This Sunday’s readings continued the series of parables told by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel about who will inherit the kingdom. Here’s what I said.
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.
Of course we believe that marriage is about much more important things than fancy weddings, but in practical terms the availability of the reception venue 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.
Weddings and wedding receptions are serious business. They were at the time of Jesus when a wedding banquet went on for a week and the whole village was invited! And nothing could be more serious than the wedding and the wedding party that Jesus speaks about in today’s parable from our gospel reading from Matthew.
Now, we have had some difficult parables from Jesus directed at religious people over the past few weeks – the labourers in the vineyard, the wicked tenants. You’re lucky – two weeks ago we had our harvest service so missed out the parable of the two sons – one who did his father’s bidding and one who didn’t. You might be thinking at this point – a Wedding! Everyone likes a nice wedding. This must be a bit more cheerful! Forget that – it’s not! Having given dire warnings to the chief priests and scribes, Jesus now gives a dire warning to those who in his previous parables he has said would take their place.
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! Yet none of those invited to the royal wedding banquet 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 those whom God has chosen. Remember that Jesus is specifically addressing the chief priest and elders – the religious people, those who would expect to be invited. But 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, with all and sundry invited to the feast. Matthew adds on a further bit to the story that seems to contradict the message that the invitation is open to all – the bit about a guest not being properly dressed, not wearing his wedding garment, and being thrown out. And it’s hard for us to understand what seems to be such a harsh judgement. This is where it gets difficult. We ask, how can someone brought in from the street be condemned for not wearing a wedding garment? You wouldn’t have expected them to have one! 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.’
What happens to the improperly dressed guest should make us all think very seriously about our own response to our invitation from Jesus. 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 in this community 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 their 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.
There is no way of glossing over this, no way to 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 for 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 point is so serious, so important, that I’m going to repeat it. He tells us that we have been invited to a wedding feast. And we have the choice to accept the invitation. But 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 often 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 daunting 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, the mass, is the central act or worship for us as believers, renewing for us the life-giving effects of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself and preparing us for what is described in the Bible as the eternal wedding banquet of heaven of which it is a foretaste. We are specifically commanded by Jesus to do this in remembrance of him.
But 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, or they have someone in the family who is ill and who needs caring for. All these are good reasons and Jesus understands those kinds of reasons.
But that’s not always the case. And sometimes people 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 is my only opportunity for a lie-in, I don’t do weekday evenings, there’s tennis on the television…”
I’ve heard all those and more, and more – any priest can come up with a list like that. And, to be honest, priests themselves aren’t immune from the temptation.
Then, of course, there are the excuses that people don’t tell me – the weather is too sunny so we’re going out today, the weather is too wet so we’re staying in today … All these many excuses are things that actually don’t prevent you going to church unless you want them to.
But the invitation to come doesn’t come from me – it comes from Jesus. And when we start to make excuses, and turn down the invitation for one reason or another, it’s Jesus 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, but don’t be the guest without the wedding garment. Take the invitation seriously. Deadly seriously – because Matthew’s message is that having accepted the invitation the way you respond means the difference between eternal partying with Jesus or eternal alienation from him.
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.