This morning’s Gospel reading picks up right where last week’s left off, with only a changed metaphor. Last week we had a landowner who sent his servants to check up on the tenant vine-growers, only to have his two groups of servants abused and killed. Then he sent his son, on the assumption that he would be respected. But he, too, was killed. We saw clearly that the servants represented the prophets sent by God to warn His people about the consequences of apostasy, idolatry and disobedience. Then He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, Who, instead of being respected, was rejected and crucified.
Now we have a king who is throwing a wedding feast for his son, and he sends out his servants to round up the invited wedding guests with this simple and gracious summons: “Everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.” But once again, we have servants being mistreated and killed. Last week, the chief priests and Pharisees responded to the parable by saying that the owner of the vineyard should “bring those wretches to a wretched end, and rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers.” Today, the king sends out his armies to “destroy those murderers and set their city on fire.”
But then there’s a surprise twist: the king dispatches his servants, telling them to bring in the unexpectant guests, the uninvited guests, the unworthy guests, persons with whom the wedding hall soon became full. Did you get the “unworthy” part? Jesus says that the replacement guests were “both good and evil,” without distinction. It’s just as Paul wrote to the Romans: “The righteousness of God (is) through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, for there is no distinction: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22b, 23). Sin is the great leveler that puts all of us on the same footing before God, whether we view ourselves as “good” or “evil.” The king invited both to the marriage feast of his son, and God invites “both good and evil” persons to the marriage feast of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But don’t fail to read and remember the final words of Jesus in this parable: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” There may be no distinction between the good and the evil, but there is a distinction between those who are called and those who are chosen. The first wave of wedding guests, those specially invited to the son’s wedding feast, were called, but refused to come. The second wave, people who were just “out in the streets,” accepted the invitation and were chosen to sit at the table of the king’s son. That’s what we do here every Sunday morning, and what we’ll do when Jesus returns for all who are His own: we will feast at the marriage supper of the Lamb. This is our foretaste, where we acknowledge His Real Presence and feast on all that He has given of Himself for us. Here is where we learn afresh what it means to be “in Christ.”
Now I know that some of you are waiting to see what I will say about the poor chap who showed up in the wrong clothes. You may be assured that you’re not the first persons to wonder about him, nor would you be the first to ask me about this demonstration of something so completely unfair. And you’re right to label this one of the most unfair things in all the teachings of Jesus; but that’s true only if you get trapped in the literal meaning of this person’s inappropriate clothing. It has absolutely nothing to do with his showing up in a tuxedo and a black tie when he should have worn tails and a white tie.
So what does it mean? The answer is simple: that those who are to share in the wedding feast of God’s Son, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, the Lamb Who has mercy on us and grants us His peace, those persons will be dressed neither in tuxes nor in tails. Their only attire will be the righteousness of Christ in which we’re clothed for all eternity. Listen to this stunning snapshot in the Apostle John’s vision of the Lamb’s feast from Revelation 19:
“Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Revelation 19:6b-9).
And what are these “righteous deeds of the saints”? We just heard the answer in Romans 3:22, “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Paul then adds in Romans 4, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Only Jesus Himself can clothe us properly, in His righteousness, a righteousness that becomes ours sola fidei: through faith alone. It’s not about the right tie. As the hymn writer, Edward Mote, wrote nearly 200 years ago (1838):
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found,
dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.
There’s your answer! That’s our answer: the person in the wrong clothes, the one who consequently was bound “hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” was the one who was not dressed in Jesus’ righteousness alone. When we’re seen to be dressed in the “fine linen, bright and pure” with which the Lamb Himself clothes us, then it no longer will matter whether we were formerly “good” or “evil” in the world’s eyes. God sees us only in Christ’s righteousness, and invites us to His table.
Now I want to take just a few more minutes to look at Paul’s words to the Philippians, as they present an unparalleled formula for experiencing a radiant Christian life in the here and now. Here, again, is what Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
What an absolutely amazing list of things to hold at the forefront of our minds! What an incomparable formula for victorious living! And the entire secret is in the last 4 words: “dwell on these things.” Dwelling is the answer. Why is it that some Christians seem to dread every sunrise while others seem almost always to be basking in the sunlight? It’s definitely not a personality issue alone. It has everything to do with whether we’re dwelling on Paul’s list of things: things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of excellence and worthy of praise.
The alternative is to dwell in the shadows, in the places of gloom and doom, to dwell on the negative things that are usually beyond our control, to allow our focus to be more on the tragedies and disturbances and catastrophes that we hear about daily and that bombard our consciousness even when we try to shut them out. Yes, they’re real and they need to be addressed. But that’s not the point. That’s not Paul’s point. Look at the world in which Paul lived and consider the circumstances of his life, particularly at the very time when he’s writing this letter while facing a brutal martyrdom, the only uncertainty of which was when it would occur, not whether.
Yet he pens these overwhelmingly positive words, all prefaced with, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” And just two verses after today’s passage, Paul drops another essential clue as to his contentment: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
I never read these verses from Philippians without a mental throwback to a book by an inspirational writer from my college days, Norman Vincent Peale. Most of you will remember that book and its title: The Power of Positive Thinking. It was first published in 1965, and since then has been translated into fifteen languages with more than 7 million copies sold. Apparently it’s been helpful to many persons. But in Christian circles, it soon spawned an unforgettable adage: “Paul is appealing, but Peale is appalling!”
Why do Christians find Peale appalling? The answer is simple: Peale’s premise is that we should develop positive thinking solely by self-actualization: pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, being self-made successes. Peale was a principal architect of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality that pervades our 21st century American society. His chapter headings included, “Believe in yourself and in everything you do.” “Assume control over your circumstances.” And “Be kind to yourself.” But how is that working out for the average person? Our society is angst-ridden, laced with out-of-control anger issues, with defiance of authority in any form, with deep divisions that threaten the very fiber of the so-called American way of life, with pervasive depression that keeps our pharmaceutical companies thriving while failing to address anything deeper than physiological factors.
Paul was decidedly not an “I’m okay, you’re okay” sort of chap. He wrote this: “All are under sin, as it is written: there is none righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:9-18).
Now before you say, “There goes Paul at his most hyperbolic,” I will quickly remind you that nearly every word I just read was actually Paul quoting from various psalms and from Isaiah. If you put all of this in their respective historical contexts, you end up siding with Solomon who wrote in Ecclesiastes, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9).
What’s our answer? I believe the answer is not nearly as complicated as we try to make it. We seek for answers in every corner while overlooking the obvious. What’s obvious is the 4-pronged Pauline formula we find in Philippians 4:
Vs. 4: Rejoice in the Lord always
Vs. 6: Replace anxiety with prayer and thanksgiving
Vs. 8: Dwell on the positives, the Biblical positives; and finally,
Vss. 11-13: Learn to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves
When we do that, when we truly and intentionally dwell on those things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of excellence and worthy of praise, and when we cultivate a spirit of rejoicing in the Lord for all of those things, coupled with prayer and thanksgiving, then we will have discovered the secret of contentment regardless of our circumstances. And you know what? We’ll discover that it was not a secret at all. It’s clearly revealed by God in His own Holy Word, and we know that God always keeps His Word! To Him be all praise and glory in Christ Jesus, both now and forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen