not on the safe list. But people on the safe list may do things we don’t consider good, and people not on the list may be trustworthy. That’s because ultimately our categories are false. They’re tools to help us organize the world. They erase what makes individuals unique. They make same.
How do I “make same”? I make same by characterizing potential residents of subsidized housing as “those people.” I make same by painting over the windows on the buses that move people from the for-profit immigrant prison to the for-profit deportation plane, so the passengers can remain faceless deportees. I make same by expecting women to conform to certain standards of beauty. I make same by demanding people fit strict gender roles. I make same by refusing to listen to anyone whose opinions or point of view differ from mine. I make same when I withhold myself from others, and determine they will always be “them.” I make same when I withhold myself from Jesus—when I’m like the improperly dressed guy at the banquet, trying to engage Jesus on my terms, when, where, how, and at what price point I choose.
Much of our denominational difference within the Church arises from each denomination making all the others the same. We Lutherans do that. Rome was wrong. The Pope was wrong. A lot of other would-be reformers were wrong. Luther was on the money. We honor Luther and his memory, for his standing up to the Pope and the Empire, for his reforms of worship and teaching, for his fostering public discussions on theology, and for his priceless reminder that God makes us right with God, and nothing we can do will alter our status with God.
And I can hear my children ask, “So, he was a good guy?” Because they want someone unambiguously good. And I think: Well, yeah, he was good… except for that whole massive anti-Semitism thing that ran through his theology throughout his lifetime. Oh, and there was his refusal to advocate for the German peasants, and his stated opinion that the Peasants’ War was God’s way of killing unruly peasants and greedy landowners. He also had an uncanny ability to use his theology to help his friends and benefactors, if, say, they wanted multiple wives. Our namesake is…complicated.
Maybe it’s good that as we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we read this bothersome parable, and we read a prophecy from Isaiah that won’t let us lump people into groups. The Isaiah reading starts as a Thanksgiving for victory. The enemy city is in ruins, and their army scattered. Basically, assume this text is set to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” As the champagne gets into us we will start chanting, “Ju-DAH! Ju-DAH!” Then, Isaiah shares a vision: Here on this mountain, God will make a feast for all people. At the feast God will remove from all nations the “shroud and sheet”: essentially everyone’s funeral outfit is getting destroyed. God will swallow death, so we won’t need them. God will console everyone—no restrictions, no reservations. Only when that is done is Judah able to have its victory party…. I imagine this threw the celebration into confusion. Someone asked Isaiah, “But, we won?” Isaiah replied, “Yes, but, it turns out the whole world was on the same team.” “But, what makes us better than they are?” “Nothing.”
I think we best understand the story of the improperly dressed guest as being like Isaiah’s vision. Both texts remind us of the universal character of God’s love, and both texts prevent us from claiming that we won and “they” lost. On one side of the coin, the improperly dressed guest is a lot like our Reformation tradition when that tradition gets triumphalist. It is easy to read that the king rejected those originally invited and replaced them with others, and to see that as a figure of the Reformation succeeding Catholicism. God rejected Southern Europe and chose Northern Europe. God rejected the rest of the world and chose Northern Europeans living in North America. The incident with the improperly dressed guest reminds us Reformation churches that our presence at the banquet depends entirely on Christ having invited us, and our following. The moment we try to customize “following”—by withholding ourselves, deciding when and how we will follow—we aren’t really following any more. Following Jesus doesn’t end.
On the other side of that same coin, Isaiah’s vision reminds us that at God’s victory party everyone is on the guest list—no restrictions, no reservations. Luther doesn’t want the Jews or the peasants at the party? Too bad, Martin; they’re coming! The victory wasn’t “us” over “them,” but God over death. And, frankly, if God swallowed death, there’s a sense in which God has just made death a part of God. God’s victory may just be everyone is now following God. Both stories prevent us from overshadowing God’s grace. Both stories prevent us from erasing from God those people we don’t want, from making same, from forming in and out groups. When we do that, we miss just what God is doing.
God is throwing a party for everyone in all our complexity and contradiction. God is inviting to the victory party the most pious and devout AND those whose doubt or pain keeps them away. When some folks turn down God, God goes to the street. God lowers godself. People reject God, God joins the rejects. God welcomes “those people.” Matthew tells us the king’s slaves “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.” God didn’t try to make them all the same. God didn’t create a special, cordoned area for “those people” with smaller incomes or mental health medications. God scraped the paint off the windows of the immigrant buses, made the passengers human, and told them to get inside, the banquet is starting. God told the women arriving that they should look however they want to look. When asked about gender divisions, God said, “Be what makes you fully you.” God let in people actively disagreeing with each other, because that’s okay. About the only thing God wouldn’t allow at the banquet was attempts to erase difference, to make same, to turn God into something we can engage at our own convenience.
God won’t fit into any categories. The categories are ultimately false, but moreover God is always Other than we are. God is unique, not exactly like we are, possessing God’s own interests. In the parable and in the vision today, God the Other calls us to remember that, and to see other people as “other” than we are. To avoid that tendency to “make same,” and see the things that make each person unique. That means no holding back. No withholding myself from Jesus. When I withhold myself from Jesus I try to make him the same as my idea of God, I try to make God someone I encounter when, where, how, and at the price point I choose. Like, “If I just don’t make eye contact I won’t have to deal with him or his friends.” But the invitation to the banquet comes when it comes, and the party is full of all sorts of people.
Jesus calls us, his sisters and brothers, to be ready for a party full of everyone, good and bad, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, happy and sad. Jesus calls us to be at that party, ready to serve his sisters and brothers. To embrace the differences of all the guests. For we ourselves are guests. Jesus, the Other, embraces us. Jesus gets that we are complicated and contradictory, and he wants us anyway, with no holding back, from him or from us.