Thursday, October 6, 2011

Does Heaven Have a Dress Code?

Some Bible passages really bug me.

The Gospel lesson for the 17th Sunday of Pentecost (That's Lectionary 28 if you're keeping score at home) is one of those pain-in-the-you-know-where stories. It's the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14). The story goes like this: A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son. He invites a bunch of his vassels, but they scorn the invitation. When the king learns that they have mistreated and, in some cases, actually murdered the slaves he's sent to command their attendance, he retaliates by sending in his troops to slaughter the vassels and burn their city.

(Lovely guy, isn't he?)

The king then sends out his slaves to invite anyone they encounter--any sorry dufus they meet on the road--to join the feast. This makes for a good enough party until the king notices that one of his guests isn't wearing a wedding garment. Since the poor slob can't give a good explanation of why he's in the banquet hall of the roayal palace in his cut-offs and flip-flops, the king calls the royal bouncers to tie him up and toss him out.

This king is really a sweetie. Can you guess why I get a little uncomfortable with interpreting the king in the parable as analogous to God?

Granted, I've got a retired guy in my parish who probably can't wait to hear me preach on this parable. He's one of the last of the coat-and-tie types, and he gets really pissed off when folks show up to Sunday mass looking like they've just washed their cars. A big part of me sympathizes with him, too, because I really fear that we in America are turning into a nation of slobs. I mean--for cryin' out loud!--we actually watch Jersey Shore!

But I digress...

Personally, I don't give a rip how people look when they come to mass as long as they come.

But as to the parable: Matthew's version of this story differs from other sources, so he's probably editorializing a little for his own audience. Really smart Biblical scholar guys think that Jesus' original version may have gone something like this: A king threw a wedding feast. The swanky people he invited didn't want to come, so he opened his doors to the dirty, funky, common folks instead. Amen.

I like this version better, don't you? It's got a lot more mercy and grace in it. Jesus' point in telling this story to the priests and Pharisees may have been that our history or pedigree is not what makes us God's children. If we lack the passion for righteousness--for mercy, love, equality, and compassion for others and the joy of being God's creatures--someone else will be invited to the party in our place. Someone else will fulfill God's plan--maybe someone who is not a bit like us at all.

I think it's a good idea to read this story and cast ourselves in the role of the priests and Pharisees. We may be missing the real party because we're so busy trying to preserve the institutions of our congregations or denominations. That is, we've done church for so long we've forgotten how to be church. Also, I think that as Christians we've grown accustomed to interpreting the "new" wedding guests as ourselves while seeing our Jewish forebears as the "disinvited" ones. This interpretation may be a bit closer to Matthew's original intention, but it doesn't do anything for us except make us feel smug. And smugness is so unattractive, don't you think?

(Now if you want to get real technical about this, we can probably guess at why Matthew adds the violence to this story. The killing of the slaves who bring the invitation can be seen to reflect the killing of the prophets and the death of Jesus himself. The violent retaliation in which the city is destroyed could be intended to allude to Rome's destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. In this analogy, the old chosen ones, Israel, have been punished and God has chosen a new people, the Christian Church. This is interesting historical speculation, but knowing it is not bringing me any closer to God. Plus, it's disturbingly anti-Semitic.)

The interpretation of this parable that floats my boat is to see it as a description of God's inclusiveness. In verse 10, the slaves gather everyone--the good and the bad, the saints and the sinners. They're the people off the street, the people whom Jesus loved.

Of course, we're still stuck with the problem of that dude who violated the dress code. Let's assume for the moment that he actually owns a wedding garment, and that he's just being rude by not bothering to wear it. I mean, my mom always taught me that one dresses to compliment the host or hostess, but this guy can't seem to make the effort. (I'd hate to see anyone kicked out just because they couldn't afford a nice shirt and tie, you know?) What might this guy represent?

Here he is in his smelly t-shirt, eating the free food and taking advantage of the hosted bar. He might be like a lot of church folk--believing in a sense of God's mystery, but not passionate enough to do anything about it. He comes to church out of a sense of obligation, and turns to God only in moments of want or distress.

There's a word for people like that: superstitious.

Now you ask, what is the difference between religion and superstition? In superstition, we try to appease God, thinking that our actions--be they prayers, rituals, or half-hearted observances--will change the way God behaves toward us. In true religion, however, we ask that the way God is--beautiful, giving, creative, loving--will change the way we are towards God and our fellow creatures.

I don't know about you, but I want to come to God's party properly dressed. I want to be covered in my own humility and willing to let myself be changed. I want to be welcoming to all the other guests, and I want my presence to be a compliment to my very gracious host.

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