The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23
Matthew 22: 1-14
I wonder how many of you have seen the recent news stories about the negative effects of screen time for children. The one that caught my eye was an article in the New York Times by Nick Bilton on September 10, 2014 entitled “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.” In the article, Bilton recalls a conversation he had with Jobs in 2010, after the first iPad was released. Bilton said to him “So, your kids must love the iPad,” to which Jobs replied, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” This was a big surprise to Bilton, who thought that a tech guru like Steve Jobs would have touch screen technology integrated into every aspect of his household, but quite the opposite was true. In fact, he discovered that although the style of most parents who are affluent enough to afford tablets, smartphones, and computers is to place few limits on screen time for their children, many in the technology industry do not follow suit. Some tech CEOs, according to Bilton, “have seen the dangers of technology firsthand” and don’t want their kids subjected “to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worst of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents.”
Today’s selection from the Gospel of St. Matthew is known as “The Parable of the Great Supper” or “The Parable of the Rejected Invitation” and it is found both here in Matthew chapter 22 and in Luke chapter 14. As we have just heard, St. Matthew’s version of the parable is set as a comparison to the kingdom of heaven and involves a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son, an affair that requires costly and extensive preparation and is full of the finest food and drink in the land. The king calls those who had been invited; telling them that all is ready and they should come to the wedding. But those invited make light of it and refuse to turn their attention from the stuff of their everyday lives, from their farms and their businesses. So the king turns and extends the invitation to those who were formerly uninvited, to those out in the city streets, “both bad and good,” and they are gathered together to enjoy the king’s great banquet.
You may have caught that I didn’t mention the violence that takes place in our Gospel reading today. This is because violence between those invited and the one who invites is not included within St. Luke’s version of the parable and seems more to do with the particulars of Matthew’s narrative than with the teaching of the parable. I’m more interested here in the parable itself and what it teaches than I am with what the writer of Matthew is doing with the parable. What is the hidden truth that Jesus is pointing at with this story, and how might we understand that truth today?
Notice with me some of the details of the parable. It’s not something spectacular that those invited choose instead of the banquet. It’s that they are unable to see the value of what they are being called to attend. They make light of it and continue doing the things they’re already engaged in. In this way the parable is about misplaced priorities and the inability to perceive the true value of what is happening in a given moment.
Notice as well that those originally invited have farms and businesses. These are not the poor, but the wealthy in the society. And it’s the stuff of their livelihoods, that which generates wealth and that which is afforded because of wealth, that keeps them from being able to respond appropriately. But who is able to respond? It’s those without wealth, whether of a material or “moral” nature, who respond appropriately in the moment to the banquet invitation. In this way the parable is about the negative effects of attachment to wealth of any kind and about the benefits of non-attachment, such as can be seen in the lives of those without material goods or social status.
Finally, notice with me the intention behind the invitation in this parable. In Luke’s version, after the rejection, the host sends out two waves of invitation to those in the street, trying to get as many people as possible to come to the feast so that his house may be absolutely filled with guests who are in turn filled with good things. In this way the parable is about the voracious, insatiable hospitality of God and God’s need to give of God’s self for the nourishment of all.
So we’ve noticed these few details and identified some ideas that seem to be at play within the parable: 1) the relationship between our priorities and what is truly valuable, 2) the relationship between attachment and wealth, and 3) God’s disposition of hospitality and generosity toward all humanity. But parables aren’t simply reducible to their component parts. One can’t just dissect and analyze them to discover their deepest meanings. The ancients knew that in order to communicate transcendent truth, it’s best to use media that more closely resemble the ways human beings encounter life in the world, such as song and prose, epic story and parable. For this reason, I want to leave you with more than just an unpacked box displaying the contents of the Parable of the Great Supper. I want to pack those contents into a container that might more closely resemble the life you and I encounter as Americans in the 21st century. So, if you’re comfortable doing so, close your eyes and listen to how I imagine Jesus might have told the Parable of the Great Supper to an American audience in 2014.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The culture of God’s household can be compared to the CEO of a Silicon Valley technology company who threw a Bar mitzvah party for her son. She sent interns to deliver handmade invitations by bicycle to her Palo Alto neighbors, and went about hiring several master chefs from the Bay Area to prepare an array of exotic meals from entirely local, organic ingredients. She erected an outdoor stage and booked Bruno Mars to give a private concert. She arranged for a fly over by the Blue Angels, a video call from President Obama, and built a full-size roller coaster on her sprawling property. When all the preparations had been made, the CEO sent out her interns in limousines to fetch those had been invited, but the families hadn’t bothered to open the paper invitations and never looked up from their smartphones and tablets to see the limos idling in their driveways at the time the invitations had instructed. So the interns returned to the CEO and reported what had happened, and the CEO angrily told them to get back in the limos and drive up to the projects in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco and invite all the children playing in the street and all the adults loitering on the sidewalk to come to the party. The fleet of limousines returned to Palo Alto filled with scores of poor folks, the bad and the good, who didn’t hesitate to jump in when the shiny black limos honked and opened their doors in welcome. And the CEO’s property was filled with guests who ate and danced and sang and played all through the night.”
Hear what the Spirit is saying.