Matthew 22: 1-14
‘Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables.’
Today’s parable of the King’s banquet gives us plenty of food for thought. We know parables can sometimes be confusing to us today, without the context of contemporary stories or culture or jokes or habits of the time.
Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, and they saw and heard themselves in it. But just because it had a very definite audience at the telling, and a topic that they would have understood (wedding banquets didn’t have a specified start time – the wise people got dressed in advance so that they were ready when notice came that the preparations were finished and the party could start), this doesn’t mean it can’t still be relevant to us now.
The lectionary writers might have stopped at verse 10… The King throws a lavish banquet and invited many people. Wedding banquets are times of joy and delight.
And yet the people he invited declined. I know that today there are people who turn down royal invitations or even honours, for political or personal reasons, but through most of history, an invitation from the King was different. It was not something you declined.
(Actually, we got an email on Tuesday, in which it said Bishop Paul invites clergy to a day on vision and strategy for the Diocese. Then at the end a very brief sentence It is expected that all clergy will join in the day – so perhaps some things haven’t changed much!)
And so the King sends out his staff to invite others instead. Rather than the initial boundaried invite list, “go therefore out into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.
Our parable is on the surface of it an easy one. Israel, the promised nation, rejected God over and over, so salvation is offered to the gentiles instead. The Jews are unfaithful, so the Greeks receive their invitation. The Pharisees – who are the ones cringing as they listen – prove to be ‘invited [but] not worthy’, instead Jesus eats – banquets – with prostitutes, tax-collectors and sinners.
But let’s look a little further into the parable, at those who are invited and how they respond. The second half of the reading shows it’s not quite so simple – some of those who then come, dragged in off the street, offered an invitation they could – in the nicest way – not refuse, are then damned for it. Seems a little harsh. But ‘many are called, but few are chosen’. Some of them responded to the call, and some did not. The consequence of the former is the banquet, of the latter the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness.
You know I’m not a fan of the ‘you are going to outer darkness’ kind of evangelism over the ‘you are invited, please come, taste and see’ form. But still, today’s gospel, the inviting half and the scarier half, call us to ask us how we respond to God’s invitation into his presence. It calls us to ask ourselves this morning who we are in the story.
Firstly, are we the slaves? The King is our God, we recognise that. The invitation is made to all. There is no longer a single promised people and a single promised land. The invitation is there. Or at least, it would be if we made it. For remember the King sends his slaves out to invite everybody. As servants of our King, is it our responsibility to ensure the invitation is heard out in the main streets of today? Heard out among those who are seen as worthy and among those who might not be. Heard among those who come hesitantly, knowing or thinking they are not the ones first thought of, those who are today’s outcasts and on the margins?
Are we the chosen ones? The first chosen ones? The ones who failed? Those who had the invitation to the banquet, the promise of joy and delight, but did not prioritise it. For them, life and work got in the way of LIFE. And we know how easy that is. All too easy to worry about jobs, houses, children, money… about making sure that we – and others, for we are generous to our friends and with strangers – are comfortable in this life. But then suddenly, perhaps, we have got to the end of life, and we wonder whether we really did live it abundantly, in a way which honoured the God who gave his Son for us, the Son who died for us that we might live, the Spirit that nudges us always but sometimes isn’t heard over the clamour of the world.
Have we managed to be too busy to attend to the amazing offer made to us, to respond to the invitation, to prioritise the feast, to revel in the King’s presence? Are we worthy of the invitation that was made to us? Has it been pinned on the fridge door for so long that it has faded in the sunshine and we forgot about it or only remembered half an hour before it starts and decide it probably isn’t worth trying to get ready in time? Are we these people, and if so, are we worthy?
No, we say, we’re not those. They were Israel, the Pharisees, we aren’t them, the ones who didn’t respond. The chosen nation and people, over-confident, under-respectful. We’re the others who were invited. The Greek and the gentile, the ones Jesus came to invite, the ones the King sends the servants out to find. We are here. We have responded to the invitation. We are worthy.
Wait, really? Because today’s gospel is all about how we respond to God and whether we do so in ways that honour the invitation, making us truly worthy. What are we wearing when we attend?
Yes, we have responded. But how have we responded? ‘Why are you not wearing a wedding robe?’ Well, they basically pulled me in off the street – there was no time to shop for shoes or a hat… ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ It is possible still to fail the invitation, even if you turn up.
Dave Walker, a great cartoonist, published last week an image of ‘The Intercessions’. On the left hand side, at the lectern, the intercessor with a little box over their head. It has our world in it. On the right, many people (with some artistic licence, certainly more than your average church attendance) with heads bowed, but their little boxes have a sandwich, a bed, a rubix cube, music, a pint, a cat, shoes, a book, a garden, a bike, the television, a clock, mountains, a coffee cup, a car, a wine glass, a computer, a golf course, a beach… only one has the same world being prayed for in it…
That’s the thing about parables. They are a rich creative space for us to hear Jesus speak to us today, and to wonder where and who we are in the telling and in the hearing. Either way lies challenge. Perhaps we hear ourselves to be among the slaves sent out to invite – where we should be encouraged toward preparation, thinking of ways to and people with whom to share the gospel; perhaps among those first invited – Pharisees, jews, churchgoers – where we should be encouraged toward more preparation, in order to be ready and willing to attend when the King of kings calls us home; or perhaps to be among those invited latterly – the gentiles, the rest of the world, the sinners – where we should also be encouraged toward preparation, to be grateful for the calling and to ready ourselves to join the feast in thankfulness for the invitation.
Whichever we feel to be, today we are invited, not only to the banquet, but to spend some time considering our response, in order that we do not miss out on the delight and the joy of feasting at the table of the King.
Today’s parable, though it may make you check your sartorial choices this morning, has nothing to do with clothes – the clothes in which we go to church; and everything to do with the way our response to God’s call is clothed, with ‘the spirit in which we go to God’s house….. As William Barclay reminds us:
…there are garments of the mind and of the heart and of the soul – garments of expectation, of humble penitence, of faith, of reverence – and these are the garments without which we ought not to approach God. Too often we go to God’s house with no preparation at all; if every man and woman in our congregations came to church prepared to worship, after a little prayer, a little thought and a little self-examination, then worship would be worship indeed – the worship in which and through which things happen in men’s (sic) souls and in the life of the Church and in the affairs of the world. (Daily Study Bible)
So let us pray
King of Kings, Lord of Lords, we thank you for the invitation to your banquet. Make us ready when you call, clothed in love and in longing to join you; make us wait upon you in our lives and in our worship, worthy to glory in being the chosen ones of God. Amen.