Sermon 11 October 2020 Trinity 18 (Proper 23)
Rev Janey Hiller
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14
The parable of the wedding banquet must rank among Jesus’ more strange and absurd parables! It seems to have three scenes:
A king throws an extravagant wedding banquet for his son. But despite this being a royal summons, no-one on the official guest list wants to come. Some make feeble excuses – “I’ve got my own stuff to deal with!” “Sorry, no can do.” - but in other cases it escalates to a ridiculous extreme! Guests kill the king’s messengers, and then the king retaliates by murdering them and burning their homes!
There’s relief as, thankfully, the story takes a more positive turn (once all the killing is over with!) The king sends out a fresh batch of messengers to gather in guests from the streets. These people were not official guests, but they were brought in to join celebration – anyone and everyone - and the wedding banquet was filled.
(Before we move to scene three - as an aside, I was struck by the contrast with our current time – this wedding banquet is hugely extravagant, intended to be filled with all manner of people for a huge celebration. Meanwhile, we are living within so many confusing limitations on who we can gather with, eat with, sing with – it feels frustrating and sometimes painful to have ‘lost’ even if temporarily so much of those elements of interaction and participation in church and life. Those things are special; we hold them dear and it’s OK to lament their loss. But take heart - there is something for us in this passage today.)
We’re back to weird again – the king comes along and notices a man at the banquet not wearing a wedding robe. When asked why not, the man has no explanation and gets booted out!
What’s going on? What is Jesus trying to communicate?
Of course, Jesus isn’t speaking literally – he is speaking allegorically. In his parables Jesus uses images and hints and suggestions – and very often he uses this veiled means of communication to speak against the religious elites of his day.
In this case, the official guests represent the Jews. Those who (through birth right) are the insiders. They assume they’re the ones who belong in the Kingdom of God. But they repeatedly reject the messengers God sends and the truth they bring.
The guests who came in the free-for-all (those who responded to the invitation regardless of their background and showed up in great numbers), they represent those who respond to the invitation from God made manifest in in Jesus Christ. They recognise they cannot get in on the basis of their own ‘ticket’, but only by the generosity of the King.
There are some interesting parallels in this parable with Matthew’s own discipleship journey. He was a tax collector – someone most definitely on the ‘outside.’ Anyone in that profession was despised by the Jews – often tax collectors are referred to in the gospels alongside prostitutes. Yet, Jesus called him, and went to his home for a feast. The least likely – the repentant outsiders – are the ones whom Jesus draws alongside. They are the ones to whom Jesus brings his message of forgiveness and to whom the Kingdom belongs.
But then there’s this confusing ending with the man thrown out for not wearing the ‘right clothes’. This poor guy – he’s been invited into a huge party at a moment’s notice; he thought he was onto a good thing. Is it fair that he should be asked to leave again? Is it fair that he should have known what to wear?
Again, this isn’t a literal story. It’s not saying that you have to wear your best clothes to come to church. Or that if you’re not dressed nicely you can’t be a ‘proper’ Christian.
It’s hinting at something spiritually deeper than that.
It’s worth remembering that early followers of Jesus were simply Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the longed-for messiah. Other Jews continued to deny this. Increasing tensions between the two groups led the Jesus followers to part ways from their Jewish identity and forge their own identity as a separate community. In doing so, they claimed for themselves a name that was initially used to disparage them – Christians. Matthew was a leader in this emerging community – so not only is this story aimed at Jews, but it’s also aimed at these new Christians. And it’s to these Christians that this strange ending is addressed. And to Christians today as well. It’s a warning against complacency and getting stuck in a spiritual rut.
If we were to stop the parable at the point of all the guest coming into the banquet off the streets and having a happy time ever after, we miss an important lesson. The focus of the parable shifts in this scene, and Christians become the ones on the ‘inside.’ In that shift we risk becoming the religious elite ourselves.
We risk becoming those who fail to respond to the many invitations God sends us through the movement of his Spirit in our lives and in our communities. We risk tuning out to the truth and hope that God so graciously and generously extends to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus starts this parable – as he did with so many - with the phrase ‘The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared with’, or ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ Very often, these parables can be interpreted as being about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But more than that, they can help us understand the character of God. And more specifically, they reawaken us to the principles at work in how God establishes his will and his reign.
That’s not just about shaping our hope for the future – as in, what will heaven be like at the end of the age – but it’s also about how God’s will and reign works out in the present in our lives and in the world. These are mini stories that tell us what life is like when lived the ‘God-way.’
So, what principles do we see at work in this story? If we are now the ones on the inside, how could we take hold of this warning about becoming complacent and use it to grow deeper in our walk with God?
There are three principles from this parable I’d like to offer here as food for thought for us to take away and chew over in the week ahead.
This story clearly reveals God’s abundant generosity. What ways can we show this generosity not only to each other but to those ‘on the outside’? This may be in material terms if you have the means, but not necessarily. It’s just as much about how we reflect God’s generous character.
Loving kindness towards those who are different from us, giving people the benefit of the doubt, being compassionate towards others who are struggling for whatever reason.
These are all hallmarks of lives characterised by a generosity of spirit that we can nurture and act on despite – or possibly even more so because of COVID restrictions!
Are we listening to God – and to each other - well? In the Benedictine tradition, obedience to God is defined as listening. It’s asking ourselves the question: who or what is God asking me to be attentive to in this moment?
That doesn’t have to be a lofty life-changer – it could just as easily be something mundane like being fully present to a conversation instead of distracted by your phone or what’s coming up in your schedule.
Christ is present to us in all things. Being attentive asks: how then, am I welcoming this moment, this person, this situation as if it were Christ to me?
In the story, the doors are wide open and all are invited. No limits on numbers, hand sanitising, track and trace or face coverings here! What does invitation look like for us at this time with all these restrictions in place? Even with all that we need to take care over, the principle of invitation can still be at work in our relationships with people and with God.
In terms of people, we could ask ourselves: who are we connected to? Is it only to those on the ‘inside’? Are there people on the ‘outside’ who God might be prompting me to connect with and invite in?
In terms of God, are the ‘doors’ of our hearts open to inviting God in to refresh us, to give us his rest, to know his peace, or to deepen our connection with him through prayer, reading scripture or worship?
Once we dig under the surface weirdness of this parable, it reveals so much to us about what life is like when lived the ‘God-way.’
It is a reminder to us of our own calling to follow Jesus and to not become complacent. And it is full of reminders about the character of the God in whose image we are made and who loves us so generously and extravagantly.
May we be ever more attentive and responsive to that generous love given to us so freely, and may we be a people defined by extending that love abundantly to others.