First thoughts on a lectionary sermon for Sunday 9 October 2011 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

There is a Spanish proverb which roughly translated says: “he who spits against heaven, gets it in the eye”.
This morning’s story from Matthew seems a perfect illustration of that proverb.
A king is having a wedding celebration for his son and anyone who has had the slightest connection with what goes on behind the scene will immediately know the potential trouble ahead. Who should be invited – and who should be passed over. When the guests arrive, where shall they be seated and what protocols should be followed. That the wedding is of the son of a king just makes these issues even more problematic.
I heard of one minister when counselling the bride and groom before the ceremony has a simple word of advice for the groom. “Remember young man, you are the least important member of the wedding party. Say nothing, think nothing, support your bride under all circumstances and you may just survive.
I remember going to one family party the night before a wedding at which the arguments about who should be asked to speak at the reception and what they should be expected to say grew in intensity until the bridegroom, feeling his wishes were being totally ignored suddenly announced. “Right that’s it. You can have the wedding without me.” And to the consternation of the family, he stomped out the gate and down the road pursued by some very concerned family members following, trying to get him to change his mind.
Any wedding when made to conform to that myriad of human failings and perceptions of pecking order is bound to produce some problems. And this wedding in Matthew at least sounds plausible when the first set of problems about wedding invitations spurned begins to emerge. But then things turn nasty, and in particular, much nastier than when Luke told the same story. Why? Let me try to explain with an illustration.

The last vehicle I bought was not my best purchase. The Toyota van looked fine and I foolishly accepted that sellers claim that the reason why it had new paint was because someone had marked the old paint with graffiti. Had I been a little more careful I would have spotted the signs that in fact the van had been in a major accident and as a consequence some of the parts had been exchanged with parts from at least one other vehicle.

This morning’s parable shows a similar match and mix signs of second hand parts coming from other sources and the result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

The outline of the story seems intended as a straight-forward retelling of approximately the same parable we encounter in Luke where reluctant wedding guests turned down their invitation and found their places taken by randomly chosen people from the highways and by-ways. The retelling is somewhat unexpectedly rough round the edges and the changes made don’t leave us with much comfort. Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master who in the parable appears to stand for God.

Remember the story from Luke is a favourite with preachers and it doesn’t take much examination to see why the Matthew version is often avoided altogether for a pulpit exposition.

First although the story would be in keeping with the kings of the time who had to hold to their power with total force, the picture of God is far more Old Testament than New Testament. Look again at the detail. Having been turned down by those originally expected to accept, the king probably correctly reasons that such wholesale rejection of his invitations is in fact a deliberate slight, and in all probability an indication of rebellion. How to respond? His answer is with a total display of power. He actually goes as far as to murder the messengers who return the rejected invitations. Next he orders the effective destruction of the entire city, butchers the rebellious inhabitants – and finally shows his contempt for the original ingrates by in effect organising a transfer of power to total new- comers – appointing if you like a new class of supporters. Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, had him bound hand and foot then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.

So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?

In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard. Remember Matthew was probably assembling his version of the gospel at a time when the Romans had tired of trying to subdue the Jews who resented their invaders to the point that they had risen in revolt and to teach them a lesson had sacked Jerusalem and driven the survivors in effect out to the wilderness. Matthew then may simply have been putting a theological spin on the reason why this terrible event had occurred by adding a blood-thirsty bit of vengeance to the simple parable found in Luke’s gospel. Matthew appears to be using Jesus parable to remind us that those originally chosen – the Jews have not understood that the invitation to join the son’s party requires a response – and in the face of their inability to respond, others – presumably the Christians must seize the opportunity.

And there is plausibility in the choice. Turning down the invitation on the grounds that we might find a better offer would seem a relatively common response. Since we are not so much talking of Church attendance as participation in the good things of the kingdom, time after time history teaches us that to ignore those higher values of life can and does lead to crisis. Shutting your eyes to the poor only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to see that the Arab Spring had nothing to do with disenchantment with those leaders who had forgotten to care for their people. Church leaders and even whole denominations lose their right to the seat at the feast if they do ignore the moral imperative of the real issues of the day. It is said for example that the same evening on the same Moscow Street at one address a group of revolutionaries gather to discuss overthrowing the Tsar – and at another address in the same street a group of Priests gathered to discuss the colours of their vestments. One of those meetings changed the history of the world.

In most nations there is a tendency to forget the embarrassment of the starving – and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is something sad about the way in which most wealthy nations refuse to take the growing world refugee problems seriously and although most large churches would claim to be concerned for the planet there is little evidence of concerted action. A few years ago in our universities there was a social theory explaining the lurches observed on group and individual behaviour called catastrophe theory. Its main contention was that stresses would continue to build incrementally until there was a sudden switch in response and suddenly all was different. This is a lesson which has proved very difficult to learn at a national and even international level. The partial collapse of the world banking banking system, the insidious build-up of social pressures until rioting breaks out, the increase in world terrorism ….. all complex phenomena no doubt – yet in retrospect phenomena where the warning signs were present.

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.

This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out. Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that in Jesus time when guests often didn’t have a large wardrobe, the wedding robes would have been ones provided by the host. In other words putting on the robe would be a natural courteous response to the hospitality offered. But in order to understand this for its full meaning we need to look a little deeper.

Remember the image of assembling the vehicle with parts from elsewhere. Some commentators have also noted the likely parallel with the imagery offered by one of the letters attributed to Paul. In Galatians Paul entreats us that on accepting the challenge to follow Christ we clothe ourselves not with ordinary clothes but rather clothe ourselves with Christ. This curious analogy (Galatians 3:27) draws attention to the implication in the difference of clothing yourself for the occasion (eg a business suit for a day in the office) and clothing yourself for what some have called eternity.

In the context of the parable, all but one of the guests understand that to take advantage of this opportunity which has unexpectedly come their way, they had better do rather more than turn up. In this feast they have a part to play.

The analogy with church is clear. Simply turning up is hardly the same as clothing yourself with Christ – in other words choosing to cloak ourselves with the persona in which the values and attitudes of Christ become part of our own persona. Jesus in a number of places portrays God as not allowing oppressive regimes or uncomfortable injustices to remain intact. While it is probably human nature to prefer routines and even ruts to chaos – when the chaos arrives as a result of neglect – as with the wedding feast there may still be new opportunities but not necessarily for the same people. Those opportunities may well be opportunities of service, of compassion, of ensuring justice,- opportunities in fact that come with clothing ourselves with Christ. The parable comes also with an awkward truth. Not all those invited for the feast will accept the challenge – and not all will accept the offered robe. The invitation is there – how will we respond?

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