Missing the Party
Oh, you guys! We’ve got a doozie in front of us today!
(If you are reading this and not listening in person - go read up above the scripture first. You kind of have to see it to believe it).
There is a gentle, G-rated version of this story, and it’s told in Luke. It doesn’t have any weeping, gnashing of teeth, bloodshed or vengeance. Instead it’s got Luke’s signature focus on the marginalized; Look! They got to go to the party!
Not so for Matthew. Matthew goes for the rage, the garish violence, the action movie effects. You can almost hear the dissonant sound track. Pastor Lisa called Matthew’s parable the ‘Quinten Tarrantino” version.
But then, Matthew was written just after Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the temple was destroyed. The people would have listened to this story. It might have felt familiar.
And maybe it feels a little familiar to us too. Institutions are crumbling, the old way of doing things doesn’t seem to work any more. And for the first time in human history, it’s possible to live without God. We don’t have any sense of needing God, any obligation to acknowledge God, or any built-in mechanisms for experiencing God. (See Charles Taylor, or James K.A. Smith on Taylor, for more on this!)
We’re a demystified people, in a scientific, material world without the possibility for transcendence, where the authority of all is our own selves, our own experience. Life today consists primarily of meeting our own needs and wants, figuring out who we are, and pursuing our goals. Personal advancement, upward mobility, and the ever constant fight against death, which, if its measured by delaying death we are winning, but if its measured by avoiding death, we’re just as ineffectual as ever.
Finding meaning today means pouring ourselves into our work, our families, perfecting our bodies or our portfolios or our home décor, and while there may be a hunger deep underneath for more, we don’t generally know how to talk about it or what to do with it.
But we long for something real.
So whatever this parable meant to the people who first heard it, or to those who wrote it down two generations later, or to any other people at various points throughout time, the beauty (and frustration, if we’re honest) of parables, is that it they don’t have a set meaning. They are exaggerated stories meant to provoke and evoke. Parables always want us to ask, Who am I in this story right now? Who are we? And then see what it reveals of us--no no matter how uncomfortable it might make us--and accept what it might be asking of us to let go of, and what it might be inviting us to step into.
So given who we are right now in human history, here is one possible way we might read this parable.
It goes like this:
The king is throwing a party. A stop what you’re doing, drop everything and come to the party kind of party. The king’s son is getting married. It’s a big deal. This party is more food than you’ve ever seen at one time, the best meal you’ve ever eaten, and someone else is preparing it for you and serving you. Dancing and music and conversation and merriment, and all you have to do is show up.
Only, you can’t because you’re an ordinary Joe and this party is happening at the king’s house, so, naturally, only the rich and the famous are invited to attend. (There are standards, after all).
But something happens – they don’t go. They have other, more pressing things, apparently, than celebrating at a lavish party with the king. Some say they have to work on their farm, or on their business- they’d rather be working than celebrating, rather be trying to earn their way up the ladder than skip up to the top and dine with the king. They’ve received the invitation – but tossed it right away; it just wasn’t going to be possible to attend. I’ve too much to do, they say. My business needs me. My farm needs me. I wish I could, but… and they turn away, unable, unwilling, to simply stop and enjoy the feast.
Many have quite simply forgotten the king, their world has constricted to their own domain, losing their connection to everything and everyone that lay beyond.
The invitation to party with the king is just irrelevant fantasy, a child’s tale, a silly side story that doesn’t matter in real life.
Because life is production and consumption, a relentless uphill battle, stopping to feast makes no sense; no matter who it is that has invited them.
Who’s got time for that? How far behind would I get if I did that?
In fact, some get so enraged to be treated as though they could just leave things and come to a party. How dare these messengers insinuate their work is so worthless they could just drop it? How dare they stand there parading an alternative as though it was a real option – so enticing and taunting? Flaunting this freedom, this silliness, in the face of their essential work? They are so furious, in fact, that they torture and kill the messengers.
Rage is all the rage.
Who do they think they are?
That family who refuses to sign their kids up for everything, saying that time at home is more important?
The person who turns off their email and phone on the weekends! How nice for him!
The one who takes her full vacation time, or leaves the board meeting for their kid’s volleyball game – aren’t they the lucky ones?
I could never do that –
my life is too busy,
my work is too pressing,
the pressure is too great.
The kids would get behind.
My boss would think I’m not committed.
I would lose my place.
I would lose money.
I would harm my reputation.
If it were not for me, everything would fall apart.
And yet, these people, right in your face they are breaking the rules.
Don’t they know we are supposed to be too busy, too committed, running too fast to keep up, eating not quite like we should, not sleeping enough, mildly – or terribly – unhappy, wishing we could have more but knowing it’s impossible? And here they stand, acting like it’s possible!
How dare they!?
There’s a famous little folk tale that goes something like this:
There was once a businessman who was sitting by the beach in a small Brazilian village.
As he sat, he saw a Brazilian fisherman rowing a small boat towards the shore having caught quite few big fish.
The businessman was impressed and asked the fisherman, “How long does it take you to catch so many fish?”
The fisherman replied, “Oh, just a short while.”
“Then why don’t you stay longer at sea and catch even more?” The businessman was astonished.
“This is enough to feed my whole family,” the fisherman said.
The businessman then asked, “So, what do you do for the rest of the day?”
The fisherman replied, “Well, I usually wake up early in the morning, go out to sea and catch a few fish, then go back and play with my kids. In the afternoon, I take a nap with my wife, and evening comes, I join my buddies in the village for a drink — we play guitar, sing and dance throughout the night.”
The businessman offered a suggestion to the fisherman.
“I am a PhD in business management. I could help you to become a more successful person. From now on, you should spend more time at sea and try to catch as many fish as possible. When you have saved enough money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. Soon you will be able to afford to buy more boats, set up your own company, your own production plant for canned food and distribution network. By then, you will have moved out of this village and to Sao Paulo, where you can set up HQ to manage your other branches.”
The fisherman continues, “And after that?”
The businessman laughs heartily, “After that, you can live like a king in your own house, and when the time is right, you can go public and float your shares in the Stock Exchange, and you will be rich.”
The fisherman asks, “And after that?”
The businessman says, “After that, you can finally retire, you can move to a house by the fishing village, wake up early in the morning, catch a few fish, then return home to play with kids, have a nice afternoon nap with your wife, and when evening comes, you can join your buddies for a drink, play the guitar, sing and dance throughout the night!”
The fisherman was puzzled, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?”
And the businessman kills the fisherman.
No, that’s not really there. But Matthew would have put it there, with the grisly camera angles to spice it up. Because what does the businessman have left, once the fisherman took away everything the businessman had ever been about, in one fell swoop?
So after they kill the messengers, the king retaliates and wipes out all the murderers and burns down their businesses and the whole thing they had going is gone in an instant - as though hit by a hurricane, flood, fire, stock market collapse or stage 4 cancer. It doesn’t last, nothing lasts, after all, but we pour ourselves into it all as though it does. The grass withers and the flower fades and all day long we toil under the sun…and insert all those other biblical images for how temporary things are here.
Now with the farms gone and the businesses gone and the wealthy business owners gone with all barriers torn down, and false power and ranking and rat race and security gone, and everything exposed for what it was – fleeting –the invitation goes out again.
The king doesn’t cancel the wedding to rebuild the city, doesn’t redirect reception funds to reestablish the destroyed economy. He goes ahead with the party.
And this time, the king invites everyone –far and wide, this party needs people and this feast is for all. And there is no more way to earn your way up. The city is in ashes, so everyone, everywhere, come to the party and find abundant food and rich company and sit in the presence of the king.
And there is nowhere else to aspire to than that – there never has been, really. Some of them never thought they’d set foot on the royal grounds let alone inside the banquet hall, others may have been working up to being established, or wealthy, or respected, enough to one day be worthy of an invitation, but today all that is over. They are all already invited.
There is no more distinction between rich and poor, connected and marginalized, wealthy and impoverished – the city is in ashes and they are all invited to the party. Those who have already self-selected out are missing it. But everybody else – good and bad! the story says, is welcome in the palace ballroom.
So the people come, from far and wide, they set down their labor and put aside their theories about who should and shouldn’t be allowed at such a thing and which category they belong to, and they show up.
Scrubbed and dressed up with flowers in their hair and fiddles in their hands, they stream into the celebration to dine with the king like there is nowhere else on earth they’d rather be. Bring your swimsuit, and a jacket for the bonfire! This is going to go on for a while! And the party commences.
Except among them is someone who is not dressed for the occasion. Among them is one who came in his uniform, in his scrubs, in his three-piece suit, in his work clothes – standing in the banquet hall with one foot out the door,
I can only stay a minute,
I’m not really here; don’t mind me!
I just need to slip out in a few,
I just need to take a quick call,
Let me just shoot off this last email, I wont be but a second!,
Too risky to go home and change into my swimsuit- what if the pager goes off and I have to run?
I really should get back…to the office, the shop, the rat race.
I’m juggling so much. You understand.
One colleague said this week, “My ego is pernicious and sneaky, and will totally try to slip in unnoticed.” (Phil GebbenGreen - props).
But the king notices.
And he asks the man, Why are you here without a robe?
And the man is speechless.
He has no response for the king. He’s not actually there to hang out with the king or celebrate with the rest of them, so he has nothing to say for himself.
So the guest is dismissed, forcibly removed, really, with all the drama and cartoonish gore of the rest of the tale. He’s not dropped off by shuttle at his office lobby doors to resume his duties; he is bound hand and foot and tossed into the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
He’s given over to his worst fears - the thing he works so hard to avoid. The lurking void that drives him on and on, harder and harder, catches up to him; the nothingness he’s spent his life fleeing and guarding against, now swallows him whole. No work or distractions to save him here, only endless emptiness, staring at him from without and within.
Jesus concludes the parable with, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Everyone was invited. All were called.
Some saw it as something they could earn or reject, they were dismissive, or even angry at being invited. They chose death over life – false over real.
But some, who didn’t think they’d ever be at such a party, knew it was not by what they could earn. If you asked them how they got there, they would have told you, enthusiastically and without pause, “I was chosen!”
God is alive and active. Right under our noses the party is underway. Transcendence is lurking; redemption is afoot, at every single moment. There is a deeper story, a joyous celebration, and we are invited into it right now.
And it isn’t found by fleeing death, but by facing it. It’s not in outrunning fear but by embracing it, not by relentlessly moving, but by standing still from time to time and meeting God, meeting ourselves, meeting each other, right here.
All of us are called. Every day. And when we accept the invitation we recognize it as gift. It is all gift; and we are lucky to be alive, honored to be chosen to be part of it.