The Universal Understudy

When Jesus tells a parable I imagine the drama unfolding on a stage.  Further, I imagine myself as a ‘universal understudy’—meaning that at some moment in the production I receive a tap on the shoulder and have to stand-in for one of the garish characters Jesus describes.  It always seems to happen when the story’s plot gives me an uncomfortable feeling in my gut.  I don’t get to choose the character or the moment; it’s the parable that chooses.  And this week, when I read the gospel lesson—the parable of the Wedding Banquet—I was, as always, invited to participate.

I knew this was going to happen.  It always does–the world would be watching, and I would have to perform.  So early in the week I read the parable a few times to get the characters in mind.  Good understudies are always ready to take on any role they are asked.  Even so, there are some roles better suited for you than others.

The parable begins with a king.  I look good in royal blue, don’t mind being pampered, and can strut around like a proud peacock without much ‘acting’ at all.  But this king throws a party, and truth be told, I’m not much of a party guy.  It’s a wedding party to boot, which tops my list of social phobias.  But then again, the invitations he sends out are overlooked and neglected by the recipients, and I have always had a fear that I would be overlooked and neglected.  Still the king perseveres and sends the invitations a second time.  This is when I knew that I could never be the king—not a chance!  If once you reject me I learn my lesson quick.  The king has a confident persistence that I could never match.  What would I draw on to play his part?  I would be totally unbelievable.  Further, when the king is rejected a second time he flies into an imperial rage and kills the neglectful invitees and torches their cities.  I don’t like conflict, and I abhor violence.  The angry king would be too great a stretch, even if I were just him for one night’s production and doing my best to act outside of myself.  I can only imagine the biting critiques in the Times theatre reviews.  We’d be off–>off–>off Broadway in a matter of days.

There are others that fill out the cast.  The party is thrown for the king’s son.  If I can’t pull off the role of king, than perhaps I can make my debut as the prince.  No, that would never work.  I would have to be the center of attention—the party was thrown for him after all–I shudder at the thought!  And since it was a wedding, I would certainly have to dance.   What do I think of dancing?  I would rather gargle with a throat full of razor blades.

So perhaps I could play one of the invitees.  At first blush this has real potential.  After all, I have already confessed that parties are not my scene.  So it would be natural for me to ignore the first invite.  Shannon might want to go, so I will hide the invitations in that big stack of papers on her desk—she’ll never find them (I’m ‘ad libbing’).  The problem is I don’t know if I could resist the second invite.  The king is smart, so when the first invite is ignored he sends a second invite complete with a menu for the evening—‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready.”  I do love a good pink prime rib, or a mouth watering marinated skirt steak, or a flame kissed T-bone.

Now at this point the invitees, who form an ensemble, go in two different directions.  The first receive the second invite and make light of it and go about their business of tending to farms and the everyday concerns of life.  The second, who perhaps are at odds with the king, or are not fans of the prince, seize the ones sent with the invitations and beat and murder them.  If I was going to choose—but I never can choose—I would certainly not play the latter.  Again, I abhor violence, and I don’t think I am mad at the king for much, and the prince is a good enough fellow.  I possibly could be the former.  I think I’ve even played that role before, on an opening night in another city, on another stop on the tour.  I do get caught up with the scramble, and let the time pass by, and think that parties are for everyone else and not me—you didn’t see me crowding the sidewalks of Wall Street this week.  I admit that sometimes I ignore invitations sent me by the king.  But I am doing better, with God’s help, and the church alongside me.  I feel like I am at least on my way—maybe a few minutes late—but going none the less.  So this can’t be me.

The characters are getting thin now.  Perhaps I would make a good servant, sending out the king’s invitations.  I am a preacher after all—a proclaimer by trade.  But I don’t like the part where I am beaten and murdered.  Staffing pulpits in safe sanctuaries with friendly audiences is my kind of game.  Always has been.  I can’t really say I’ve earned the right to understudy that role.

Well who else could I be?  I am waiting for the right character to be introduced, for my belly to feel nauseas (the pre-show jitters), but it is not happening.

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There is of course the chorus line.  These are the folks hidden in the background, who have no individual lines, but who are present just to make the stage seem full.  They’re right there in the parable, when the stage was empty, the king called on the chorus line.  The servants who failed to bring in the A-list actors were sent out into the streets to gather all they could find—thespians of all different quality, both good and bad—and so the wedding hall was full of guests.  It was full of the faceless, nameless, folks who couldn’t land a lead role if it was an airplane and they had four decades of flight school training.

Well I can’t be choosey in this business.  We’ve all heard how the economy has hurt the theatre district.  So a spot in the chorus line is better than sulking around backstage.  And I do see a few similarities—I don’t have one drop of royal blood, I have never attended a prince’s banquet, I don’t know which fork to use when, and my wardrobe comes from the discount rack.  I’m definitely a main street kind of guy.  And isn’t this exactly what an understudy is–not part of the original cast—not part of the chosen—but a second option, a plan ‘B’, an afterthought.

The good news is, at least I get to go to the banquet.  At least I get a bite of prime rib!  At least I get on stage!  And that is all we really want—an invitation to the banquet, a free dinner, a role in the play.

I feel the tap on my shoulder, and a forceful hand pushing at the small of my back, “Hurry, you’re on!”  What!?  Me?  Now!?  And suddenly I am thrust through an opening in the muslin backdrop, the heat of the stage lights warm my face, and the gaze of the crowd moves over me.

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You know the dream—the one where you’re well into third period at school, or the fourth hour of the work day, or the second lap on your jog around the park before you realize that you are buck naked!  I hate that dream.  YOU hate that dream.  But we all have it—there is a universal stress on our subconscious’s that one day we will be found out, stripped naked, and put on stage for the world to see.  I usually have that dream about Friday, when the sermon is refusing to enter the birth canal, and the clock is ticking away.  What if I have nothing?  What if people learn the truth about me?  What if they come to know that I’m no holy man, that I have no business being here, that I don’t know which fork to use, that I’m broke, that I get depressed, that I struggle with my faith, that I covet my neighbor’s possessions, that I am running away from God’s prophetic call?  What if they find out about you?  What if they find out that you’re an actor playing two different roles—the public you, and the private you, or the church you and the work you?  What if they find out that you don’t come close to doing what you say?  That you don’t know a single lyric of the music, and not one of the chorus line dance steps.  And when they find out it’s going to be ugly.  They’re not going to write bad reviews, they’re going to kick you off stage and throw you into the outer darkness.  The whole time I was worried about that first tap on my shoulder, the one that invites me in—and I should have been worried about the second, the one that says, “Now that you’re on stage show me you belong.”

When the king invited the ‘B’ list there was one who didn’t have enough sense to wear the proper wedding garment.  He ‘showed up’ with the wrong ‘get up’—he might as well have been buck naked.  The king tapped him on the shoulder, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”  The man was speechless.  Of course he was speechless, he was in the chorus, and they are not supposed to have any lines.  The king threw him out.  He didn’t belong.  He was going to ruin the whole production.

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The parable of the wedding banquet shows up in two other gospel accounts.  The first is canonical—the gospel of Luke.  The second is the non canonical gospel of Thomas.  All three accounts seem to draw from a common source.  Each is adapted to fit the needs of their respective communities.  Matthew is the only one that records the casting out of the under dressed wedding guest.  This part of the play was important to Matthew.  It appears that Matthew’s community needed a reminder (as ours does as well) that accepting an invitation to God’s future does not mean you can be a non-participant in all that that future is intending to bring about.  When you accept the invitation, when you are a universal understudy, it means that you are ready and willing to play the part.  We are not invited to become two different people, and to fret and worry that one day we will be found out.  We are invited to put all that silliness behind us, and to become one with the person and work of the risen Christ.

The church as a sign of the kingdom of God must remember this.  We are a God’s holy chorus line, singing and dancing an endless refrain.  We are second invitation people.  We are participants in the kingdom of God.  And it demands a certain kind of attire—we are to adorn ourselves with the works of justice, peace, and mercy.  Don’t think too much of the invitation.  We are just main street folk who got a tap on the shoulder, a lucky break, a gift.  It’s no excuse to run around buck naked.  The parable has chosen your part and mine.  So get in costume, stay in step, and sing the words to the right song—for many are called, but few are chosen.  Jesus says that, right at the end of the parable.  They are sharp words, and they give you an uncomfortable feeling in your gut, I feel it too, which means that we finally found the right role.  So feel the tap on your shoulder, and the hand in the small of your back, and see the break in the muslin backdrop, and get out there, and break a leg.  You knew this was going to happen.  It always does.  The whole world’s watching, it’s time to perform.

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