I suspect the gospel reading from Matthew 22:1-14 has you wondering what it is you have walked into! What sort of invitation have you accepted?
This story of the wedding feast is the last of three parables in which Jesus debates with the temple authorities. I have spoken on the last two Sundays, about the religious leaders’ challenge to Jesus’ authority to preach and teach in their temple as he dares to give a different message to theirs about God and God’s love. In response, Jesus tells them three parables, the first is a parable about two sons who disobey their father; the second is about wicked tenants who disobey the vineyard owner and the consequences for their behaviour, and now this, the third parable about the wedding feast of a King’s son.
The story takes our breath away as we hear of the king’s anger at the rudeness, disrespect and sheer ignorance and disregard of those who would normally be expected to accept an invitation to a king’s son’s wedding. The story tells us their behaviour results in death and destruction of a whole city!
The wedding invitations were eventually being handed out indiscriminately to both good and bad individuals who happened to be on the streets at the time. Everyone is included, gentiles and Jews alike, and finally with the wedding hall filled, Jesus’ parable presents us with the consequences of ignoring the feast to which we have been invited, an invitation handed out at our baptisms! It’s a story full of drama, holding the prospect of fierce and final judgement for everyone in contrast to the possibility of a scandalously inclusive grace for all no matter who we are, where we come from and what we have done.
This parable in Matthew is told by Jesus during his last week in Jerusalem. I imagine Jesus and his disciples’ emotions are fraught and on edge. The religious authorities are looking for ways to kill Jesus as they are so outraged with his behaviour and teachings. His life is in the balance, and yet, even close to his arrest and death, he is still trying to break through their deliberate, willful deafness, blindness and their smug self-righteousness as he tries to shake them out of their certainty.
All three invitations to the feast are described, with each refusal escalating the rejection; from simple refusal, to disrespect, and finally, to mistreatment, murder and destruction. The invitation in the parable being told by Jesus, elaborates on the words spoken by Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1-6.
Wisdom has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live, and walk in the way of insight.’
Wisdom, like the king, has made ready the feast. The invitations have been sent out. Jesus is the Word who has spoken, prophesying the terrible tragedy ahead. For Matthew, writing the Gospel in about 85 CE, he’s remembering with grief, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its temple where God resided. We are reminded, the consequences for ignoring such an invitation are profound.
Jesus has put himself in danger for us, and he is killed. And all we seem to want to do, is to continue with our lives without making any changes. A feast, what’s a feast between friends? No wonder we are reminded there will be a wailing and gnashing of teeth.
In our reflection on the King’s response to the one who turns up among the guests, wearing the wrong clothes, the wedding robe is understood as a symbol for our Christian life referring to the outward evidence of the inward transformation that occurs when a person is joined to Christ through baptism. The harsh response of the king reflects some of the culture and understanding of God in Jesus’ day.
For Matthew, the ethics of those listening and responding to Jesus are critical. If someone receives unmerited grace and does not respond with humility, compassion, kindness and gratitude, the person is judged just as those who begged off the initial invitation.
In truth, as we think about the parable with today’s ears, I think an ungrateful life is its own judgement, an ‘outer darkness’ that is desperately lonely and devoid of joy for those who reject Jesus, with nothing left in life or in death which offers hope, courage and love during life and beyond death into resurrection. I think about the debate we have been experiencing over the last few weeks with the Voice Referendum and wonder what the ‘outer darkness’ feels like for those you have rejected the invitation to the feast.
It is striking too, the man cast out of the banquet is not just underdressed, but speechless. He has been caught out without an answer to God’s invitation. Still, for those who dwell in the warmth, security and abundance of the banquet hall, it is not unreasonable to expect that someday you will find yourself face to face with the host of the party. When that day comes, we will do well to be prepared with a word of thanks!
In the drama, horror and grief of the final week of Jesus’ life, the escalating rhetoric, the tensions about what might happen and what does happen, the betrayal, torture and crucifixion, are what are left to shake us out of our complacency if Jesus’ words, the Word made flesh have not already done so. In the end, God’s love is what welcomes and holds us. Jesus died for us rather than betray us. We can trust this and we can trust God.
The Lord be with you.