on being excluded: Matthew 22

read Matthew 22.  When your children are small, one of the hardest things to explain to them is why they didn’t get invited to the party.  No matter how often the preschools implore the parents to use the “all of” rule – all of the girls, all of the boys, or all of the class – there will always be that horror: the party to which everyone was invited EXCEPT your child.  And, as my father puts it, when one of your children suffers, you die a thousand deaths.  You experience the rejection as keenly as if you were experiencing it yourself – with the added sharpness that you feel guilty you couldn’t protect your child.  Deep down, you wonder if it’s somehow your fault; you wonder if the parent was actually excluding you, and your child has to suffer for something you inadvertently (or vertently) did.

The issue doesn’t go away.  Our whole life, there will be parties from which we are excluded.  There will be doors shut in our faces.  There will be people who just don’t like us, no matter how often we bare our teeth at them.  So what’s the solution?  Do we just pretend we don’t care?  Do we just focus on the people who do love us?  Or is there a more excellent way?

One of my favorite picture books as a child was the Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Little Matchstick Girl.  The girl is cold and barefoot in the snow; one slipper has fallen off and a boy has stolen the other one. She’s never named in the story; it’s as if she’s so neglected by all that she doesn’t even have a name.  She’s afraid to go home because she hasn’t sold any matchsticks all day, and she knows her father will beat her. Dying of cold, she huddles up on some steps beside the wall of a house and dares to light one of her matchsticks.  She sees a huge iron stove and feels its warmth – and then the flame goes out.  She lights another match. The wall of the house beside her becomes transparent like gauze.  She can see into a room with a table set for a feast with fine china and a splendid steaming stuffed goose, and then the match goes out and she can only see the wall again.  She lights a third match, and she can see a Christmas tree with a thousand candles.  The match goes out, and the Christmas candles go higher and she sees they’re stars.  One star falls, and the girl thinks, “now someone is dying.”  She lights another match, and sees her beloved grandmother, the only one who had ever been good to her but is now dead, and she begs her grandmother to take her with her.  She strikes all the rest of the matches so her grandmother won’t disappear like the other images, and the matches shine with a radiance brighter than the day.  The grandmother lifts the little girl in her arms.  “And there was no cold, no hunger, no fear – they were with God.”  In the corner, by the house, in the early morning cold, sat the little girl with rosy cheeks and a smile on her face, frozen to death on the last day of the old year.  “She had wanted to warm herself, it was said.  No one knew what lovely sight she had seen or in what radiance she had gone with her grandmother.”

I know.  The story is tragic to the point of maudlin.  But as an adult, it never fails to make me tear up.  As a child, I saw something poignantly beautiful in it.  Children love fairy tales. They have innate sense of good and evil.  They know that everything’s not right with the world.  Even as a child, I sensed in this story a transcendent truth: we live in a fallen world where little girls can be robbed, beaten, neglected and excluded – and yet there is a supernatural love that rescues them.  It made sense to me that the people who found her frozen body in the morning didn’t understand what had happened.  They couldn’t comprehend the beauty she had seen, nor the beauty in which she now lived.

Over and over, the Bible describes heaven as a feast.  So why does Jesus tell this seemingly strange parable of this rageful king who invites people to the wedding feast of his son; is furious and vengeful when the original invitees decline; tells his servants to pull in anyone they can find; and then throws out the guest who came without a wedding garment.  An extremely bright friend of mine in college once asked me about this parable.  “It doesn’t make sense,” Scott said, in his rational way.  “The man drags in people from the street, and then he throws them out because they’re not properly attired?  What did he expect?”  At the time, I tried to explain how the parable did make sense, because I had never heard anyone preach anything other than that the parables were metaphors for God.  But now, looking at it again, I can see Scott was right.  The parable doesn’t make sense.  So what’s going on?

I now think God tells stories about humans in his parables, to break through into our world. There’s an incarnation aspect to the parables.  This parable is full of humanity.  We humans do turn down even wedding invitations because we are more interested in our businesses.   Meanwhile, we sometimes get rageful when people turn down our parties – because we’re hurt.  We assume they’ve done it spitefully, or that they’re lying or that they don’t like us.  The father could have been satisified with just a small family party – it’s a wedding, after all – but instead wants only to fill the house. He tells the servants to bring in the good and the bad. It seems to be a pride issue. He wants to look like he has friends, even though he clearly doesn’t. And then to be disappointed when one of his new “friends” rocks up in the wrong clothes is exactly the kind of reaction we have: the person we’re mad at in these situations, deep down, is ourselves.  Why did we settle?  What were we expecting from the riff raff we were hanging out with, anyway?

The divine breaks into the parable through these very interstices.  When the King is turned down by his first invitees, he reacts with rage.  When God is turned down, he reacts with love.  God extended the invitation of salvation through Christ to everyone, even though no one wanted him:  God loves us when we don’t love him back.  God invites the “riff raff” not out of pride but love.   Jesus said, over and over, that he was here for the sick.   He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors.  Jesus came for anyone honest enough to admit they’re “riff raff”.  He came for anyone willing to admit they need him.  Finally, while the king throws out the person with no clothes, Jesus does the opposite.  Jesus allowed himself to be unclothed – the Roman soldiers stripped him of his robe – in order to clothe us in his perfection; he covered our sins by dying for us on the cross.  He gave up his wedding garments, in order to clothe us for the wedding feast.  At every place, therefore, where we show our humanity, Christ shows his divinity.

The fact that the parable shows how humans do things that don’t make sense serves a second purpose.  The more God shows us our humanity, even though it feels bad at the time to see our imperfections, the better off we are.  The more we break, the more room there is for God to break in.  Discovering the places in our hearts where we act in vengeful, spiteful, or irrational ways, forces us to ask for God’s help. While it hurts to be humbled, those cracks in our false images of ourselves are the places where God caulks us up with the truth: he loves us, no matter what, and He came to make the rough places smooth. When we stop trying to fix ourselves in our own strength, he can go to work.  All he asks is that we stop trying to earn our way to heaven by being good, and admit we need the covering of the cross.

Once you’ve entered God’s kingdom, you will never be rejected again, no matter what happens.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God,” Jesus said.  The reason those words amazed the Pharisees, I think, is that they recognized that everything belongs to God.  You belong to God.  God is the God of the living.  He made you to love Him with your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  But he knows that none of us can love like that; so God gave us his love instead.  All he asks is that we start embracing him.

“Remain in my love,” Jesus asks each of us.  It’s an invitation to all, that no one can afford to reject.  Because remaining in Jesus’ love is the safest place to be.  “I will never leave you or forsake you,” Jesus promises.  His love transcends all earthly circumstances, and his presence gives a supernatural and divine joy that shines in your heart with more brilliance than a thousand suns.  When you live in His love, you’re no longer controlled by who accepts or rejects you on this earth.  There is a more excellent way.  It’s to accept the love of the God who made you to live with him forever.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on November 9, 2011

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