Make Room at the Table

I wrote this essay with my own church in mind, but the principle applies globally… Are you willing to make room at the table for everyone, or have you already culled your guest list?

We are on the cusp of something great. It is being preached from the pulpit; you can hear it in the sermons and read it in between the lines of what’s being taught in school. You can sense the tension, the excitement salted with unease. When will it happen? What will it look like? As a church, we tremble on the edge of a precipice, and below us lies new land, ready to be claimed for the Kingdom. But, like a valley floor is shrouded in clouds and mist, we cannot see our future clearly, so we wait like a traveler who doesn’t know what the weather will be like when he gets there. How should we dress? What should we pack? How can we be ready?

But while the curiosity of the unknown can account for some of the trepidation, I think many of us—our leaders included—are vexed with another demon. Though most daren’t say it out loud, many fear that we will be like the original guests in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22:1-14. We will be too busy with our education, our work, our programs, our outreach, our ministries that we’ll miss our “now moment,” our “kronos time.” We will overlook our opportunity—or worse, shut it down and laugh it to scorn—and the torch will pass to someone else.

And so, as the wait drags on and the birth pangs become unbearable, the questioning voice changes its tune. Why hasn’t it happened yet? Are we missing something? Is it something we’re doing? Is it me? Is it them? What are we doing wrong? And so we turn to self-inspection, not always an unworthy pursuit, to examine ourselves and make sure we are building the temple according to pattern (Hebrews 8:5) and bringing the tithe into the storehouse (Haggai 1:4, Malachi 3:10).

These trains of thoughts are not altogether unfruitful. I do believe that Kingdom disciples, both individually and as a group, need not fear being “looked over” as long as they are giving their honest and best effort to follow God and His instructions in the given moment. As we can see from God’s response to the various early churches throughout the Epistles and Revelation (Revelation 2-3), God does not expect us to fully know or understand; He expects us to obey. But part of that obedience involves a responsibility to vigilance, to always be receptive to rebuke and on alert for ways we can conform our temple more to pattern (see again Revelation 2-3).

And this, sadly, is how many churches miss their “kronos time”: By falling to recognize a rebuke when it comes. This is why I fear we have long been misreading Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22 and failing to realize who we truly are in this story.

Most people extract two common interpretations from this story. The first is Jesus’ obvious slight against the Pharisees and religious system of His day. The Jews had been invited to sit at the table, but because the Kingdom feast did not look like what they had originally envisioned, they rejected it, causing the torch to pass to others. We see this repeated continually throughout history; when one people or church fails to bring enough oil, God will light the flame elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why revival came to a small community church in Missouri, when no doubt God had been sending out invitations to churches and pastors elsewhere in the state for decades. As such, most people envision themselves as the replacement guests invited in off the streets, and in many cases, they are.

The second obvious application of this story is to view ourselves as the original guests and use this parable as a cautionary tale against missing our “now moment.” And while that is a worthy and truthful interpretation, I suspect that if we took a survey of our own church membership, most people would say they haven’t refused God’s invitation to the feast. And the majority of them would be right. While there are no doubt pockets of people who have become complacent or are too preoccupied with work or wife, most people at our church came because they tasted the feast and wanted more. They may need some coaching, but they are overall open to the invitation—and at the very least aren’t in a hurry to mock, beat, or kill the messenger.

However, I would like to propose that there’s a third interpretation of this story, one that requires putting yourself in place of the guests. Imagine you were invited off the street to a grand wedding feast. You look around the room and study the other people who were invited on a whim. Who do you see?

The homeless? The impoverished? The single mother? The divorcees? The broken families? The man with the porn addition? The former drug addict? A recovering alcoholic? The young woman who was raped? The young man who was abused as a child?

It paints such a charming picture, doesn’t it? All these broken souls, gathered into God’s Kingdom, to be clothed, fed, and cured of their pain and disease. It’s a picture most Christians would celebrate, and they would gladly take a seat next to the single mother or recovering drug addict.

But allow me to repaint the picture slightly. Imagine you are seated at the wedding feast, and next to you is a lesbian woman—with her partner. On your other side is a transsexual—which gender they were originally, you really can’t tell. You can see a man a few seats down wearing a skirt and makeup, although it clearly isn’t drag. Across from you is a Muslim family, headscarves and all. You overhear a conversation somewhere on your right as a young man quietly expresses to his friend that he’s confused about his sexual preferences and is afraid to tell his parents. Elsewhere, you can hear two young couples having a loud conversation about how their husbands stay home with the children while the wives work, and they’ve been allowing their children to pick out their own clothes—even if that means little Johnny wants the My Little Pony tutu.

Now how do you feel? Are you still happy to be seated next to this ragtag bundle of guests off the street? Are you still glad to call these fellow guests brothers and sisters?

Although many will not admit it with words, most Christians’ actions clearly prove that they prefer the former picture over the latter. When they envision the masses being brought to Christ, they picture the single mothers, the drug addicts—those with clean, tidy problems we have a solution for. Problems that don’t involve politics, or gender identity, or post-modernism. Problems without shame. Problems we have a textbook answer for.

But the reality is, if God ignites the global revival we’re praying for, the latter picture will be more accurate. If we want God to revive our nation, to go out in the street and gather people in, these are the kinds of people that will respond to the invitation. The broken transsexuals, the gays and lesbians, the Muslims, the progressive leftists and hard right-wingers. These are the kind of people that are in the street, the people God wants to invite. And I fear the church doesn’t want to make room at the table.

We claim we want a revival and we want the nations to come in, but in practice, what we really want is for God to gather all of the clean, tidy, morally upright people to fill our pews. We don’t mind a few easy-to-patch problems, but we want everyone to be clean-shaven and wearing a nice suit—or at least clean jeans and a button up. We want people to already look and play the part so they fit neatly into our family. We don’t want a revival of the nations; we want a revival of people that look and talk like us.

And so when it comes to transsexuals and gays and lesbians and Muslims, we want them to clean up first. We don’t know how to fix their problems; all we can do is condemn it from the pulpit without offering any guidance, counseling, or solutions. We shun them at the door and expect them to solve their own problems before they come in. We’ll take a transsexual—if they’ve already admitted they were wrong. We don’t know what to do with a transsexual who doesn’t think they’re wrong. We don’t know what to do with a lesbian who’s still married. We don’t know what to do with a gender-confused child who wants answers to their questions. We don’t care if that’s your past, but if that’s your present, we don’t want to sit with you at the table.

Many Christians justify their aversion to certain issues by claiming that, because it’s pretty clear in Scripture that homosexuality is wrong, anyone who comes to Christ as a homosexual should not stay a homosexual. This is correct in principle; in fact, Jesus addresses this in the rest of His parable. At the end of the day, any guest who refuses to wear the appropriate garments will be cast out.

This passage always confused me somewhat, until I did further research on it for this paper. Why would the King expect poor people off the street to have wedding garments? However, according to history, it was common for the wealthy to provide wedding garments to their guests. The guests did not need to bring anything of their own; they only had to show up and wear what was provided. So it is with anyone who comes to Christ; it does not matter what you were wearing when you came, as long as you’re willing to put it aside and wear what He gives you.

While Christians can accept this in principle, in action we expect most of the guests to come in already wearing wedding garments. We expect people to come in the door already looking, acting, and talking like conformed Christians. For those who don’t, we strongly advise them to go out and buy their own garments—instead of being patient while the King of the feast clothes His own guests.

As long as we, the church, are unprepared to receive people “off the street,” God will not send them to us. This does not mean we need to condone the behavior, but it does mean we need to have the treatment plan in place. A hospital cannot turn away a cancer patient, saying, “Go get your own therapy; once your mass has shrunk and you need help with the recovery, then we’ll help you.” Neither can a church turn away and the sick because we are unwilling to get their dirt under our fingernails.

Take a look around you. Who’s seated next to you at the table? Are you prepared to move down a seat to make room for a transsexual? Are you prepared to counsel a lesbian in love? Are you prepared to be patient with a Muslim as they attempt to justify their Middle Eastern traditions with Kingdom realities? Are you willing to share the feast with others off the street? Or will you refuse to come because you do not like who else is seated at the table?

“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… For many are called, and few are chosen.”

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