Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie

Sunday 15 October, 10:00am, Trinity 18

Matthew 22:1-14

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Think back to the celebration of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It was the event of the decade! Can you imagine the invited not attending, or even making a joke of it?

Even those of us not bowled over by royal pomp and splendour caught the reruns on television, to catch a glimpse of The Dress, or simply because we were charmed by the sweet affection evident between the bride and groom. And oh, the "wedding garments" in evidence, from the elegant and cheerful yellow ensemble worn by Her Majesty, to the military uniforms covered with medals, to the extravagant hats and "fascinators" of other female guests!

This is exactly the type of event evoked by the beginning of the parable, as we continue through Matthew and the parables of Jesus we have another parable set in the context of Jesus’ battles with the Pharisees, the Scribes and the Sadducees. Understanding the context is important as it holds the key to unlocking our understanding of the parable.

In our times of political correctness the one thing we mustn’t do is exclude anyone. In this expression of being liberal we are encouraged to tolerate all things – except of course illiberality!

This parable has an eschatological feel. That is, it is about things related to the ‘end times’ – things that precursor the Second Coming of Christ. The wedding banquet is a recurring eschatological motif that depicts the celebration of the consummation of Earth’s history as the bride of Christ – that is the Church, is finally and eternally fully united with the bridegroom – Christ himself.

But we are faced with a pressing problem because by his own words, Jesus makes it plain that some people are welcome to celebrate at the wedding feast whilst others are thrown into the outer darkness.

As we heard in last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus said “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you”. We are all familiar with the parable of the sheep and goats and other parables of judgement coming up in Matthew chapters 24 and 25, but between them and today’s parable in Matthew 22 we have the seven woes that Jesus delivers to the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23.

These parables build over the coming weeks into a crescendo that explodes on the feast day of Christ the King when the Gospel reading opens with the words “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory”.

This is the final Sunday, in the final week of the Church calendar before we begin a new year on Advent Sunday. It is the consummation of the Gospel story – The Son of Man enthroned in his glory!

But before we get to that wonderful climax we are left with parables of judgement that clearly exclude some from these joyful celebrations.

And this makes us uncomfortable because we have spent decades rearranging things to ensure that no-one is excluded. Scholars and academics have invested great levels of energy to give us interpretations that offer hope that in the final analysis everyone will be at the wedding feast.

This is where our faith is perhaps tested most severely. We have to trust God. We have to believe that although some kind of judgement is inevitable, we have to trust that God’s mercy is bigger than his judgement.

We have to trust that the pain of Calvary and the the glory of resurrection were transactions enacted in God’s cosmic economy that offer salvation to everyone. The Gospel is universal in scope but it appears to particular in outworking. However we understand things, the cross of Christ remains central as the pivot point of creation’s history.

But we cannot brush over these parables, we cannot dismiss them as being only for the time of Jesus without dismissing everything else that Matthew and the other Gospel writers give us. Either it’s all in, or it’s all out. As Jesus himself tells us “Many are called but few are chosen”.

Some commentators have used these parables and Jesus’ arguments to fuel an anti-Semitic dialogue. This is unhelpful. This argument would be valid if the Jewish people were the only ones outside God’s Kingdom – but as we all painfully know, there are many whom we love and who are not Jewish, who choose to remain outside the Kingdom of God.

In our understanding of the Bible and theology, we understand the physical descendants of Abraham in the Old Testament – the nation of Israel, as those tasked with sharing God’s love with the world and inviting everyone to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship God.

As the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, Jesus rounds on the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees as failing to lead the people in this missionary endeavour, instead preferring the increase of their own comfort and wealth.

As Israel had not brought people to God, God sent his Son as a messenger to the people and after his death, resurrection and ascension he gave us the Holy Spirit as the empowerment to witness to Jesus that we might share in pointing people towards God.

So, rather than people having to ‘come’ to Jerusalem to find God, He now lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who empowers us to take the message out. Hence the dismissal at the end of this Communion service that we are to ‘go’ in peace to love and serve the Lord. Sharing the bread and wine together is the empowerment for mission.

As such, the church is an extension of, and renewal of, the people of Israel. The Church is where the party is – for now partially and following the return of Christ, fully in all it’s generous splendour.

Returning to the parable, there is one element of this story that usually causes difficulty and that relates to the guest not wearing a wedding robe. What’s that about?

The King fills up the hall with guests – the poor, the outcasts: those on the margins and wedding garments were provided for everyone. There was a superstition that was very common in the entire Mediterranean region that concerned itself with a jealous or envious wedding guest putting a curse on the new couple by means of an “evil eye.”

To counter this danger the host would provide special wedding garments that could disarm the curse and protect the couple. So when the King finds a guest who is not wearing the wedding garment that had been provided, it is seen as more than just a fashion faux pas – it was an affront, an insult and a threat.

It is little wonder that the King has this guest thrown out into the outer darkness or, as one writer calls it, the “Suburbs of Hell”!

Let’s try and unpick some of the content of the parable before us this morning. The first thing to note is that all of those originally invited brought judgment upon themselves. It’s not as though they didn’t know they were invited – they chose not to come.

The King does not send violence after the first rejection instead he sends another invitation. He really wants these people to come to the Banquet. It is only after some beat and murder the servants that they bring this judgment down upon themselves.

Secondly, it is the King who is in charge of judgment. The King, who went out of his way to invite people to the great wedding banquet, and who opens up the invitation to all.

So, if we begin to see ourselves as the invitees we also need to recognise that whatever judgment may be in the future is up to God and is not delegated to us!

On the other hand, this is a parable about grace. The King really does want these people to come to the wedding banquet and goes out of his way to send two invitations to try to get them there.

When the King’s invitation is rejected, he extends the invitation to everyone – the good and the not so good. The only expectation is that we accept the invitation, that we humbly put our self-centred need to be at the centre of our universe aside, so that we can put on the wedding garment and come to the banquet. By doing this, we consummate our baptismal promises by fully turning to Christ.

And best of all it’s free. I don’t know what your ultimate concert or performance would be, but if it’s important to you, the chances are it’s important to others and entry will be costly.

I was fortunate in that last week I was allowed pre-sale access to book tickets for a concert next July at the Birmingham Arena. It seems that thousands of others were as well, as it took me 2 hours to book the tickets online as the website was inundated with others looking for the same thing – and the the tickets cost a lot of money!

The good news is that the invitation to God’s banquet – the gift of God’s love, grace and forgiveness is free. Loan of the wedding garment is even free – you don’t need to go to Moss Bros, the food and drink at the banquet is free.

While we cannot overlook the theme of judgment in this parable, we also cannot overlook the fact that the wedding banquet does occur. The King does not let a minor rebellion interfere with his love for the Son and his hospitality toward his subjects.

So as we party, let us share the love of God with Moseley and its people. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.