Matthew 22.1-14, Philippians 4.1-9 & Isaiah 25.1-9
I was at one of those large formal dinners earlier this week, where around 1000 people all sit in a grand hotel to eat, hear talks and see awards dished out.
The person that invited me said ‘let’s meet in the pub beforehand and I can give you your invitation’.
Later as we were going to the dining area I said to a colleague that as usual no one had asked to see my invitation to which he replied ‘if I ever find myself destitute I’ll make my only possession a penguin suit and work my way around the London hotels from one formal dinner to the next enjoying 5 courses with wine each evening and feigning an interest in whatever industry is celebrating that evening.’
As I considered our reading from Matthew’s gospel this week it made me think ‘how important is it to look the part’? In most cases dress codes are now as relaxed as they have ever been but from a practical point of view if your builder turned up in a 3 piece suit and shiny shoes to start digging foundations it might cause some concern before you even start thinking about the health and safety implications. It disturbed me to hear that the only man who turned up to the King’s banquet without a wedding robe was bound hand and foot then thrown out into the darkness.
If I was invited to dinners like the one in in our gospel reading I’d be pretty worried, it all seems rather extreme. Firstly invitations are despatched, sounds like it will be a cracking do, but rather strangely no one invited seems interested. Then a reminder is sent stating that a delicious feast has been prepared even giving some menu samples to get the taste buds going but some are too busy with their daily lives whilst others take offence at being asked twice and it all turns ugly with the messengers being beaten and killed. Like most male cooks I get fed up if the family or guests aren’t readily seated to receive my great creation when it’s ready to serve but things haven’t yet reached the extremes we heard of when the king gets so hacked off with the people’s behaviour that he sends soldiers to kill the murderers and burn their houses down. It all makes the likes of Gordon Ramsay seem quite mild mannered.
Despite all this fighting and bloodshed dinner is still on, though it might be a bit cold by now. The slaves that weren’t killed last time went out again (anxiously we assume) to invite all and sundry. The guests accept this time, perhaps because they saw what happens when you refuse or is it because they are readily grateful for what is being offered and excited to receive an invitation?
It’s one of those parables which, if you think you can neatly explain what Jesus intended you probably haven’t thought about it enough.
I don’t think we should be taking the detail too literally but would be better to think about the context in which those hearing the parable found themselves. Clearly it was a time of some serious tension between those starting to understand (or at least be prepared to listen to ) what God’s kingdom might be like and the other Jews who were not prepared to listen, not prepared to consider change or accept a message that that bestowed credibility upon Jesus.
One commentator describes the time as the low point in an intense family feud and we all know they can be among the most ugly.
The parable is the last of 3 and follows that of the ‘two sons’ and the ‘wicked tenants’ each aimed at illustrating that Jesus and the kingdom of God are inseparable and that to reject Jesus makes it impossible to share in the kingdom. . The same parable can be found in Luke’s gospel but it is simpler, less detailed and less violent.
Many commentators will say that the king in this parable is God, and the invited guests were his chosen people, the Jews. The servants God sent to them again and again included the likes of John the Baptist who had been rejected and beheaded.
The temptation is for us to sit smugly and think how stupid the Jews were to reject Christ but in doing so we can fall into the same trap. As soon as we think we have God all worked out with systems and patterns of worship which are closed to new possibilities we become similar to those who rejected the invitation making God very small. It follows that we can only be open to a fraction of the love he wants us to know.
In describing the invitation to a wedding banquet Jesus was using the analogy of the biggest party that anyone would ever get invited to. This wasn’t just any wedding banquet is was the king's sons wedding banquet the biggest of the big, a once in a lifetime opportunity. The hint is that the kingdom of God is big, there’s no reference to a maximum capacity and if we partake fully the kingdom of God is joyful in a depth that goes way beyond day to day happiness.
Paul’s letter urges the two ladies in Philippi with difficult to pronounce names to reconcile their differences as it seems they have fallen out. The implication is that we should focus on getting on with the things we know to be right and pleasing to God and not waste our time and energy on in house feuds which distract us from meaningful activity.
Paul urges the Philippians to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. Bearing in mind that he was prison when he wrote the letter it shows that he will has not let worldly matters or personal suffering suppress the inner peace that comes from a true knowledge of God’s love.
You may be thinking that’s all very well but what about this God that kills his enemies and has people bound and thrown out? We all have family and friends that we have invited to share in our faith but they have chosen to reject the invitation. Should we be telling them that this is what will happen to them unless they change their minds?
That guy who isn’t properly dressed it seems a bit harsh the way he was treated. After all if we were invited to a formal dinner at 5 minutes notice would we have our dinner suit or evening dress immediately available? Matthew seems to be warning that it’s not enough just to turn up and accept the generous invitation, once you come into this new inclusive community God expects some effort on our part and we are provoked into thinking what it would mean to be separated from him.
There are no neat explanations, it’s not an easy parable to hear in many senses, it’s difficult, provocative and uncomfortable. But perhaps we are meant to struggle with it. Maybe if we consider how we would react whether guest or king then the story makes us think about our relationship with God, what we understand him to be and traits which we can’t attribute to him. Maybe Jesus makes the point of the pleasure and displeasure of God in the extreme so it is easily understood without the intention that it is taken literally.
The fantastic thing about these words of Jesus is that they are still causing us headaches, still forcing us to think about how we respond. We will see signs that we are on the right lines to accepting God’s invitation and celebrating the kingdom when those at the bottom of the pile, the poor, the oppressed and excluded also have space to see what good news looks like.
We mean it when we say that all are welcome in God’s kingdom which includes this very church but we shouldn’t always expect to find reassuring words. Being part of the kingdom means we also have to recognize where we have become comfortable in our dysfunctions, relaxed into our habitual wrong doing and be open to learning better ways. Our ultimate goal is to be people who seek redemption but this is not possible if we never consider where we are going wrong.
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated that’ that grace is not a refuge from obedience, but an invitation to transformation and redemption. ‘The parable is challenging us by asking what it means to come to the banquet, and reminds us that while God’s grace is free, it is not cheap. (John Anderson).
Having reflected on this today do we think we are people still open to discovering God in new ways? Do we recognise him as the king who punishes those who reject him or find him in a man cast out and beaten?
12 October 2014