We’re invited – don’t miss the chance!

Peter Seal, 15 October 2017

I’m resisting temptation! The easier route for the preacher today would be to focus on the encouraging words from Philippians and leave to one side the uncomfortable gospel reading. But I’m not going to duck today’s gospel. I leave it to you to decide, in due course, whether I’m both ducking and diving.

Let’s seek a slightly bigger context to this story for a moment. The writer of Matthew’s gospel has recorded three parables in a row, of which this is the last. They are addressed to the chief priests and Pharisees. Each story is more and more pointed. The message Matthew is wanting them to hear is this: ‘You’re passing up your chance to share in the kingdom’.

Translating this into our own day, we might want to say to those we know, love and care about, ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ is important to me because of the difference it makes to my life, here and now, and every day’. If there’s a gospel urgency for us, it’s this simple message: the Christian life enriches our lives in this life.

The Pharisees do not believe that this ordinary human being, Jesus from Nazareth, has anything of importance, or value, to say to them. After all, he’s taking liberties with their tradition; he’s speaking as though he understands it better than they do.

Today’s gospel passage is a story. Scholars who have examined this text tell us that it’s an allegory, that is, a picture that is not to be understood literally. In our reading of Holy Scripture we need to become adept at discerning the difference between what is fact and what is true.

In our reading of Holy Scripture we need to become adept at discerning the difference between what is fact and what is true.

Scholars help us to understand that the passage we have before us has passed through a number of stages of literary development before reaching its present from. They are agreed that the troublesome last paragraph, about the man without a wedding garment, is an addition to an earlier, shorter story.

There’s a version of today’s reading in Luke’s gospel. It’s helpful to note the differences, the most striking being the tone. Matthew’s version is full of urgency and bitter anger. It’s only in Matthew that the banquet is completely ready and about to go to waste. It’s only in Matthew that the messengers are mistreated and vengeance is exacted.

Most importantly, who is the mysterious guest without a wedding garment? He doesn’t appear in Luke. Matthew adds an element of fear – there’s no assurance of a happy ending, even for those who have made it to the banquet.

Part of the anger in the version we have heard is generated by the scene-setting in the opening verses. The king is throwing this party for his son. The wedding banquet for the king’s son is a glorious and spectacular occasion for rejoicing. Just think of a royal wedding in our own country. Then, as now, many (but not all) people would beg, borrow or steal to get themselves invited.

But the people in today’s story don’t care about the invitation at all. Or, if they do, they treat it as a positive nuisance to the point that they, as it were, beat up or set the dog on the postman who brings the invitation card. It’s almost as though what should have been an occasion for national rejoicing is turned abruptly into a mini riot.

What now of the man without a wedding robe? In those days, guests were expected to arrive in clean (preferably white) clothes. Anything else would be seen as an insult. It has been suggested that a festal garment was issued to each guest on arrival. However, there’s no real evidence for this convenient solution. This means we’ve got to stick with the question and go deeper.

It feels as though the man is being treated badly. It’s unfair. After all, he didn’t know he was going to be invited. And anyway, if the rest of the guests were picked off the street, how well-dressed were any of them? Imagine this poor man sitting there, enjoying an unexpected meal which is both plenteous and delicious. He’s eating and drinking as much as he can. He’s not quite sure what he’s doing there but he’s determined to make the most of it.

And then, all of a sudden, he realises that the king is looking at him, and in a disapproving way. The man doesn’t understand what he’s done wrong. Perhaps he hadn’t even realised that it was the king who was the host. He’d just gone along with the crowd, eager for a good feed.

The king asks, probably with an enquiring tone in his voice, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ The man, we’re told, was speechless. If he’d had time to think about the question, he might perhaps have replied, ‘I realised you wanted me to get here quickly and so I came immediately, just as I was’, or, ‘I don’t own a wedding gown, but I’d be grateful to borrow one’. Instead, he says nothing. It seems that, in the king’s eyes, this man has missed his chance. His silence feels discourteous. It’s almost as though the man doesn’t realise who’s speaking to him.

What can we draw from this difficult story?

That we’re invited; that God really hopes we’ll respond; that our lifetime is the timescale we’re currently given; that we mustn’t miss our chance – that is, for a closer walk with God, or otherwise.

This is a story, and it’s not to be taken literally. God does not, and will not, cast us out. That’s not the understanding of God, tested by our life experience, that we believe in.

However, our response to God’s invitation really does matter – not because God will make us suffer if we don’t respond (again, that’s not how we experience God), but because we’ll miss out.

In conclusion, Jesus tell us: ‘I have come to give life; life in all its fullness’ (John 10: 10). This life finds its deepest and richest fulfilment in, and though, our living out of the Christian faith.