This is woefully late — the story of my life recently. But anyway, here’s the sermon I preached on Sunday 12 October.
Isaiah 25.1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As you are probably already aware, two of our gospels contain versions of today’s parable: Matthew, which we just heard, and Luke.
Luke’s is far more gentle. It isn’t about a wedding feast, and the meal isn’t hosted by a king. It is simply a man who holds a banquet. When his initial invitations are rejected, others are invited instead. The host isn’t happy his invitation is dismissed. He does get angry. But in Luke’s version, no one dies.
Instead, the selfish and foolish miss out on a great feast, while the underdogs, the outcasts, the helpless and shabby and often invisible members of society are rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.
So far, so Good News. So good, in fact, that if Disney made a film of this parable, it would certainly follow Luke’s take on it.
Matthew, on the other hand, is straight out of the brothers Grimm, complete with blood and gore, woe and wailing, darkness and destruction. Those who are invited to the feast kill the servants; the king in turn kills them and destroys their city; and the one hapless guest who shows up wearing the wrong clothing is dramatically banished.
Where’s the Good News in this story, a story that doesn’t seem safe for adults, and certainly not appropriate for the tender ears of children?
In this world where disproportionate retributive violence is witnessed and experienced by so many every day — at the hands of angry factions in the foreign lands of Iraq, Syria, Israel and Gaza, or here, much closer to home in the street violence which takes place under cover of darkness and domestic violence happening behind closed doors — what Good News does this story of further retributive violence have to offer?
We long for a God who is different, a God who speaks peace and gentle love, a God who welcomes the poorest of the poor, the saddest of the sad, the sickest of the sick, not an angry and distant king eager to cause further division and hurt where chaos already reigns.
The community for which Matthew was writing knew all too well the horror of persecution. They lived in a world which made as little sense as the world we live in now. And as they looked on helplessly — as we do — while everything around them crumbled further and further into violence, they searched for hope, for God’s presence in the midst of it. They were desperate to find some reason behind the occupation of their land and the grief and agony they were experiencing. Was the killing of the people, the burning of the cities, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple a consequence of the corruption of the Jewish leaders and the distortion of religious observance? Matthew seems to want to suggest it was.
Everything about this parable — from its telling to its interpretation to its implications — is unsettling and ugly. It is impossible to package it as a friendly moral reminder from Jesus. Because it speaks directly to the ugliness of our own need for black and white. To the ugliness of our refusal to see the plank in our own eye while bringing attention to the speck in our neighbour’s. The ugliness of our simplistic tendency to wish for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, for the good to be rewarded and the wicked punished, for the corrupt leaders to be killed and the poor and lowly to be treated to an extravagant feast.
Matthew’s language may be extreme and we may rightly question the image of God he portrays, but we cannot deny the truth he speaks about his listeners — and about us.
But at the moment that Jesus seems to draw that line, separating the bad and the good, the selfish and the lowly, at the moment we hear the sound of the door closing, the music being cranked up and the wedding party starting in earnest, we feel a blast of the cold night air as the door is swung open again and an inappropriately dressed guest expelled. Even the ones inside aren’t safe, it would seem.
So where is the Good News of this gospel parable?
‘Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.’
But the invitation is only the start.
None of those who were gathered had received a save the date card. None were prepared for the feast. But it was the custom that the host would provide the robes. A rack of wedding garments would hang by the entrance so each guest would be respectfully clothed for the occasion.
Each of us, good and bad (most of us both), have been gathered together today. We each have our own stories to tell about how we were led here. We know how ill-prepared and out of place we felt, how humbled we were, how odd it all was to find ourselves here in this place of beauty and music, here at this table set with bread and wine.
As we accepted the invitation and crossed the threshold, we were shown the rack with all the garments appropriate for the occasion and told in the words of Paul: ‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. … But above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Col 3.12,14).
When we hear these words, we may well imagine beauty and purity, gowns not dissimilar to baptismal gowns, robes of perfect white. I do, anyway. I like cleanliness and perfection.
But this is an ugly parable, isn’t it? The Grimms version, not the Disney soppiness.
And these qualities — compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love — they aren’t some touchy feely warm and fuzzy wooly liberal airy fairy-ness. What we must recognise in this parable is the continuity between love and anger, judgement and forgiveness, condemnation and compassion. As the theologian Miroslav Volf puts it: ‘God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.’
For us to be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love is to also be clothed with righteous anger and action. It is to see the world with God’s eyes and to cry out in lament at how far it is from the Kingdom we have been commanded to pray for. It is to risk walking around in white garments covered with bread crumbs and wine stains from feeding those who are desperately hungry, to have hems dirtied with dust from walking with those who are lonely, to have sleeves dampened from wiping away the tears of those who mourn.
This is the Good News. That we are not expected to be tidy and perfect and always ready. But we are expected to serve God and others with the same extravagant expansive love and reckless radical inclusiveness with which Christ served.
All are invited. The good and the bad. And at a meal not unlike this feast, Jesus sat with his group of followers, those who would shortly deny him, betray him, abandon him. And knowing this, he looked at each one of them as he broke bread and poured wine, saying: ‘This is my body given for you. This is my blood poured out for you and for many. Do this in remembrance of me.’