(Philippians 4,1-9; Matthew 22,1-14)
There are few things more likely to cause a family row than organising a wedding. It should be a time when everyone is happy, but it’s amazing how hot under the collar people can get about where the wedding is held, whether you have button holes or orders of service, how much to spend on the reception, and, above all, who to invite. I am sure many of us can remember long discussions over wedding guest lists, especially the thorny question these days of whether children are to be allowed at the reception; and maybe, the irritation when the old friend of our parents, who they insisted had to be invited, doesn’t turn up, leaving a place that we could have easily filled with one of our own friends.
So perhaps we have a certain sympathy with the king in today’s parable – though not with his reaction.
As we hear from the details, a wedding feast in New Testament times was a major affair, involving the slaughter of animals fattened for the occasion, providing meat which wouldn’t keep in the hot climate. The celebrations and feasting probably went on for several days.
I went to a number of Jewish weddings when my husband was working, since several of his partners were Jewish. They didn’t go on for several days, but they were lavish affairs. I can remember one where we had a brief buffet after the wedding ceremony, then later in the afternoon sat down to a meal, which had eight or nine courses, and we left after the dancing and before the supper, which was served at about 10 pm. But even if I couldn’t cope with the amount of food on offer, they were very enjoyable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to refuse an invitation to attend one.
What then, do we make of the parable we’ve just heard?
In scripture, a great banquet always stands for the End Times, the consummation of history when God will intervene and the good will be rewarded (invited to the feast) and the wicked will be punished (by exclusion from the party). We find pictures of such feast in Isaiah, told to reassure the Jews who are being persecuted that they will be at the party; and by St John the Divine in his picture of the new Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21.
This parable appears in two of the gospels in slightly different forms. When Luke tells the parable of the Great Banquet he gives no reason for the feast. The great man sends out his servants with invitations, and the people they invite refuse, making various excuses: “I’ve got some new property to look at”, “I’ve got a new pair of oxen to train”, “I’ve just got married”. The great man is annoyed, but he doesn’t punish them: he simply sends out his servants into the town to invite others in, the poor the crippled, the blind and the lame. And when the places still aren’t full, he sends his servants out again, further afield into the countryside, to find still more strangers to enjoy his feast.
When Jesus told the story, it was probably intended as a warning to the leaders of the Jewish nation that, unless they returned to obedience to God, and listened to his servants, the prophets and Jesus himself, they would lose God’s favour, which would be transferred to those they despised, the outcasts in society. The original story told by Jesus probably ended with the invitation to other guests to come and enjoy the banquet of salvation.
Matthew added more details, again drawing on the traditions of scripture, and has even included another parable, about the wedding garment, to make the point more strongly, and to turn it into a warning for his own community.
First of all, he turns the feast into a wedding banquet. The Old Testament writers often used marriage to stand for the covenant between God and his people the Jews. So Matthew is telling us about a King (God) who prepares a feast for his son (Jesus) and sends his servants (the prophets) to invite his subjects (Israel) to attend. They don’t take his invitation seriously, as they should, and some of them even abuse and kill his servants (as Matthew tells us some of the prophets were treated). So, Matthew’s story tells us, God will turn his back on the Jews, and allow them to be killed and their city destroyed, as happened to Jerusalem when the Romans punished the nation for their revolt in AD 70. For Matthew, this part of the story was an allegory of the history of salvation, showing how God’s favour was lost by the Jewish nation and transferred to the Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus.
But Matthew was well aware that conversion and baptism was not the end of the story. His Christian community, just like ours, contained both good and bad; people who lived the Christian life to the full, who were ‘clothed with Christ’ as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians ( 3.27). They were the people who had put on their wedding garments.
But there were others who had accepted the invitation to join the community in full expectation that this would give them a guaranteed place at the salvation banquet; and yet these people were not living a Christlike life. Those, Matthew’s version warns, will be thrown out of the community of the saved, and at the final judgement there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth rather than joy and feasting for them.
The early Christian community had a very concrete experience of putting on their wedding garment when they were baptised. For the adult converts, the baptism ceremony involved going down naked into the baptismal pool, and coming out to be clothed in a new white robe as the symbol of their new life in Christ.
For many of us, the experience of baptism was many, many years ago, perhaps in our infancy, before we can really remember. We may have ‘put on our wedding garments’ again, figuratively, when we were confirmed; and we put them on again each time we renew our commitment in the renewal of baptism vows. But how many of us are really wearing the garments of faith all the time?
We may feel ourselves superior to those who reject God’s invitation, and never darken the doors of church; who excuse themselves because they’ve got a house to maintain, or a new car to try out, or because their family takes up too much of their time. But, as this parable warns us churchgoing alone will not guarantee us a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, unless we clothe ourselves in Christ.
St Paul, writing to the Philippians tells us how: stand firm in your life in the Lord, work to spread the Gospel; be joyful in your work for Christ; be at peace with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and be gentle with everyone.
I want us to think a little more about just one of those things, the last one: be gentle with one another. It is easy to be gentle with those we know and love, our families and our friends. But, because of the media, we now make judgements about people we may never have met; and sometimes those judgements are not gentle, but harsh and condemnatory. One way in which this attitude is fed is through the newspapers we read and the news channels we view on TV or online.
These tend to see everything in black or white; they tend to portray people as either wholly good or wholly bad, instead of the mixture of good and bad we all know ourselves and others to be. Once the media have decided someone is bad, they seem not to accept any possibility of change, no chance of redemption. So we get people labelled as ‘monsters’, and often a witch-hunt stirred up by the media, which makes their lives impossible. When you read your newspapers, can I ask you to remember Paul’s words ‘be gentle with one another’ and if the paper you read, or the source you hear the news from is one that seems to go after people in this way, consider changing to another that doesn’t.
Paul tells us we must trust in God, give thanks for all the good things we enjoy, and pray constantly for ourselves and others. If you pray for people, you cannot hate them, or believe they are a monster. Above all, Paul says to us, fill your minds with what is good and true and pure and honourable. If we do that, we may anticipate our invitation to God’s banquet with confidence.