“Decliners and Recliners” (Matthew 22:1-14)
Do you ever get an invitation to an event–a party, say–and they ask you to RSVP? So you check your calendar, and you see you’ve got a schedule conflict, and so you’ve got to decline the invitation. There’s something more important going on that day–you’ve got to work, or a family obligation–just something that’s a higher priority to you than going to that party.
But now say you’ve gotten an invitation to a party, and it’s from someone who you know throws the best parties around–fabulous dinner parties, with the best food, the finest wine, gifts for the guests, top-notch all the way. The host is a generous and gracious host, known for his hospitality. So you check your calendar, and you’ve got nothing else going on that day. Or maybe you do have a couple of things going on, but this invitation far outweighs them. You’ll move the other things around, in order to make this party. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity, a real can’t-miss event. Why, you’d be a fool to turn down this invitation! And so you RSVP “yes,” and you go, and it’s great, even better than you imagined.
Well, today you’ll hear about an invitation you have received, and it’s the best one you’ll ever get. It’s an invitation to a real feast. Fabulous stuff. One of a kind. Can’t miss. This is one you definitely don’t want to decline. Instead, nothing could be better or more important than to be seated at this banquet. And so our theme this morning: “Decliners and Recliners.”
Our text is the Holy Gospel for today, from Matthew 22. Let’s briefly set the scene. Jesus is in Jerusalem during Holy Week. His opponents are trying to trap him. They’re conspiring against him. These religious leaders of the Jews have had enough. They definitely have rejected him. They’re already plotting ways to get rid of this guy, they hate him so much.
And so Jesus has been telling them he knows what they’re thinking. He tells them that because they have rejected him as their Messiah, God has rejected them and is pronouncing judgment on them, and that God will find others to take their place, who will receive him. Jesus is telling them this by way of parables. Last week it was the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. This week it’s the Parable of the Wedding Feast for the King’s Son.
Jesus begins: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The king, of course, is God the Father. The son is God’s own Son, Jesus Christ himself. Those who had been invited are the Jewish people, who had the prophets for many centuries to tell them of the Messiah to come. And the servants are the messengers God sends out, like the apostles, to call the Jews to come to the feast, that is, to come to faith in Christ. “But they would not come.” What a sad commentary on the rejection the Jewish nation as a whole gave to the message of Christ. “But they would not come.” They were not willing. They declined the invitation.
Now look what the king does. “Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’” What an amazing display of patience on the part of the king. Those who had been invited and yet declined the invitation–they get other servants sent to them, repeating the call to come. These servants even go into detail describing what a wonderful feast this will be. “Everything is ready. Come to the feast.”
What is the reaction? “But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” They paid no attention. This gracious invitation meant nothing to them. They blew it off. They thought they had better things to do. And some of them even went so far as to kill the messengers. Think of Stephen, for example, who was stoned to death for bringing the message.
Finally, the king’s patience runs out. “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” This would literally happen in the year 70, when God poured out his wrath on the unbelieving Jewish nation by letting the Roman army come in and burn the city of Jerusalem.
This is the destiny of the decliners. The judgment on Jerusalem stands as a microcosm of the final judgment that will come on the unbelieving world. It will not be good. Those who have heard the invitation to salvation in Christ and yet have declined it–it will not go well for them. Their unbelief will damn them to hell. The warning is clear: When the invitation comes to you, and the messengers of God call you to repentance and faith, do not decline the invitation.
This is a message for our time. How many people in our society are declining the invitation? Lots. Many in our own community–indeed, some even in our own congregation. They have heard the message of Christ. They have been invited to church, where God’s Word is preached and taught, where the Blessed Sacrament is celebrated, where Jesus meets with his people. And yet they decline to come. They think they have better things to do with their time. They would rather watch three hours of football pregame show than come to receive the word of life. They would rather sleep in, or read the paper, or go four-wheeling, or go fishing or hunting or golfing or you-name-it than go to church. But this is where Jesus has promised to be present. This is where he forgives sins and gives life and gives the power and strength to live the new life. How foolish, therefore, to be one of the decliners.
But then, even if we’re in the pew every week, are there ways we still decline the invitation? Yes. By refusing to take the message to heart. By letting it go in one ear and out the other. By not turning to Christ in repentance and faith. So the story of the decliners is a warning to all of us today, as it was to the people Jesus was telling this parable to back then.
Jesus continues the parable. After the previously invited guests have declined the call, the king is determined that there will be people at the banquet for his son. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
Here is good news! The Word of God will have its way, and there will be people who respond. The wedding hall will be filled with guests. So now we move in the story from the decliners to the recliners. Why do I call them “recliners”? No, I’m not talking about La-Z-Boys. I’m talking about the dinner guests. The term that’s translated here as “guests”–literally, they are “reclining ones,” that is, those reclining at table. At a sumptuous Middle Eastern feast in those days, the guests would recline on dining couches around a table spread with wonderful dishes. That was what you would do at an incredible feast like the one described in our text.
And that is what you and I will do, dear friends, at the great heavenly wedding banquet that God will have for his Son when Jesus comes again! Yes, you and I will be reclining at table at the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom which will have no end. Thank God! God has created saving faith in our hearts so that we do respond and say yes to the invitation. By the grace of God, and through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit works faith in our heart. God calls us to repentance, and so we see and recognize our sins and our need for forgiveness. God calls us to faith through the gospel, and we trust in Christ our Savior, who won forgiveness for us by his death on the cross. We have been joined to Jesus in his death and his resurrection, and we will share in his resurrection when he comes again. By bestowing on us his perfect righteousness, Christ saves us from the judgment to come and brings us into the heavenly banqueting hall.
But without that righteousness, you won’t get in. That’s the point Jesus makes as he concludes the parable: “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
We’ve talked about the decliners and the recliners. Now here are the “sneaker-inners.” Or I should say, the “would-be sneaker-inners.” For there will be no people sneaking in on that day. God is not fooled. He knows who has the righteousness of faith and who does not. There will be no sneaking in on that day.
So thank God that he has made us his people, by baptizing us and clothing us with the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Yes, you have that robe of righteousness you will need to be admitted to the banquet. “For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”
The wedding feast for the King’s Son. What a feast that will be! The Bible calls it “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,” when God will “swallow up death forever” and “wipe away tears from all faces.” “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And that includes you, dear friends. You are invited. And your saying “yes” to the invitation starts with coming here to the foretaste of the feast to come.
Yes, all things are now ready. Come to the feast.