Five hundred years after the prophet Isaiah started the conversation the general consensus around ‘what the kingdom of heaven might be like?’ was that it would be like ‘a wedding banquet’. Where there was no agreement was on who would get an invitation to the banquet. Needless to say most people regarded themselves as being , if not on the top table then fairly near it….and placed everyone else either at the back of the room or, (worse still) outside in the dark looking in.
So when Jesus told the scribes and pharisees that the kingdom of heaven was like a wedding banquet given by a king for his son….well, he was on familiar territory; people knew that this was a parable about Israel. Jesus was talking about God and his people celebrating the coming together of heaven and earth.
But the first fly in the ointment came with the question ‘If God is the King, who is this ‘son’? Does Jesus see himself in this role?’ But then the flies just keep on coming, so much so that by the end of the parable Jesus’ hearers are well and truly hacked off with Jesus’ retelling of the story.
Picture the scene. The invitations went out an age ago: gold edged, sat on a first century Jewish mantlepiece: the RSVPs have been collected by the palace. But then the day comes and it is as if all the guests have decided to humiliate the King by not turning up. The excuses are offensive: can you imagine phoning the palace 5 minutes before the main meal to say you’ve got to go milk the cows or do your accounts?
And then things go from bad to worse. The king’s servants are beaten up or killed. The king can’t let this go unpunished. There are troops on the streets and the murderers’ city is burned to the ground. All the while the wedding banquet carries on…except now every Tom, Dick and Harriet is invited to pull up their chairs and to tuck into the wedding cake. The wedding hall is filled with – did you notice – both good and bad.
And even then there is more. One of the newly arrived set of guests decides not to accept the wedding robe offered to him (because this was provided by the king, not something he was expected to bring himself) and for this insult to the king’s generosity he pays by being thrown out of the door into ‘outer darkness’.
Some scholars see the ‘judgy’ bits of this parable as being more the work of Matthew than of Jesus. It is thought that Matthew wrote literally as Jerusalem was burning: troops (Roman troops) had destroyed the city. Israel saw this as God’s judgement upon the nation. The first Christians (whether we agree with them or not) saw this event as being God’s judgement on those who had rejected Jesus. Matthew may well have had this in mind as he reworked the parable: Jesus had predicted the fall of Jerusalem, he was a true prophet.
But what we also know, (but prefer not to acknowledge) is that Jesus himself spoke of decisions that carried consequences: ‘judgement’ is an uncomfortable but real part of Jesus’ message. We don’t like it – the separation of sheep from goats, light and darkness, good and bad fish, seed that grows and flourishes (and other seed that does not) but it’s there…and here it is in today’s parable asking to be dealt with.
So what to say? We first have to acknowledge that the king wants us at the banquet. The invitation is offered – firstly it seems to Israel but then to the wider world. The son (in the story) is getting married. To use story’s imagery the banquet (the kingdom of heaven) is ready. Now’s the time to enter it: so what are you waiting for? why are you delaying ? what on earth do you think you are doing turning down the king’s invitation?
The driving force of the story is the king’s grace. ‘Come, all is ready’ is the message. When the first guests fail to turn up there is a wider invitation offered. There is, as the hymn says ‘a wideness in God’s mercy’. All are welcome here.
But we cannot take grace for granted. None of us deserves the invitation. None of us have earned this privilege: the kingdom of heaven has been opened to us by God’s goodness alone. So as we enter it, we do so on his terms, not ours. This is His party, his banquet, his guests, his son – it’s not for us to act otherwise and make it all about ourselves. Judgement and humiliation come when we fail our King – we have felt some of that this week as the report on abuse within the church has been released – always, always, always we must seek to grow into the garments of the kingdom, to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience –anything less is to insult the generosity of God, our King and to shame his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
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