There are two versions of the story we’ve just heard in the Gospels. Both Luke and Matthew include it, but they tell it slightly differently. In Luke’s Gospel, it’s a simple tale of a rich man who throws a feast, and invites other rich and important people to it. But they send excuses, and don’t come, so he invites all and sundry to take their place, dragging bewildered beggars in off the streets to make sure the food is eaten and the feast enjoyed. It’s a story about inclusion and welcome.
The story in Matthew’s Gospel is much darker, though, and it’s set at a much darker point in Jesus’ ministry. It’s the last week before his crucifixion and he’s in the Temple, speaking to the priests and the Pharisees – we’ve heard a series of readings over recent Sundays from the same extended conversation. These are the people who have the power in Jesus’ society, political power as well as religious power. They’re the ones who expect to be listened to and obeyed, and they’re offended that this carpenter from Nazareth seems to be attracting a following.
The story Jesus tells them challenges their sense of entitlement.
The main character in Matthew’s story isn’t just a rich man. He’s a king. And the feast isn’t just a feast. It’s a wedding banquet for his son and heir. In the Bible, weddings aren’t about love – two people’s eyes meeting across a crowded room, undying affection, hearts and flowers and all that stuff. Biblical weddings, especially royal ones, are about alliances, dynasties, politics, property, kingdoms. They’re specifically about the future of the kingdom, because after the wedding, it’s hoped, a new generation of rulers will be born.
So this is a royal wedding. And that means that when the invited guests refuse to come, it wouldn’t just have seemed rude; it would have looked like treason. The king would have seen it as a deliberate, public refusal to support him at a crucial turning point in the nation’s life. Imagine doing this to Henry VIII at one of his many marriages. You soon find your head was literally on the block.
It’s no wonder that the king in the story is furious. Matthew’s hearers would have expected him to be. No king worth his salt in the ancient world would have put up with what looked like a deliberate snub like this. It’s important to understand at this point that Jesus isn’t saying that the king is God, or that God would behave like this. Parables aren’t supposed be point-for-point comparisons like that. He is telling a story – a rather exaggerated, over-the-top story – to make his audience think, to open a door into their own hearts and minds. These powerful people Jesus is talking to claim that God is their king, and that their power derives from God, but they’re so busy with their own agendas – like the guests who went off to their own farms and businesses – that they’re missing the moment when God actually shows up in their midst.
But they aren’t the only people to come in for stick in this story. Right at the end there’s a detail which many people find deeply puzzling and disturbing. A man is found in the banqueting hall, who isn’t wearing a wedding garment, and the king is as furious with him as he was with those who didn’t turn up at all, ordering him to be cast out into the darkness.
This sounds unfair to us. What if he couldn’t afford special clothes? After all, he wasn’t expecting to go to a wedding that day. He’d just been dragged in off the streets. Is God really bothered about what we wear? Commentators have suggested explanations. It would have been fairly common for hosts to provide clothing for their guests at a wedding, for example, so perhaps he’d been given something, but wouldn’t wear it.. But the truth is that we’re probably just asking a twenty-first century question of a first century text. The implication is clear. This is a man who doesn’t want to recognise the importance of this wedding. He’s sitting at the table, eating the food, but he’s not prepared to get changed, to enter into the joy of the occasion and the future it promises. And perhaps that’s even worse than refusing to come at all, because he’s quite prepared to enjoy the party, without investing anything in what the party is for.
We don’t have to openly rebel against God in order to sabotage the work of his kingdom. We can do it just as effectively, perhaps more so, by paying lip-service to it, by turning up, by calling ourselves Christian, but not letting our faith make any difference to our lives. Like this man, we can refuse to “get changed”, to address the parts of our lives that we know aren’t right. We can sit in the pews, or stand in the pulpit, or even sit on a Bishop’s throne, but not live out the kingdom’s values.
This week, the Church of England – and especially its leadership – was heavily criticised in the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse, which has been looking at abuse in many sectors of society – education, politics, the care system but also in churches. Those involved with children and vulnerable adults in churches will know that safeguarding has become a huge priority over recent decades, as it is here at Seal, with DBS checks and safeguarding training mandatory for a wide range of people. The Inquiry recognised that progress, but it found that it was all too often stymied by the culture which pervaded some parts of the Church, a culture of deference, cronyism, Old Boys Networks, attitudes to those with power which made it hard for the voices of those without it to be heard - particularly the victims and survivors of abuse . The Inquiry report makes for painful reading, but I’m afraid I wasn’t at all surprised by its contents. Wherever there has been power, throughout human history, there has also been abuse of power. The Church ought to be different, but it isn’t, and it can only become different if each of us who calls ourselves a Christian is prepared to “get changed”, to let God transform us. Christian faith is meaningless if it doesn’t change us, but it’s easy to become complacent, to enjoy the wedding banquet, but not be prepared to live the life of the kingdom it’s meant to herald.
Matthew’s story is a big story, a deep story, a challenging story. Do we want to be part of what God is doing? Or not? Are we prepared to let God change us, as we need to be changed? Or not? Are we up for new life, new beginnings, new hope for ourselves, for our communities, for our world? Or not? The choice is ours.