Sermon for Trinity 18 – High Mass Sunday 15 October 2017
TRINITY 18, 2017 HIGH MASS – Sermon preached by the Vicar
Readings: Isaiah 25.1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14
“Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?”
It seems so unfair, doesn’t it? There’s this poor chap, let’s say one of the rough sleepers we see all over central London or even at the back of this church on a weekday. He suddenly finds himself invited to a royal wedding reception at Buckingham Palace – but he’s no sooner there than the king comes in and has him thrown out for not being properly dressed. He could hardly have had either time or money to call into Moss Bros on the way to get kitted out in a morning suit. Our sense of fair-play, our liberal-minded inclusiveness, rebels against this.
As Fr. Michael wrote in the Parish email on Friday, Biblical scholars say this was originally a separate parable – not included in Luke’s version. The implication of this is that we don’t need to take it too seriously. It’s one of those awkward bits of the Gospels best glossed over.
But rather than pretend that it isn’t there, mentally editing it out; the question we need to ask is why Matthew has put it there in the first place. But before we do that, we need to look at what comes before it.
Who is Jesus speaking to? “The chief priests and the elders of the people.” In other words, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the spiritual elite. They would be familiar from passages like this morning’s from Isaiah with the imagery of the wedding banquet as a symbol of the kingdom of God. It is only when the parable has proceeded that they would begin to realize the point it was making was about themselves.
In those day, when invitations were sent to great feasts, the specific time was not given, so there were, in effect, two invitations – a general preparatory – “Please be ready to come” and the particular specific – “Please, come now.”
This provides Jesus with an illustration of how both Israel and the Church respond, when confronted by him. By being Israelites or Church members people have accepted the general invitation of God to be people of the covenant. But accepting God’s particular invitation – please come now – has proved to be another matter, many rejecting the second invitation. We see a picture of people who are committed to the king earlier but, who when crunch time comes, aren’t really interested enough to want to go to his party.
“Invitation” is the operative word of the story. What were the guests being invited to? Not to a funeral, a wake, but to a wedding feast. Jesus’ call to repentance, to a radically changed life, was a call to joy and celebration.
“But they would not come” – literally – “And they weren’t wanting to come.” This was not just a one-off, spur-of-the-moment lapse but a continuing, long-term rejection.
Just as in the parable of the vineyard, which we heard last week, God is portrayed as persevering. Rebuffed once, the king gives those invited another chance. An ordinary king would have treated his subjects’ insolence very differently. The repeated invitations contrast the unwillingness of the guests and the patience of the king.
This king even pleads with them: “Look, my dinner is ready and my fatted calves are killed, and everything is ready; please come to the party.” In the previous parable the king had been willing to seem weak by sending his son. In this new parable, why should the king have to appeal to the guests at all? Why tell them that such good things await them when they demonstrated such callous indifference to him? Well, the God of the scriptures is one who seeks out a rebellious people time and again – ever since the call of our first parents, who had just eaten the forbidden fruit and were hiding from the face of the Lord. This is a God who seeks out rather than wipes out even those who spurn his gifts.
To many who received it, the king’s invitation didn’t seem at all important’ they made light of it and went away” – they weren’t interested. They seem to have lost any sense of wonder that the king is inviting them at all, that this is no ordinary party, that their “names are written in the book of life” (Philippians 4.3). It’s as if we were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace and just shrugged our shoulders saying, “I can’t be bothered, the Queen will still be there next year, she can invite me again if she wants to.”
They went off “one to his farm, another to his business.” The irony is that rejection is not made in pursuit of evil ends. They’re not spurning the invitation in favour of an evening of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Farm and business are legitimate occupations. But, like Old Testament idol-worshippers, they have come to worship the work of their own hands, instead of the true and loving God. We too can make our work our god. We can be so busy making a living that we fail to make a life.
Worse still, the parable goes on, some, angered by the king’s persistence, even kill his slaves. Jesus, in the preceding parable of the wicked tenants, had suggested that this was the way that Israel had treated God’s prophets; the messengers sent to recall them to their relationship with him.
The king, we are told, “was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” There is an echo here of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Matthew does reflect the growing hostility between Jews and Christians – many of whom were Jews – but that should warn us against the danger of seeing these passages as applying only to Jews and not to Christians – who have been known to reject prophets too.
For a third time, we hear from the king that everything is ready. This triple “ready” speaks of the depth of God’s love. He sends his servants out into the streets from which, “they gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.” This signals the gratuity of the Gospel, its openness to outcasts and failures, to problem people and the unimpressive. Such flawed people, as Matthew’s Gospel repeatedly points out, are especially dear to the heart of Jesus.
This was not the way with most serious, reforming religious movements, of that time or ours.
In the Qumran community, a sort of rigorous Jewish monastic movement of the time, one which rejected the corruption of the Jerusalem Temple and its priesthood, the establishment, Westminster Abbey and all that if you like, the flawed were not allowed into the congregation’s meetings, any more than they were into the Temple. So, the blind, deaf, dumb, crippled or paralyzed were barred.
And so we come back to the second problematic, even offensive, parable of the guest without a wedding garment. Why should the king be so harsh to a poor man who has hastily been brought in from the countryside to make up the numbers; who can hardly have had time to procure a wedding garment? So why should the king ask, “Friend, how did you get in here and without a wedding garment?” After all, wasn’t it the king who told his slaves to bring in everyone they could find?
The answer to such questions is that in this story, the wedding feast is not the Church but the age to come, the kingdom of heaven. The required garment is righteousness, that is, a life in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. The man is speechless because he has no defence; he has accepted the invitation of the gospel, but has refused to conform his life it. Matthew’s Gospel is the only one which contains descriptions of the final judgement. He brings us before the bar of God’s court, not to condemn but to motivate us to good works. For him warning as well as wooing can make people disciples. Warning is a form of loving, too, as parents of young children know.
For Matthew, the Christian life is lived between the cross and the resurrection (in the past) and judgement (in the future) and under the commands of the Jesus who is “God with us” in the present. The story of our life as Christians is not over when we have accepted the gospel. There is a present in which our lives are to be shaped by it, and a future when God will test the reality of that change.
“A wedding garment” for Matthew is not just a passive belief that we have been “saved,” “justified,” “declared righteous” by God through no merit of our own, although that is true; it is an active, moral righteousness, a doing of God’s will, evidence of repentance in a law-abiding discipleship.
We do not need the wedding garment of personal righteousness to be invited to the wedding feast. Both good and bad are invited by the grace of God – but we do need the garment of personal righteousness to stay in the party.
True faith in God’s graciousness will move believers to want to be righteous personally – not as a basis for standing before God – only Christ can give us that – but as evidence of our desire to please the Father who was gracious enough to invite us.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, given with faith, moves believers to want to be holy. But where the desire to be holy is lacking, where there is careless presumption, or a “once saved, always saved” attitude, the parable’s ending is there to teach us the fear of God.
God wants good and holy people. That goodness and holiness is not found in some antiseptic, escapist piety but worked out in the real world, the real community of the Euodias and Syntyches of the church in Philippi, who’ve had a falling-out, as people in congregations have been doing ever since.
And if we don’t want to be good, or don’t want even to try to be holy, or don’t think we need to want to try, or if we see the gospel as simply a means of feeling safe, an insurance policy, a license to live as we please, then this parable is a warning. It is not the generosity of the invitation that is in question; only our thinking it frees us from moral responsibility. That is what puts believers in danger. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” is a question addressed to us all.
In a couple of weeks’ time we will be celebrating All Saints Day. One or more of our Festival preachers may well remind us that we are all called to be saints – and that is true. When we commemorate the saints, we celebrate clear manifestations of God’s grace and power in the lives of particular people and the reality of their response to it. But we do that not just to admire them from afar; we are called to emulate them ourselves.
And where better to begin and continue that than at the anticipation of the wedding feast of the kingdom, in the Eucharistic banquet to which Christ invites us and in which he feeds us with himself at the table of word and sacrament, so that we might share his life, his holiness, his gracious generosity; that gentleness of which Paul speaks.
We should be eager then, with Paul, to give our attention to “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,…of any excellence….worthy of praise….to keep on doing these things that [we] have learned and received and heard and seen” in the Gospels, the New Testament and in the lives of the saints.
That is an invitation we should find so attractive, so compelling, so enriching in our lives, that, even in the face of a hundred and one competing attractions, we should never refuse it but always be eager to accept and respond to it and to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” because in it we find that holiness, that wholeness which is our peace; that “peace of God which passes all understanding,” which is to fill our hearts and minds.