Every Christmas during my childhood, my older brother Robert and I eagerly awaited the night CBS would air the Claymation cartoon special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” We loved everything about it: Santa Claus, who took care to fatten himself up before Christmas so his red suit would fit; Rudolph, with his nose so bright; Yukon Cornelius and Hermie the Elf, who tame the Abominable Snowman. But the part of the cartoon I most anticipated, for reasons I could not explain in childhood, was the Island of Misfit Toys.
The island is populated by flawed toys: a fire engine painted pink instead of red; a security doll that is herself insecure; a Charlie-in-the-box no one wants because his name isn’t Jack. The toys live isolated on the Island of Misfit Toys because, they believe, their flaws render them unlovable in the toy box of any child. Even at age six, the sadness of this scene worried and overwhelmed me.
This morning Matthew gives us his version of Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet. As in Luke’s version of this same parable, a host plans a wedding banquet for his son, but the guests everyone expects to be invited all refuse to attend. So the host creates a new invitation list. His emissaries go out into the streets and gather all whom they find, both good and bad, and, we are told, “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
But Matthew’s version of this parable adds something that’s missing in Luke: a disturbing coda to the end of the story. When the host enters the festive banquet, he notices a man who is clothed wrongly, and he asks, “Friend, how did you get in here dressed like that?” The guest cannot answer, and he is removed from the party.
Especially when we remember that the host is God in this parable, there are two things startling about this twist at the end. First, and most often remarked upon in sermons and bible studies, is that the host removes the guest after taking such pains to invite everyone in. It seems ungracious if not unfair, and maybe even cruel. But second, and more often overlooked, is the word by which the host addresses this guest. The host calls the guest “friend,” affirming a relationship of companionship and even love. And so, whatever else happens at the end of this parable, it must be interpreted not through vindictiveness or retribution, but through the friendship and love the host extends to this final guest. Though at times one may have to do so, one never seeks or wants to exclude a friend. So we are left to ask, “What is the wedding garment that this guest lacks, and which prevents his participation in the party?”
Flannery O’Connor’s stories are about the American South, about which she said “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is surely Christ-haunted.”[i] O’Connor’s stories are unflinching. She uses abrasive and challenging language to get our attention. In her short-story “Revelation,” O’Connor tells the reader of Ruby Turpin, a genial, middle class Southern Christian woman who has, as Ruby repeatedly reminds herself and others, “a good disposition.” Ruby is cordial, she is outwardly kind to the African-Americans who work on her small farm, and she supports the causes of those in need. True, Ruby is also preoccupied by how relieved she is that she wasn’t born (as Flannery O’Connor puts it) poor white trash or black, and she allows herself the satisfaction that it’s people like her who make the world go round.
In a doctor’s office waiting room one afternoon, Ruby finds herself surrounded by all those in society from whom she considers herself set apart: a poor and ignorant white family, whose little boy drips snot from his nose and mother has snuff stains around her mouth; a black delivery boy who mouths back at Ruby just enough that she can guess what kind of family he must come from; and a sullen, pimply-faced college coed who scowls at Ruby over the top of the textbook she is reading.
With Ruby’s only recognized peer in the waiting room (a tidy woman who happens to be the mother of the coed) Ruby carries on a conversation that is genial, but also indicting of anyone whose circumstances in life differ from Ruby’s own. She talks about the character flaws of this group and the vices of that group. And she mentions how important it is to society that her people are at the top of the social pyramid. Ruby crescendos, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different…Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” And at that moment the college student hurls her textbook at Ruby, hitting Ruby square across the forehead, and says, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”
If you’ve not read the short story “Revelation,” it would be easy to imagine Ruby Turpin in caricature, as if she is a cartoonish lampoon of the worst kind of backwards Southern Christian. That would be a mistake. She is not. But in an earlier era, she could be us. Outwardly, she truly is genial and kind; she truly does have a good disposition. And, her cultural lenses lead her subconsciously and uncritically to imagine that she is deserving of her place and everyone else is deserving of theirs, that all is just right as it is.
Ruby recovers from the coed’s assault and goes home, but the coed’s words won’t leave her mind. They burn deep beneath the surface. She wanders to the hog pen on her farm and begins to wash down the swine with a water hose, as if to scrub away the coed’s application of “warthog” to herself. How could she be as ugly to the others in that waiting room as they were to her? “How am I me and a hog both?” she asks in anguish, “How am I saved and from hell too?”
And then Ruby looks up at the setting sun. A purple streak cuts across the crimson sky, and Flannery O’Connor tells us:
“A visionary light settled in [Ruby’s] eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [black folks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself…had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.”
In the Rudolph Christmas special, grace comes for the six-year-old viewer when Santa’s first stop on Christmas Eve is to the Island of Misfit Toys to retrieve all the toys and find them homes of acceptance and love. I can still recall the childhood memory of that blessed relief. Every child feels that he is, in his way, a misfit toy, and Santa Claus is a natural and intuitive stand-in for God.
Flannery O’Connor gives us the grown-up version. In “Revelation,” the parade into God’s heavenly grace includes everyone, even white trash, poor blacks folks, and blind Ruby Turpin herself who, until her illusions were shattered by her vision, could not imagine that they all belonged together and to each other. She is—and, friends, we are—the riff raff and rabble scattered around the doctor’s waiting room, sullen and anxious and proud. We are the pink firetruck, the insecure blanket, the Charlie-in-the-box. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, misfit toys. Our flaws may not be so obvious on the outside. With our bravado and neatly-put-together-selves we may even, like Ruby, almost convince ourselves that our flaws don’t exist. Almost. But we know deep down, perhaps when we are alone looking up at the evening sky, that it is a blessing beyond imagining that God’s grace is extended freely, along the highways and biways, to everyone—everyone—including you and me, that in God we find a home of acceptance and love.
The wedding garment—the only thing we must adorn in order to participate in the banquet of grace—is that very recognition. The wedding host names us friend. We are wanted and desired, flaws and all, but we must wear the flaws. The pretension that we receive God’s grace while others don’t, and worse yet that we are deserving of it while others aren’t, is the wrong garment. The only robe for us is the joy that sings in gratitude, even when off key, for a love that invites everyone, even an old warthog like me.