Sermon preached on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (12 October 2014), by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend David Ison asks 'do you like hearing stories?' and tells us that 'everyone is welcome to God’s table'.
Matthew 22: 1-14
Do you like hearing stories? Last week my colleague talked about the stories of Jesus, and this week we have another one. But sometimes stories can feel rather excluding, when you hear them and don’t quite get what they’re about.
I’m going to let you into a secret at this point about what the clergy get up to in their changing room. We hear stories about characters called Arsène Wenger and Slaviša Jokanović, and various associates of theirs, stories which mean a lot to my women clergy colleagues who are committed supporters of Arsenal and Watford football clubs; stories which are a mystery to us male clergy who prefer poetry, Shakespeare, or car mechanics.
The story that we’ve just had read to us about invitations to a banquet is one of those stories which can leave you feeling like you haven’t really got it. There are bits of it which are puzzling or even offensive. Yet it has something important for us to hear. So let’s look at the story of this story in Matthew’s gospel (22.1-14).
Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the wedding banquet of a king’s son; fairly obviously a reference to God inviting people to celebrate the coming of Jesus as his Messiah, his Christ, and to follow him.
It’s helpful to understand how feasts happened in Jesus’ day. If you were invited to a feast and replied to say you’d come – and saying no to a king wasn’t really an option – then a whole lot of preparation would go on to make you welcome. It took days to prepare a really big party and cook the meat to feed all the guests, and they didn’t have freezers either, so when it was ready you just had to come there and then – the food would spoil quickly and couldn’t be kept. You couldn’t be exact about what time the feast would be ready: but the guests would expect to be called when the time came. And if they didn’t come, the food would be wasted, and the guests would be showing contempt for their host’s generosity.
I get quite a few invitations to dinners, and they always say – ‘RSVP’; and if you don’t reply, or say that you’re going and then don’t turn up, it’s thought pretty rude. In first-century Israel, it was more than rude – it was a deliberate insult, a statement of contempt.
It’s also helpful to understand the context in which Matthew puts this story. In his gospel it comes a day or two after Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the chief priests and elders are trying to arrest him, and as Jesus is telling them that they’re got it wrong by opposing him, rather than responding to his message of God’s kingdom.
So when Matthew says that the invited guests who said they’d come actually mocked the invitation, and killed the king’s messengers, the point is pretty clear. God invites the law-abiding and respectable Jewish people to come to his party, and they reject him because they’re too busy doing other things – things which include making money dishonestly and arranging the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.
When it says the guests abuse and murder the king’s servants, that’s a reference to the murders of the prophets of God and the disciples of Jesus. The king’s response seems pretty harsh: to destroy those murderers; but Matthew is writing with hindsight of the destruction that happened to Jerusalem in 70AD, when fanatical Jews fought each other and the Romans with little regard for God and their own faith. It isn’t a comment on how bad-tempered God can be, but a warning that treating God and his Messiah with contempt will end in disaster, of which more in a moment.
Because the invited guests won’t come, the king sends out his servants to find anyone and everyone, of all sorts, to eat this food which is otherwise going to waste. And that was quite shocking to religious people. Imagine a Lord Mayor’s Banquet in the Guildhall, when the Prime Minister and important guests from British society haven’t bothered to show up, and instead the Guildhall is full of office workers, cleaners, clubbers, homeless people, anyone who will come along; the small and the bad replace the great and the good.
This is a fantastic picture of how God comes to us and invites us to be part of his kingdom, his new life. We can be good or bad – but God invites all of us to come. It doesn’t matter how we got here – the important thing is that we’re here, and that God loves us, isn’t it?
Well, actually, not quite. Matthew adds an extra paragraph into the story which other versions of it don’t have. And it seems arbitrary and
odd: why should someone who just turns up to a banquet be expected to have a smart suit or a gorgeous dress, and be thrown into outer darkness because they don’t?
But remember this is a story! and it’s making a point. All of us are used to the idea that what we wear does matter: it says something about how you treat other people. To turn up for a wedding reception or a formal dinner in dirty old clothes means that, like the guests who didn’t come to the feast, you can’t be bothered to make an effort – you literally haven’t bothered to change.
And that too is the point of this story. Everyone is welcome to God’s table. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to change. God loves everyone, no matter how good or bad we are – saints and sinners, choristers and vagrants, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, religious people, ruthless dictators, the angry and the happy and the sad – God loves us all.
But God doesn’t love the bad things we do, or the way we can treat God and other people with contempt. And the banquet of God’s kingdom is a banquet of truth, justice, mercy and holiness. To eat at God’s table and receive God’s love requires us to change – on the inside and on the outside too. And if we can’t be bothered to receive God’s love and be changed by it, if we stubbornly stay just as we are, then we’ll have to leave the banquet altogether.… That’s the story that Jesus told. The question is: how do we make this story part of our story? How do we respond to this invitation? The final punch-line tells us that God’s love invites everyone, but many don’t turn up and still more won’t change: many are called, but few are chosen.
So, come today to celebrate the feast of God’s Messiah, to eat at the table of God; come, ready for the party, ready to get changed.