Wise Words from a Wild Wonder Worker, V: The Wedding Hall Was Filled with Guests
“Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad;
so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
Jesus came to teach one thing and one thing alone, and he hammered home his humble homily over and over again with such relentless monotony that sometimes he sounded like a CD player with stuck and stuttering laser beam. The Kingdom of God is what he came to tell us about.
The thing is, the idea of God’s Kingdom is so large and so complicated and so indescribable that Jesus was never sure if he was getting his point across, so he keeps coming back to it with multiple metaphors and various word pictures. The Kingdom of God is like a sower with his seed. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure in a field. The Kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price. The Kingdom of God is like a king who forgave a huge debt. The Kingdom of God is like a vineyard owner who hired some migrant workers. The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who lent his estate to evil tenants. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
Well, today, I am happy to tell you that once, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a party.” Actually, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Apparently in this culture, it is the father of the groom, not the father of the bride, who has to get a second mortgage to pay for the wedding.
The king wants to throw his son a spectacular party, so he finds a hall and a caterer who will charge him $150 a plate. He chooses the menu—filet mignon and lobster tail. No, wait, this is a Jewish wedding—no lobster. Caviar, then. Caviar is kosher I think.
He stocks the bar with top-shelf spirits and fine French wines and imported beer for the frat boy groomsmen. He hires a 12-piece band with trumpets and keyboards and drums and divas. The flowers, the limos, the buses, the hotel rooms—“Spare no expense!” he says.
But then, the day before the party, he discovers that he has received absolutely no acceptances in his little pile of RSVP’s. Nobody wants to come. But this host means to have a party and he is relentless; he just will not give up. He sends his emissaries and party planners and secretaries to ring the doorbells of the guests he’s invited, but still no results. Some of them have very good excuses. One guy is farming his land, and another is tending to his business.
So, according to Jesus’ little story, the guests who declined the invitation had their own good reasons to decline. And you know, let’s just be honest about it, the good people in any community always have very good excuses for not coming to God’s party. They are doing very good things. They are world-building. They are kingdom-building. They don’t need God’s Kingdom because they’re building their own.
The cool kids at any high school in America have very good excuses for not partying with God. They have to study. They have to learn a new cheerleader routine. They have soccer practice, and it’s always on Sunday morning. They have to get their SAT scores up so that they can get into the eating clubs at Princeton where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bill Bradley and Brook Shields hung out.
When the father of the groom discovers that not one member of polite society has any interest whatsoever in his lavish and generous hospitality, he just goes ballistic. He is bound and determined to have a party, even if no one wants to come, so he sends his emissaries out into the highways and byways and lanes an intersections, to the mansion and the hovels, to the Magnificent Mile and the ghettoes, and says, “Go invite everyone you can find, the good and the bad, until the wedding hall is filled with guests.”
Once again, Luke, in his retelling of this same story in the third Gospel, gives us more detail than Matthew. In Luke, the host says, “Bring me the poor, the blind, the lame, the crippled. Bring them to me, all of them, all the ones the rest of the world has forgotten, ignored, trampled, and despised. Bring them to me in all their ragged and disheveled disability. The poor, the blind, the lame, and the crippled. Do you know what this is? This is a laundry list, a virtual catalogue, of all the people in Palestinian society who had no other party to go to because no respectable middle class person would be caught dead eating with this motley crew. The Boss says “I mean to have a party. So go and get me some guests. Go out and find me everyone who has a big ‘L’ on the forehead for ‘Loser.’”
Oh, friends, do you understand that this is the center of the Gospel. Do you hear the heart-breaking loveliness of it, the beautiful, winsome, sad strains of its music? I want to have a party, and whoever will come, those shall be my friends. No other condition, only that they come. These then shall be my friends.”
Are you listening? This is the Gospel. Do you hear? Do you hear of the stubborn, relentless, unyielding love of God, who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer? God takes what is broken, and makes it whole. God takes what is unwashed and makes it shine. God takes what is unpresentable and boasts of its beauty.
This party is unlike any wedding reception you’ve ever been to. Have you noticed that except for whom you sleep with, the most precisely regulated aspect of our humanity is whom you eat with? There are more rules having to do with table manners in human society than about any other thing except sex. It was true in first-century Palestine, and it’s true in twenty-first-century America. It is true in every age of history and at every stage of human development.
Have you ever read Richard Russo’s lovely little novel called Empire Falls, about life in a small Maine rust-bucket mill town? It won the Pulitzer Prize 12 years ago. One of the most memorable characters is Christina, a 16-year-old high school student, known as ‘Tick’ to her friends. Tick, and some of her friends are having trouble negotiating the carefully nuanced and complicated caste system of an American high school cafeteria. They’re having difficulty getting accepted by the cooler kids at Empire High, and find themselves eating lunch alone at a table built for 20 in a crowded high school cafeteria.
By a quirk of her class schedule, Tick finds that she has to take her lunch hour at a time of the day when every single other kid at Empire High is in class, so she has to eat her lunch alone, and this is just fine with her because, as she says to herself, “Far better to eat alone in an empty cafeteria than to be alone in a full one.” There are more rules about whom we can eat with than about anything else in our world, and this is true in high school cafeterias, in the eating clubs at Princeton, and at any wedding reception we will ever get invited to, or not.
We are very careful whom we eat with. It’s true in high school, and it’s true at your country club. And the trouble with Jesus is that he never seemed to understand this. Poor Jesus. He would sit down with just about anybody, and tell stories about kings who invite the poor, the blind, the lame, and the crippled to his party.
Philip Yancey tells a story about a wedding reception that almost didn’t happen 20 years ago. A young couple went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston to book their wedding reception. They agonized over the menu, and chose just the perfect china and silver and flower arrangements. The estimate came in at $13,000. The couple wrote out a check for half that amount as down payment, and then went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.
The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom told his fiancée, “I’m not sure. It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about it a little longer.”
When the young woman returned to the Boston Hyatt to cancel the reception, the kind Events Manager at the Hyatt couldn’t have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding,” she told the jilted bride. “You only get $1300 back. You can forfeit the rest, or go ahead with the party.”
Well, the young woman, just like the father of the groom in Jesus’ little story, was mad as hell. Not only that, but as the host in Jesus’ little story, she was bound and determined to have a party. She came up with a creative solution to her sad dilemma. She decided to go ahead with the party—not a wedding reception, but a big blowout nonetheless.
She changed the menu to boneless chicken–“in honor of the groom,” she said—and sent out invitations to all the rescue missions and homeless shelters in town. And so on a warm June night in Boston in 1990, people who were used to dining on discarded pizza fished out of the dumpsters behind the Pizza Hut, feasted instead on cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served silver and crystal to the lame and the halt leaning on crutches and walkers. Vagrants, bag ladies, and addicts sipped champagne, ate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night. And everyone who saw it finally understood what Jesus was talking about when he said, “The Kingdom of God is like…”
Joe Shuba died week before last. He was 89 years old. Do you know who Joe Shuba was? Neither did I, till The New York Times published his 1000-word obituary on October 1. Joe Shuba was the son of a Czechoslovakian immigrant steel-worker from Youngstown, Ohio. He played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers for several years in the 1950’s until he retired in 1955 with a .259 career batting average and 24 home runs.
On April 18, 1946, Joe Shuba was playing for the Montreal Royals, a minor league farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Just a couple of you will remember that in April of 1946, Jackie Robinson was making his first appearance in organized baseball. In the first inning, Jackie Robinson grounded out. In the third inning, Jackie came up to hit again with two runners on base, and Joe Shuba was on deck when Jackie crushed a fastball over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. An Associated Press photographer recorded the moment when Jackie Robinson crossed home plate and shook the hand of the on-deck batter waiting to greet him, Joe Shuba.
Joe Shuba retired in 1955 after an undistinguished major league career and returned to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, where he became a postal worker.
Joe Shuba said, “I didn’t care what color he was; he was my teammate, and he hit a home run, and I was glad he was on my team.” No one remembers anything about Joe Shuba’s baseball career, except for the photograph of that handshake at home plate, and as for Joe himself, that photograph was the only memento he kept from his career in major league baseball. When his son Michael would come home from school and tell his father about some bully at school who was picking on another kid, Joe would point to that photograph and say, “Look at that photograph. I want you to remember what that stands for. You treat all people equally”.
It’s such an unremarkable thing: in a time before high-fives and fist-bumps, every home-run hitter is greeted at home plate with a handshake by the on-deck batter. But this handshake was epochal; it was iconic. The Times called it “a simple, silent, seminal moment in baseball history,” and I like to think of it as a hint, a guess, a foretaste, an intimation, of the wedding feast where all are welcome—the rich and the poor, the halt and the fleet, the blind and the seeing, the crippled and the able.
There is nothing about you that prevents you from coming to the banquet—nothing. The feast, the banquet, the party—a glimpse of God’s shining tomorrow, a foreshadowing of the world that is coming just as sure as the dawn. The Kingdom of God is like a table, and at this table, no one sits alone.
Richard Russo, Empire Falls (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), p. 75.
Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), pp. 48-49.