Apologies for this being late – I completely forgot to post it at the beginning of the week. Never mind, better late than never!
Jesus said: The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
A little girl was attending a wedding for the first time. Seeing the bride process in on the arm of her father she whispered to her mother, “Mummy, why is the bride dressed in white?” Her mother replied, “Because white is the colour of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life.” Her daughter thought about this for a moment, and then said, “So why is the groom wearing black!”
Marriage is one of those institutions that has always attracted the attention of stand-up comedians. There must be more jokes about marriage – especially if you include all the jokes about mothers-in-law – than almost any other subject. And yet, marriage is in reality a serious business – and big business, too, given how much people today spend on their weddings and their wedding receptions. Wedding receptions – if you want the works – can be extremely expensive with many people thinking nothing of spending tens of thousands of pounds on the do. Of course, it’s quite useful if you’re well-known because then you can get Hello magazine to pay for the reception and make a profit into the bargain.
For others the cost of the reception is prohibitive. In some cultures the full wedding cannot take place until the family responsible can afford to invite all the guests custom demands. Some people say that we do not regard marriage as highly as we did in the past, but there are many couples who do not get married – not because they don’t believe in marriage itself – but because they cannot afford the expensive wedding they believe is expected of them.Of course we believe that marriage is about much more important things than fancy weddings, but in practical terms the availability of the reception hall and whether or not it is licensed for singing, dancing and the sale of intoxicating liquor often still dictates when and where the wedding will take place. And then there is the major question of the guest list. Much metaphorical blood has been spilled and feuds caused because some relatives or friends have been invited and others not! No matter what our relationship to the bride and groom, we may feel disappointed and even hurt if we are not invited to the wedding. And it’s all made more complicated these days by the growing trend of having two receptions – the formal reception immediately after the wedding ceremony for the important guests, followed later by an evening disco for to which everybody else is invited. Which just leaves people wondering why they were only invited to the evening do!
Weddings are serious business. And nothing could be more serious than the wedding and the wedding party that Jesus speaks about in today’s gospel reading from Matthew. What is so strange about the gospel story today is that it overturns our expectations of weddings. Here is a royal wedding, the wedding of the king’s son. Imagine how many people today would love to receive an invitation to such a wedding! It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the wedding to top all weddings. One of the things that so fascinated people at the recent wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton was who was on the guest list – and who had been left off, and why? Yet none of those invited to the royal wedding in today’s gospel reading wants to come. Not only do they refuse the invitation, they mistreat and kill the king’s messengers.
So what’s this story about? Well, the story is a picture of God’s invitation to us to take part in the dramatic unfolding of salvation brought by God’s Son. It is the offer beyond price. The offer is first made to the Chosen People. After their refusal to attend the offer is made to all and sundry, those who have nothing better to do than hang around at the crossroads, the outsiders. That’s you and me. The invitation to share in God’s love feast is extended to all.
Now, this story also appears in Luke’s Gospel. But Luke ends the story at this point. Matthew adds on a further bit to the story that seems to contradict the message of the first that the invitation is open to all – the bit about a guest not being properly dressed, not wearing his wedding garment. And it’s hard for us to understand what seems to be such a harsh judgement. We ask, how can someone brought in from the road be condemned for not wearing a wedding garment? And it’s this part that makes this particular story about a wedding no joking matter – this is deadly serious. Just listen to that part of the story again:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then 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.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’
Why wasn’t he properly dressed? Why wasn’t he wearing his wedding robe? Perhaps he just thought it was great to go to a wedding but it wasn’t really that important. He was never going to get away with it – the king notices and is angry. And what happens next should make us all think very seriously about our own response to our invitation. For the improperly dressed guest is not simply asked to leave. He is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He is now far, far worse off than those who were originally invited but turned down the invitations.
Matthew wrote his gospel for a particular church community – and his message was clear: “You are here because you have been invited to the wedding feast – don’t treat it lightly, don’t treat it as a joke, treat it dead seriously.” The lack of a wedding robe was Matthew’s image of someone not taking the invitation seriously. Respond fully to the invitation, he is saying, take your Christian life as seriously as you should and you are like those who went to this wedding feast properly dressed. Don’t take it seriously – and your fate will be like the improperly dressed guest. You can’t gloss over this, or put on any kind of positive spin: Matthew is forcefully making the point – don’t assume that because you’ve joined this church community that everything is fine – you can just as easily put yourself in the position where Jesus throws you out because you are not taking this seriously! And when you remember that we, each of us here now, are in that story the guests at the wedding – it makes you stop in your tracks and think! We have been invited to the wedding in place of the original guests – but having been invited and having turned up, are we, in a sense, properly dressed? Have we got our wedding robes on?
Matthew’s aim is to reinforce the earlier message of invitation and refusal. Whatever the details, the point of Matthew’s addition is to reinforce the message that, whatever our situation in life, we are asked to respond, to come out of ourselves, to make a choice, to accept the invitation to take part in the greatest story ever told. But that when we accept the invitation we must do so wholeheartedly, realising that this is a serious business. The real mystery is that sometimes we don’t. Like the improperly dressed guest in Matthew’s story we don’t take the invitation as seriously as we should – and Matthew is reminding us that failure to do so has dire consequences. This story has – as it was intended to by Matthew – that quite frightening and shocking warning to those who are half-hearted about their commitment about being thrown into the outer darkness, bound hand and feet. And he finishes with those rather sombre words: “For many are called but few are chosen.” And there is simply no way that we can make the message of today’s gospel reading more palatable, less threatening, than it is.
We can refuse to take the invitation to the wedding feast seriously at different levels. At the level of the sacraments, one of our regular acts of refusal is not taking part in the celebration of holy communion. Holy communion, mass, is the central act or worship for us as believers, renewing for us the life-giving effects of Christ’s sacrifice of himself and preparing us for what is described in the Bible as the eternal wedding banquet of heaven. Many of us get taken over by the busy-ness of life and just aren’t inclined to turn up very often. Or we don’t get too involved in church life. Or we make sure that what we do on Sundays doesn’t spill over into the rest of the week and affect our real, everyday lives.
Just like those in today’s story – both those who didn’t turn up and the improperly dressed guest – we can always find good reasons why other things are more important. Sometimes when people aren’t going to be in church they tell me. Often they have very good reasons – they’re working, or away on holiday, or going into hospital, or they’re ill. But that’s not always the case. And sometimes they say to me: “I won’t be in church next week, we’ve friends coming to stay, I need to cook the dinner, I’ve got to take the children to football, I need to spend time doing jobs around the house and it’s the only time I’ve got, Sundays my only opportunity for a lie-in, I don’t do weekday evenings …“ Then, of course, the things that people don’t tell me – there’s rugby on the television, the weather is too sunny, the weather is too wet … All these are things that actually don’t prevent you going to church unless you want them to. I’ve heard all those and more, and more – any priest can come up with a list like that. And, believe me, most clergy if they are honest have times when they’d far rather be doing something else!
Yet the invitation doesn’t come from me – it comes from God. And when we start to make excuses, and turn down the invitation for one reason or another, it’s God we need to give the reason to, not the vicar. Here’s a challenge for you. Next time you’re not coming to church don’t tell me. Read this gospel passage again, and then go and stand before the high altar and say, “I’m sorry, Jesus, but I won’t be in church next week because … “ and see what Jesus has to say.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son …
You have been invited to the wedding banquet. So accept the invitation. Put on your best robe, metaphorically speaking. Take it seriously. And having taken it seriously go and enjoy the party. Embrace the reality that being invited to Jesus’ party means. For ultimately the picture that we are given today is that serious as it is, the kingdom of heaven is like any party – it’s a time for people to share each other’s joy and to have a good time. And what better image could there be for how God wants us to spend eternity than one unending party.