Do you remember the movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” with Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier? Released in 1967, this film dealt with the radical issues of racial prejudice and interracial marriage but did so in a most astounding way. One could argue the loudest protests to this impending marriage between Joey, the young, idealistic, colorblind white daughter to Matt and Christina Drayton played brilliantly by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and Dr. John Prentiss played by the dark skinned Poitier comes from the other African Americans in the movie; the maid in the Drayton household and Prentiss’ parents. Though Joey is certainly not a dumb blind type she does play the role of one who is blissfully naïve and perhaps it is her naiveté, which sends out all kinds of red flags for her father Matt. His subtle prejudices are tempered further by Christina’s life-long openness to changing mores. Watching the two, the viewer gets the strong impression that Joey’s idealism and lack of prejudice is directly related to the very clear messages she received growing up with progressive parents. Like any idealistic set of principles we utter, we often find we will be challenged to live what we say we believe. So, the Draytons now find themselves in that less than enviable situation. They must accept their own high-minded beliefs, the very real beliefs they had taught Joey even though the result will be an acceptance of their daughter’s desire to marry a black man. Knowing how difficult the road will be for the two young and in love couple…this is after all, 1967 and prejudices and tempers regarding intermarriage of the races is still very hot…they are torn between the desire to protect their daughter from pain or to cause her pain by refusing their support to this union. Prentiss ups the ante when he assures Matt Drayton, he will not marry Joey without her parents full support. They have an out if they choose to take it. In the end, there is a marriage and the parents on both sides come to terms with their own hidden and not so hidden fears and prejudice.
The parable Jesus tells his followers is another “the Kingdom of heaven is like…” story. However, this one is a bit more difficult to swallow than the pastoral images of growing seed and wheat or finding coin and treasure, images we read about in earlier metaphoric “kingdom of heaven” parables. This one talks about killing the messengers those sent out to call in the persons the king has invited to his son’s wedding banquet. Now, the banquet is ready and as custom dictates it is time for those invited guests to answer the invitation and attend, but they refuse in a rather nasty way. In kind, the king reciprocates. He slaughters the ones who had killed his servants and then, burns down their city.
Though we don’t live in a society ruled by royalty, we do know protocol and even we know it is highly disrespectful to ignore an invitation from a king. The insult is heightened by the violence, which is followed by more violence. Some days, it just feels like nothing ever changes. Violence perpetrates a responding act of savage might in our day too. How many invitations of God’s grace do we shun or diminish by our thoughtless behavior or our insulting action? We might come to the same conclusion as the King…those first invited were found to be unworthy and undeserving. Not to be daunted by this setback , the king orders his remaining servants to go out to the streets, alleys, anywhere and everywhere people might be and invite them to fill the chairs in the banquet hall. The good, the bad, the ugly…any and all are brought in.
The first obvious and of course, Christian interpretation lies in the Biblical truth that the Jews, the chosen people did turn away from the opportunity to enter the kingdom of God. They shunned the invitation. They ignored or killed the messengers, those early prophets and they would finally find a way to dishonor the Son of God leading him to his brutal end on a cross. But the King, i.e., God did not let this stop the celebration. Rather urgently, the King sent out a broader invitation, which would now include the Gentiles. The banquet hall must be filled even if those invited had not been among the first to be invited.
I rather like the second possibility to help understand this story. In our own personal lives, we often find ways to turn away from the generous offers of grace, love, forgiveness and healing God extends to us. We are like those first invitees filled with excuses, delayed by things we think are more important, fearful of letting go of the known to embrace something new. God offers us a hopeful invitation to come quickly and join God in this Kingdom prepared for us and we find it hard to let go of the self-made kingdoms we create around us. Our kingdoms are dependent on money and status, things we own and things that seem to own us, fields of need and desires, the people we know or we want to be known by. We fill our worlds with wants and then spend our lives filling our time with ways to meet the things we think we need, when all of it is really just waiting for us in a kingdom of God’s creating. If and when we discover this truth, we find that what we thought we couldn’t live without has now become something we don’t want to live with. All those needs and wants become small and insignificant. God is enough. The banquet is ready and the meal has been prepared for us. The great German preacher, professor and theologian, Helmut Thielicke, puts it this way:
“Repentance and remorse always come soon enough, but joy can never come too soon. We who know Jesus Christ have only to proclaim joy.”[i] And Joy is something we want to share, isn’t it? When we find Jesus Christ and accept an invitation of hope and healing, we want to share it, in some way with others. We become like the king’s servants who are eager to fill the table because we know what will be served is nourishing and life sustaining. It gives us joy and because it gives us joy, we know it will bring joy to others so it is always best when shared.
The dangers are out there though. Sharing the message of God’s hope and love, sharing Christ with someone can mean we might suffer insult and ridicule. We might even lose our lives. It happens every day in some part of the world somewhere. But even in those places where we think we are safe from physical harm for the faith we hold, sharing what we believe can be challenging and a bit frightening. Like the Draytons in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” we are called live out what we have professed to believe as truth. None of us want to face the anger, rejection or loss of friendship or relationship because of what we believe. But, the rewards are so awesome and the call on our lives to go out and compel others to come in so insistent, that not doing so will somehow weaken our own hold on God’s joy in our lives. Inviting others to the party is all important. Kalas writes: “It’s the one Event in all of time and eternity that we dare not miss. Of course, we would be insistent! How could we be otherwise?”[ii] Amen.