Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


The Wedding Banquet
October 9, 2011, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday October 9th, 2011

“Jesus spoke to the chief priests and Pharisees in parables.” The word parable means a comparison or likeness, drawing a parallel. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet.” What exactly is the comparison our Lord is making? If you look in St Luke’s Gospel, you will find a story which is clearly another version of this one, but with interesting differences. It is much softer, much gentler. St Matthew gives us a version much harsher and much more bloodthirsty. In Luke, the first people invited accept the invitation, but then can’t be bothered to turn up. Here, they won’t come from the start, and eventually beat up and even kill the messengers. In Luke, they are simply replaced with other guests; here, the troops are sent to destroy the murderers and burn their city. Luke has nothing about the guest without a wedding garment; here, the man is bound hand a foot and thrown into outer darkness. Violent stuff indeed.

Which is the more authentic version? We can’t say for sure. Possibly Luke, writing for an educated Gentile readership, has toned down the gory parts of the story. Equally possibly, Matthew, writing for a Jewish-Christian readership after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, has beefed the story up a bit to reflect that. It doesn’t really matter, but it is Matthew’s version we have this morning.

The basic comparison is of the kingdom of heaven to a wedding-feast given by a king for his son. As you might expect, the first invitations go to the important people- big landowners, business tycoons and so on. These people are so full of their own importance that they turn their noses up even at an invitation to a royal wedding. “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” From our perspective, this is quite an easy comparison: God invites us to a spiritual feast, but some people thinking making money is more important. Some are worse. Tyrants (Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Gaddafi) actually torture and kill those who speak up for justice and compassion.

The kingdom of heaven, the royal wedding-feast, is a place where all kinds of people sit down together in peace and harmony, sharing equally in the good things that their host provides. Last week we were keeping harvest, thanking the Creator for the bountiful gifts he gives us. But we know all too well that the gifts of creation are not shared equally world-wide, we know that greedy people hog more than their fair share, we know that wicked and powerful people do maintain their unjust position by violence and oppression. So the picture rings true.

Our Lord speaks of two consequences: the punishment of the wicked, and the substitution of other guests. Some of what he says is possibly coloured by the Old Testament, where the prophets of God were rejected and sometimes killed, and Jerusalem was destroyed as a result. The priests and Pharisees would have taken the point. They knew their history. More generally, our Lord is saying that, in the long run, tyrants and torturers do not get away with it. They are answerable to God, and they will be called to account- if not here and now, at least hereafter.

The other lesson: God will often find a readier response among those who have little or nothing than among those who have a lot. Human beings need hope, they refuse to despair. The belief that ultimately right and good must prevail underpins their faith in God. In the story, the invitations go out in two batches; in reality, they go out to everyone, all the time. It is not that God loves some people more than others- even the worst are still his children- but their fate depends on how much they love him.

The postscript to the story, the man with no wedding-garment, is making the same point. Obviously, the king could not have expected beggars dragged in from the streets to be wearing morning-dress! The custom was for the host to supply suitable clothes to those who didn’t have them. So once again, we are faced with a man- this time a poor man- who simply refused what the king wanted to give him. It is a reminder that it is not just material poverty that God blesses: the beggar may by a curmudgeon as much as the miser. What God looks for is the generous heart which is open enough to receive the gift that is freely offered. That too is part of the total picture of the wedding-feast, the kingdom of heaven. The old commentators on the Gospel interpreted the wedding-garment as charity, love. Without love in your heart, you simply don’t belong at God’s table.

To sum up: the kingdom of heaven is like this: God the Father and Creator of us all wants the world to be like a party to which everyone is invited. No-one has to bring a bottle, everything is provided by the host. The whole world is God’s gift to us, as we remembered last week. The invitation comes from him, all we have to do is accept it. true, we must come wearing the garment of love: but even that is provided by our host! Theologically, the love that God wants to see in us, and without which we cannot join the party: that love is itself God’s gift to us, the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, living within us. All we have to do is not refuse it!

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” Many, in this context, means effectively “all”: as in “This is the cup of my blood, shed for you and for many.” There is nobody God does not invite. “But few are chosen.” Who does the choosing? Is it God who, having called many, chooses only a few? I think not. In the end, the choosing is done by us, when we choose to accept or reject the invitation, when we choose to put on or refuse the garment of love. Whoever is excluded, is self-excluded.

This last week I have been in Walsingham. As many of you know, at the heart of the shrine is a copy of the little house, the Holy House, which the lady Richeldis was told to make 950 years ago. That house was itself a copy of the house in Nazareth which had been the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family. How does this connect with what I have been saying? The real Wedding to which we are all invited is in fact the wedding between God and humanity in Jesus Christ himself. Mary of Nazareth, by this world’s standards an unimportant girl in an unimportant village, was asked to become the Mother of God. In her womb, the great Creator formed for himself a human body and soul, in order that we human beings might become divine. He was not born in a palace, but in a stable. The little house in Nazareth was where he grew up, and learned the trade of a carpenter from Joseph. It is because he chose to live in poverty and humility that the high and mighty of the earth turn up their noses at his invitation.

It is the very powerlessness of Jesus that threatens the powers of the world, and makes them want to stamp him out, and all that he stands for. At Bethlehem and Nazareth, the Holy Family consisted of three people: Jesus himself, his mother Mary, and the loyal Joseph. As he hung dying on the Cross, only his mother and faithful John stood near. Again, the Holy Family consisted of just three persons: but now John stands for every one who wishes to follow Christ. The Son and the Mother are unique, but the beloved disciple may be anyone: you, me, anyone. Many are called; nobody need be excluded. God says, “Look, everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” Yes? Or no?

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