The Wedding Banquet 15th Oct.2017 Madingley
Exodus 32:1-14 Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14
There is a long-established approach to prayer in the Christian tradition in which we are encouraged to take a passage of Scripture, and then immerse ourselves in it, imagining ourselves back in that scene, and becoming aware of how we react, and how others react to us. Then in the quiet we may hear what God is saying to us, and what we can learn from his word. The Gospels are ideal for this, and especially the parables.
Today’s story has much in it that would be familiar to us and a good one to use for this sort of prayer: we have experienced in our own lives all the busyness surrounding wedding preparations, and the variety of emotions that are surging at the time. It may even be that some of us at least would sympathize with the man who was not wearing a wedding garment and so was cast out of the celebrations. We have probably had the experience of a common dream, where we turn up for a major event either inappropriately dressed for the occasion, or wearing no clothes at all. [It's usually a sign that we are, in daily life, feeling unprepared for some major event.]
This parable has much in common with the one we were looking at last week, the story of the wicked tenants in the vineyard who refused to hand over the year’s harvest to the owner. In fact it is the final one of a series about the way the religious leaders of the time have failed to grab the opportunity to share in the new revelation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus. Just like in the Tenants in the Vineyard, we see the most important figure, who represents God, sending his emissaries, in other words the prophets, to encourage the people to respond to God’s call to them, but they in turn injure and kill those who were doing God’s work amongst them.
In this particular parable, the invitations have already been sent out, and now all is prepared, so it is time to drop everything and attend the wedding banquet. Attendance at weddings was a social obligation, and those who refuse to come in this account would have already accepted the original invitation, so going back on that original commitment was a terrible insult to the king. Ignoring the king’s proclamation warranted severe punishment, and those who listened to this story originally would have been astounded at the ill-considered act of treason and sheer effrontery of those who refused to attend the king’s son’s wedding.
If we were sitting listening to this today, we might be at least a little surprised that someone would pass up the chance to attend a royal wedding. If we were to know too that killing the messengers constituted a declared act of revolution, that would underline our understanding of the seriousness of the situation.
The king is persistent and prepared to give the guests a second chance. The second set of servants he sends out go into greater detail about the banquet, clearly meaning that this is not something you would willingly miss out on. Especially given that these feasts went on for at least a couple of days. And there is a degree of urgency, since the food has been prepared, and there was not the luxury of fridges and freezers for keeping the food fresh until the guests deigned to appear.
Since nothing will persuade them to ignore their day-to-day tasks and join in the celebrations, the king sends his servants out into the highways and byways to find other more grateful people, who will recognize the enormity of the invitation which has been offered to them, and will not permit this chance to pass them by. But then we come to this addendum, as it were, to the story, in that one man is discovered having managed to slide in by a side entrance, avoiding the checking procedure of those on the door. He sits himself down to participate in the feast, without having bothered to change into appropriate clothing.
We may wonder whether it’s reasonable to expect a poor man to have something suitable to wear as wedding attire, but in fact all that was required of him was to wear his clean set of spare clothes. It’s as if we had turned up in our gardening clothes. To not bother to change was another example of someone insulting the host. When challenged, he was speechless; he had no valid excuse.
So we have a range of responses to the king’s invitation: some hostile; some just plain indifferent; one at least careless if nothing else; and all showing a crass indifference to the importance of the occasion. And those in the original audience would have known precisely who these people represented. Once again, Jesus was warning the Chief Priests and all the other religious leaders that they were mistaken if they felt that they could ignore his message, because they felt they had an assured place in the scheme of things, already possessing what amounts to reserved seats, in God’s heavenly banquet. Unfortunately, the religious leaders could not see that their reaction to Jesus would seal their fate, and have a significant impact when it came to seeing who would participate in the Kingdom of God.
This is emphasised by the tone of urgency throughout the parable; the feast is ready and about to go to waste, so it will be offered to anyone who recognizes its significance and accepts the invitation with joy. So there is here both a strong moral with an inbuilt warning: take up God’s invitation while it is available, or else it will be offered to someone else who will respond more gratefully than you. And the point about the man who came dressed inappropriately is that the criticism is not just levelled at the people of Israel and especially their leaders, but at anyone else who comes after, whatever their nationality.
If this moral had passed us by, our attention is caught by the epigram which has worried people down the generations ever since: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” It applies to all the characters in the parable; those who received the original invitation, and those who were given the opportunity to attend the banquet later. It is not an indication that God will, on a whim, decide to reject a significant proportion of those who have been invited to his feast.
Rather, the responsibility lies with those who are called, to respond; that’s what makes them chosen, as they enter the banqueting hall. It reminds us of the parable of the Sower, where several images are used to illustrate the way numerous people hear the message of God, but for various reasons after a while they give up on the call they have heard from him. There’s many a slip between the original call to faith, and the eventual fruitful life. Above all, this parable is a warning against complacency in our faith, and a taking for granted the love which God has extended to us.
The image of the banquet reminds us of earlier scenes in the Gospel, when Jesus does in fact, rather than in a story, feed both the 5,000 and the 4,000. This extravagance providing all that was needed for the people to be amply fed and prepared for their journey home, is a foretaste of our being nourished week by week by the Eucharist, as a preparation for the glorious banquet in the life to come. So many act as if they have all they could possibly require, and have no need of the King and his feast. They are content with the mundane provision and experience of this life, and cannot appreciate what is on offer. It seems amazing that people could refuse to accept the invitation of the King to his feast. We cannot force people to respond gladly to what is held open to them. All we can do is ensure that our acceptance of the invitation is whole-hearted and enthusiastic; then maybe others will wonder what they are missing.