Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
18th Sunday after Trinity
15.10.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Do you ever read bits of the Bible and wish, “Can we just skip over that bit? Is it possible just to ignore it?” Well, today’s Gospel reading for me is one of those awkward, uncomfortable readings that I would quite like to avoid. Its quite a dark and forbidding story, where the God-like figure in the story seems to act in a rather arbitrary and unfair manner, especially to the man, who for merely a lack of a change of clothes, is thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth, and where others are killed and their cities destroyed for their violent rejection of the wedding banquet invitation.
But before we get into those awkward and rather off-putting aspects of Jesus’ parable, its helpful for me, and maybe for you too, if we just take a step back and look at the bigger picture. For what does Jesus compare the kingdom of God to? A wedding banquet.
In almost any society and culture in the world, a wedding banquet means joy, celebration, happiness, dancing, laughter, good food and drink. It means delight that two people have found life-giving love in one another. It means the union of two families. And this is the image that Jesus uses to describe his father’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven that He also longs to establish here on earth. This is not a kingdom of power and control, of rules and regulations, but a kingdom of joy, life, hope, celebration. What a wonderful image.
Over the years, the church has struggled to grasp the implications of such an image. As some of you know, a few years ago I set myself the challenge of gradually reading my way through British history, starting with Roman Britain. Well, I have now reached the 17th century, the English Civil War, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell was probably the most fervent, sincere, passionate Christian ruler of Britain since Alfred the Great. His understanding of faith informed everything he did. And yet he is famously known as the man who tried to ban Christmas, as well as sports and other pastimes on Sundays. He and his puritan colleagues longed for the kingdom of God – indeed, they believed God had brought them into positions of power for the very purpose of building the kingdom of God in Britain – but they had lost sight of what the kingdom of God looked like. They thought it was about rules and regulations, when in fact it is about joy and celebration.
Our lives should reflect the kingdom of God, too. We too should be life-affirming, life-embracing people, giving thanks to God in all circumstances. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, we are to “Rejoice, always, and I say it again, Rejoice!” It is not always easy, but joy, thanksgiving, should be our default position. After all, if the kingdom of God is a wedding banquet, surely joy is the most appropriate attitude for our lives.
Well, lets begin to look at some of those awkward parts of the story. Why is the king so upset that his invitation to the wedding banquet has been declined, and what is Jesus trying to say to us through it?
I begin to understand the parable a little better when I reflect on the events of my and Sarah’s wedding almost 20 years ago. For our wedding reception we had decided that we wanted to go large, cheap and cheerful, rather than small and sophisticated. We invited almost everyone we knew, including the whole church that we were part of, a guest list of over 200. On the day, a couple of people who said they were coming just didn’t turn up. They had assumed that because so many people had been invited, it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t turn up. No one would notice. But although we were doing the wedding on a budget – a school hall rather than a hotel for the reception; the local Korean church doing all the catering for us for free – it was still a sit-down meal with name places. Their absence was obvious. It did matter that they weren’t there.
Well, in Jesus’ story, how much more it matters that the guests fail to show up. This is a wedding for the king’s son no less. There was nothing more important. They had been given ample invitations; there were no good excuses. And with the typical hyperbole Jesus uses in telling a good story, the reaction of the king to the rejected invitations is a strong one. This is not a trifling matter.
The point seems to be that it absolutely does matter to God whether we accept his invitation. This is not something to which we can just shrug the shoulders; or view the invitation as an optional weekend activity that we can take or leave. Accepting his invitation to the banquet of his son is the most important thing we can ever do.
I wonder, do we hold that invitation to respond to the love of God as the most precious gift we have ever received? Do we act on it or have we put it away in a drawer and just get on with our lives as if nothing has happened, like those wedding invitees.
Well, Jesus’ parable temporarily then moves back onto more comfortable, more familiar territory. When the initial invitations are rejected, the invitation goes out to the highways and byways, to everyone, good and bad, poor and rich. The invitation may have initially been made to God’s chosen people, but now everyone is invited. Everyone is welcomed into his kingdom of love, forgiveness and grace. It is a wonderful message of the inclusiveness of God’s grace. Everyone is welcomed. Everyone is accepted, whoever they are.
But as with so many of Jesus parables, there is a twist in the tail that catches us unawares. For this is not just a story about accepting an invitation; it is a story about being willing to be changed by it.
Imagine you have been invited to Buckingham Palace for a reception with the king. The invite says black tie or smart clothes. You turn up in torn jeans and a dirty scruffy jumper, having deliberately left your pristine suit at home. At one level, the clothes don’t matter; but at another level they communicate how little the invitation is valued.
In our story, the wedding guests would have been offered wedding garments as they arrived. But one of the guests has refused to put them on. Yes, he has accepted the invitation, but he has no intention of changing his ways, of showing even the least gratitude for the invitation. He will eat up all the food, he will help himself to a party bag – but change his ways? That’s the last thing he’s going to do. And so, he gets thrown out of the party.
The point of this twist in the parable is that God welcomes us as we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay that way. We can’t just accept his invitation, his gift, of love and grace, and then assume our lives can just continue as if nothing has changed. A response is called for. Our actions, our behaviour, matters to God. He wants us to grow and mature, to become more like him. He wants us, for one thing, to become people of reconciliation.
In our reading to the church in Philippi we hear Paul pleading with two prominent members of the church there, Euodia and Syntyche, to reconcile, to resolve their differences, and to do so peacefully. Just as its not appropriate to arrive at a wedding banquet improperly dressed, so its not appropriate to arrive bringing with us a full-on blazing row. Accepting the invitation into God’s kingdom means choosing to live a different way.
And how that different way is needed in our world. The horrific acts perpetrated by Hamas and the indiscriminate retaliation on the people of Gaza by Israel in response is just the latest in acts of terrible violence around our world, adding to the renewed genocide taking place in Sudan, and the continued devastation of the war in Ukraine. Our world cries out for people living lives of reconciliation, whether at a personal, community or global level, who are willing to stand up and say that vengeance and anger can never be the way to resolve disputes, and who are willing to model a different way. When we accept God’s invitation, we are putting our hands up, and saying “we want to be those people”.
I wonder in what other ways God may be wanting us to change. The summary of the beatitudes that we looked at at the beginning of the year may come to mind (you may still have the card): “Blessed are they who are humble, compassionate, servant-hearted, passionate for justice, merciful, peace-making, full of integrity and courageous.” We have received the most wonderful invitation – an invitation to be part of the joyous, life celebrating kingdom of God. Let us respond to that invitation by being willing to live lives that glorify God and make a difference in his world.