We live in a world defined by rules and laws that guide our interactions and provide some sort of security and predictability to our lives. Because of these rules we have the ability to plan for the future, to lay out a strategy for success and, if we stick to the plan, we can be fairly assured we will accomplish what we set out to do. This is the essence of the “American Dream”: The idea that anyone in this great country can improve their situation, their wealth and happiness by hard work and determination. The laws of the land are situated to allow us to achieve our greatest aspirations through diligent effort. While there is no guarantee of equal results, there is the promise of equal opportunity and the rules give shape to the direction of your effort.
This is what can frustrate us about our elected politicians. They seem, these days, to often play by a different set of rules, or at least the rules we have all settled on do not seem to always apply to those in elected office. But the truth is, when they get caught bending the rules or simply ignoring them altogether, there is usually a cost to that as well. Nobody in our land is above the law. In fact, a lot of the angst felt within the Church these last few months has had to do with either following or resisting the rules of the day. Do we meet or not meet, inside or out, singing or not? We know if we obey the rules, we will be safe and secure. If we chose to ignore them, why then, we risk punishment. There are ramifications for disobeying the rules.
But none of us wants to live in a world without any rules. Even if this were possible, it would be terrifying. We may not like all the rules, there are those we struggle against, but in the end we pattern our lives off the basic understanding that, if you obey the rules, then you will do well. If you disobey, you will be punished. In the end, this is comforting because it means we have some control over the outcome. If there is something you are trying to achieve, you follow the guidelines to get it and you will be happy. In fact, this is how most people understand the life of the Church, their faith, and hope. If you do right, if you avoid what God despises and cling to what He loves, then eternal life is yours. If you walk in the narrow way and obey the rules, then salvation awaits you in the Kingdom of God. In the end, it is up to you to decide what the outcome will be.
But then we get this strange story our Lord tells about a king throwing a wedding feast for his son. This story is shocking and perhaps a little upsetting, for the king in the parable seems to stand outside our nice and comfortable understanding of the rules. The reason this is disconcerting for us is Jesus says the parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven acts like this king. So, what does the king do? Well, he sends his servants out to call all those invited to the wedding feast to come. But the guests do not want to show up. He sends out some more servants saying, “Look, everything is ready. The fatten calves and the oxen are slaughtered. The champagne is chilled, and the DJ is ready to play. It is time to come to the feast.” But they do not care. They go off to work and ignore the invite of the king. In fact, some of those invited guests took ahold of the servants of the king and killed them. The king does not take this lightly. He responds by sending his troops to destroy those murderers and even burns down their city. But the king still has a wedding feast to fill and fill it he will, so he sends out his servants again. This time he sends them onto the highways and byways of the land. So, the servants do just that. They gather all whom they find, both the bad and the good, so the wedding hall is finally filled.
We should be somewhat used to the basic storyline here. Just last week we heard the parable of the tenants which has a similar feel to it. There the tenants refused to give the master the fruit of the vineyard. Not only do they kill the servants, but they go so far as to kill the master’s son. So, they were destroyed, and new tenants were welcomed in. We see this as the welcoming-in of the Church. The first tenants or the invited guests are the ancient people of God who refused the coming of the Messiah. So, the invitation goes out to others, to you. But our focus in this parable seems to be on the actions of this king, for he is not done yet.
We are told the king comes out to look over his full wedding hall. You can imagine the smile on his face as he sees it full. Everyone is having a great time toasting to the bride and groom, but then something catches his eye, something he cannot let go on. There in the wedding hall is one guy who is not dressed in a wedding garment. Maybe he is wearing his old sweatpants and college t-shirt with a pair of crocks and dress socks to complete the ensemble. The king wastes no time, rushes to him, and says, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” The man is speechless, he has nothing to say. So, the king has his servants tie him up and throw him out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Remember, this is a parable about the Kingdom of God. The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is terrifying for it is to be cast into Hell itself.
So, by the time we get to the end of the parable the invited guests and the uninvited guests fall to the background. The type of clothing the people are wearing, where they are sitting, and whether the man without the wedding garment should have been given an opportunity to get changed all fades. What we are left with is this king. He is a king that everyone must deal with and no one seems to be able to control. The rules do not seem to apply to him. You are not going to get him to perform how you want him to perform. He is a king who chooses and there is no overruling his choice. The Kingdom of God is about the election of the King, the choosing of the faithful to receive the blessings of the wedding feast. And why that does not necessarily put it outside of the rules of our age, is because it is not bound by those rules. No matter how good you are, you cannot force the hand of the King. He remains a King who chooses.
This can be terrifying. It means all the good works you have done, all the faithful behavior, the churchly actions, have not been the deciding factor in your inclusion into the Kingdom of God. If you are looking at your own life, at your knowledge and understanding of your morality and righteousness as the proof you will be included in the wedding feast, you are looking in the wrong place. Because within you, there is no certainty. How can you ever know if you have been good enough, faithful enough, or righteous enough? You just might find that it is you who is sitting there at the table when the King comes up and asks, “Where are your wedding clothes?” You will be the one with nothing to say, for what can you say? You tried, your worked hard, you did your best, but I am not sure this King cares.
But the other side of the coin, the other side of the terror of not being able to control your own destiny, is the full assurance and certainty that can only be found in our Lord. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” He says, but to those who are chosen they have been given everything. The choosing of God happens here and now. It happens in Word and Sacrament. It happens when the King of Kings claims you as His own, when He forgives you and welcomes you into the wedding hall. In the waters of Baptism, He chooses you and clothes you in the wedding garments of His Son. And here we sit at choosing of the King, the bad and the good from the highways and byways all gathered to sing the praises of the One who has called us out of the darkness into His marvelous light. It all hangs on His choosing. It remains in His hands alone. He has chosen you, yes you. He forgives and loves and clothes you in His mercy.