The choice we face

October 14th, 2020

Julius Henry Marx was born in a room above a butcher shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on October 2, 1890. By the name Julius, this man may be unfamiliar to you. Most people know him as Groucho.

Groucho Marx, who died in 1977, developed a trademark look for stage and screen. Greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, glasses, a cigar, and an exaggeratedly loping stride. Strolling the streets of New York in a normal gait and without the disguise, he would go mostly unnoticed by passersby.

As distinctive as the Groucho character’s appearance was, his brand of humor was what set him apart, at least for me. It resembles what we might call snark today: irreverent, sarcastic responses frequently intended to deliver a serious message.

My favorite Groucho quip was repeated later by Woody Allen: I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

In a few words Groucho summarized one of the key human dilemmas. We struggle to live peaceably with each other because we’re not entirely comfortable with ourselves. And, whether or not Groucho intended it, the real-life circumstances that prompted the quip helped me to clarify the nature of this abiding human challenge.

You see, I had assumed that Groucho was wittily refusing to join a club. Instead, he was resigning from a club to which he already held membership. And there’s the key.

We don’t begin life as isolated individuals faced with the choice of making connection with others or standing on our own. From the start God has woven us into a web of relationships. Our choice is to tend and mend those relationships or to strain and fray them.

Jesus said as much in what we sometimes call The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. The short version goes something like this. (Matthew 22:1-14)

A king threw a wedding reception for his son. Nobody RSVP’ed, so the king sent servants to issue a personal invitation. No takers. In fact, some on the original guest list even abused and murdered the king’s slaves. Furious, the king sent troops to kill the original invitees and burn down their town.

Next, he sent his servants into every street, alley, and seedy dive to invite everybody—and I do mean everybody—to the big party. When the hall is full, the king bumps into a guest with no wedding garment and tosses him out on his ear.

Before unpacking this, let me say something about reading parables that my regular readers will recognize. Parables are not analogies. I won’t be trying to match up who the king is supposed to stand for, who the various guests are, and how the guy just dragged from a back alley could be expected to have a wedding garment handy.

Nope, parables are more like Zen koans. You know, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Instead of teaching a set of principles for us to memorize, parables challenge us to rethink our most basic and perhaps tenaciously-held assumptions about who God is and who we are.

So, here’s my take.

God is throwing a party. It’s already going on and everybody has been invited. Actually, we’re all already at the party, even if we can’t or won’t see that we are. God never uninvites anyone.

God just keeps urging us to party on. To love all those crazy, quirky, imperfect people that God decided to put on the guest list. But to love them, we have to acknowledge that we are one of them. No better. No worse. Simply God’s beloved.

And that’s what it means to put on the wedding garment: I’m one of God’s beloved oddballs just like everybody else. It’s nothing we did or said, really. It’s just how God is.

The only choice we face is whether to enjoy the party or to uninvite ourselves. To echo Groucho’s phrase, we have to decide whether or not to belong to a club that already has us as a member.

An invitation

You’re invited to join me for a series of in-person Zoom conversations called “A Love Shaped Life” Thursdays (6:00 p.m. CDT) in October. This coming Thursday (Oct. 15) we’ll be talking about how to forgive yourself

Missed last week’s session? No worries. Each conversation stands on its own. Hope to see you there!

There’s no charge. No registration. All you need to do on Thursday is click this link:

All talks are based on my book A Resurrection Shape Life

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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