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 het up 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 these days the thorny question of whether children are to be invited to the evening reception, with all the complications that brings about which family members can or can’t attend. Above all there’s the irritation when you have to leave somebody off the guest list, and then somebody you invited doesn’t turn up, so there would have been a place.
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, 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 in our gospel reading this week?
The Old Testament gives us a clue to interpreting this story. In scripture the great banquet 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. Isaiah encouraged his people through a time of trouble with a picture of what that final banquet will be like, and an assurance that they will be among the guests at the banquet. He finished by telling them that, at that time, God would do away with death, and tears and disgrace – an image that is repeated by St John the Divine is his picture of the new Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21.
When Luke recounts the parable of the Great Banquet he doesn’t depart very far from the pattern in Isaiah. We are given no reason for the banquet. 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, 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, 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 full blown allegory about 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 – 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, like ours, contained both good and bad.
There were 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 were not living a Christlike life. Those, he warns, will be thrown out of the community of the saved at the final judgement – and 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, 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 or entered into membership. 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 invitations, 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, and their family takes up too much of their time. But churchgoing will not guarantee us a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, unless we clothe ourselves in Christ. We need to be sanctified, as well as converted.
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 watch on TV or online. News outlets 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 to be. And 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 against them by the media, which makes their lives impossible. When you read your newspapers or watch the news on TV, can I ask you to remember Paul’s words “be gentle with one another’ and if the news outlet you follow 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 and thank him for all the good things we enjoy, and pray constantly for ourselves and others. Above all, he says to us, fill your minds with what is good and true and pure and honourable. If we do that, we will be able to anticipate our invitation to the final banquet with confidence.