I don’t know about you, but the thing that is most likely to send me over the edge at this particular moment of this impossibly long year, is that every time I click on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, before I can even get to my feed to see what surprising and unhappy things are happening, I am accosted by an intrusive ad/banner/announcement questioning me about whether or not I have considered the fact that in a few short weeks, I should get out and vote. And, don’t you know, this has been going on for months. Way back when the banner screeched that in New York there was still time to register. That’s funny, I thought, I am already registered. I went and found my little card verification thing that I got in the mail four years ago, when I updated my address, because, that’s right, I’ve been registered to vote here in this state since 2002. So then I did my best to hide the screaming announcement, except then it began to appear on Instagram. At some point, it morphed into an equally hysterical invitation to sign up for mail-in voting. And now that that deadline has gone, the banner yet remains, updated with little dancing vote ballet things in red and blue. I mean right now, as I look at my phone, before I can see any pictures of my friends on Instagram, there is a little square thing that says “Facts About Voting” with a preachy, scolding line about how trustworthy the voting process is in America.
My goodness, I get it, all you social media tech people. Your thousands of “invitations” to vote have been noted by me.
It’s the note of hysteria that I don’t love. The assumption of a posture on the part of the people organizing these prompts that implies to me that I am so blitheringly forgetful and stupid, that if they don’t constantly remind me about the importance of voting, I might not do it. They must scream in my virtual face several times a day, or I might not vote. Then, when I finally have voted, I will be invited to let my 1000 or so friends know about it by posting a picture of myself as someone who has just voted. It’s not enough to quietly do it, to work out my own conviction and accomplish the deed in my own sweet time, on the day that one is traditionally invited to vote, even with the threat of covid, I must let the world know. It’s one of the only ways to even be a good person anymore.
And goodness is at the heart of communal relationships. Society has to be built around some kind of shared values about what matters and what kinds of rights and responsibilities will best shape our life together. Which is why this morning’s gospel reading is so unsettling.
Remember, Jesus is swiftly on his way to his cross at this point in the narrative. The temple is cleared out, the crowd has welcomed him, but now it’s turning against him, as he thursts the true nature of his own identity, and his purpose in coming right under their noses. The story of the two sons has baffled and silenced the religious elite, along with the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The bit this morning is part of a long portion of teaching to which everyone hanging around in the temple listens with increasing horror. After a while, Jesus will go back out of the temple and tell his disciples, as they walk around the walls, what to expect in the near term and the far term, and then go back out to Bethany for the night, where Mary will anoint his feet with her expensive oil. The teaching, the anxiety, the sense of doom—all of it is intense in this section of Matthew, ramped up by Jesus himself, as if he is some kind of Facebook tech, forcing his disciples and the crowds to face the imminent truth of his death. And, of course, they don’t want to listen to him. They have their own lives sorted out. They don’t want to face the choice that is set before them.
This morning’s story is faintly implausible in its communal heartlessness. A king has a son, and the son is getting married, and everything is ready for the feast, and so the king sends out his servants to invite everyone who has been invited. Certainly any small sense of obligation would incline the people invited—the citizens who live inside the kingdom of the king—to drop what they are doing and go, especially as there will be lots to eat and plenty to drink. And the king isn’t one of those people Americans have to choose between in this election cycle. He is a good man. There isn’t a thing wrong with him. But all of the people invited do not want to go. They make up excuses, even. So exasperated are they, that they “treat shamefully” and even kill some of the king’s servants.
Naturally, the king is angry, as he had every right to be. He has treated all these people well, and his son is getting married. The dinner is good, the wine was plentiful. There is absolutely no reason for them to refuse. Therefore he sends his soldiers to burn and destroy the city of his “unworthy” subjects. That’s what he tells his servants when he sends them out to find new guests—those who had first been invited “were not worthy.” He is so desperate, now, to have a feast for his son, that the servants are supposed to find anyone to come in, “whether good or bad,” “So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
The people in the temple that day, listening to this story, would have found the tale strange. No one at the time would have taken the risk of refusing such an invitation. They narrow their eyes at Jesus and understand what he is telling them. The Father, the Vineyard Owner, The King—in each case the haunting notes of Israel’s rejection of God throughout the Old Testament scriptures is right there plainly on the page.
The story isn’t over, though. The king, relieved and happy to have his banquet hall full of people for the celebration of the marriage of his son and heir, takes a stroll, leaving the high table to come and walk among all the people—the good and the bad—to find out if they are enjoying themselves. And on his walk, he comes across a man who has no “wedding garment,” a man who, when questioned about the matter, “remains speechless.” This man, having no answer for himself, is taken by the servants and thrown out, and suddenly the cheerful scene of a wedding feast melts away and the man is standing on the precipice of hell, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “For many are called,” concludes Jesus, “but few are chosen.”
The crowd around Jesus doesn’t melt away, as the scene does here, illuminating the verity of an eternity either with God, or without him. They hang around for two more chapters, collecting experiential evidence for their own screaming desire for Jesus to die. They won’t be able to hold back their choking hatred of him. His death will be the only thing that will make everything better.
And yet, there, as he dies, Jesus himself is the bridegroom, the son who is paying a price for a bride that no ordinary man could stomach. He is the very wedding garment, the purifying goodness that shrouds the person who bellies up to the feast, having, for once, managed to come even though no one would have remembered to invite him.
There are so many horrible choices set before us in this life. And so many lectures about the relative merits of each alternative, about what kind of person you or I will be if we choose this or that thing, this or that candidate. Cover over your own lack by wearing this sticker, waving that flag, posting about this issue on some platform or other. It’s a cacophony, a wearying array of bad and worse options whose consequences none of us can fully see but can probably guess as to the outcome.
Over it all, there sits the Lord on his throne, having accomplished for us a rest from all the shouting if we would only see past the brightly lit distractions of this age. The paltry, bright, foolish choices of this life might melt away if I consider the truth of the cosmic choice before me—the gnashing of the teeth on one hand, or the consolations of the feast where every guest is given something beautiful to wear if only he would put it on, would accept its beauty.
If you don’t know who to vote for and are sick of all the shouting invitations crowding your social media feeds and your life, you can put all that way for an hour and go to church, to the feast where you are invited—whether good or bad—to eat and drink of the body of your savior, to be clothed in his own self, to rest forever in him. I think I know which is better.