Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of a talk I have written for this week, the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.  I am working on making my talks and sermons available as a podcast.  This is a work in progress, but the link to the first two is here:

I will continue to make the transcripts available here!

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

The Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:1-14

The Gospel reading for this week is a particularly challenging one. It is a parable in two parts. The first challenge is simply to understand what Jesus meant when he first told this parable. Understandably, we want to know what it means for us, but, when Jesus told a parable, he had in mind people and situations at the time he was telling it. St Matthew tells us specifically which people our Lord had in mind with this parable. The parable is told to the ‘chief priests and Pharisees’ (Matthew 21:45). This helps to explain the first part, at least, of the parable.

A King has invited people to a wedding banquet for his Son. The time for the banquet has arrived, and the King tells his slaves to go out and tell everyone who has been invited that it is now going to take place. Being invited to such a grand banquet is a great honour. It would be today; it most certainly was then.

Strangely, however, those who have been invited can’t be bothered to go. The King sends other slaves to ask those invited to come. Still they will not. That’s bad enough, but, worse still, some not only don’t want to go, they don’t want to hear about it, and kill the messengers. The King, not unsurprisingly, is furious and sends the army to kill those who had murdered his slaves and to burn their city.

The wedding, however, is still to go ahead. So, the King sends his slaves out again. This time, they are to invite anyone they can find whoever they are, good or bad. The slaves do as they are told and gather ‘all whom they found’. Thanks to their efforts, the banqueting hall is filled with guests.

This is a powerful message, but all very straightforward when it comes to understanding what it means. Israel had been invited to God’s messianic banquet. This was a banquet spoken about by the prophets. It is described in our first reading this week in chapter 25 of Isaiah. Most of the people of Israel, however, are indifferent, but some, such as the chief priests and pharisees whom our Lord tells this story to, go further, and kill the prophets sent by God. The burning of the city is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in AD70 and which Jesus will speak about more later in chapter 24 of the Gospel.

The people of Israel had been the intended guests at God’s heavenly banquet, now those not originally invited will be invited to take their place. This refers to the Gentiles. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with our Lord sending his disciples out to call people whoever they are from every nation just as the King does in the parable. Jesus’ last words in the Gospel before his ascension are:

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …’ (Matthew 28:19)

In fact, as we have seen in our series on St Paul’s letter to the Romans, this, in fact, is not quite the end of things. God still has some surprises in store. The people originally invited will get another chance. ‘All Israel’ will one day be saved (Romans 11:26). Until then, we Gentiles are the chief beneficiaries of Israel’s disobedience.

What, however, is not quite so straightforward when trying to understand the parable, is what the second part of the parable means.

After the King’s slaves have gathered everyone they have found into the wedding hall, the King comes in to see his guests and notices one of the guests not wearing a ‘wedding robe’. The King asks him how he managed to get in when he is not dressed properly. He is silent. He has no explanation. Given that all the guests were made to come at such short notice, that they were there at all you would expect to be cause for some celebration! After all, when would they have had time to get dressed?

This has led some commentators to suggest that what we have here is another parable that was originally separate from the one in the first part, but which has been added on to it. If that’s the case, Matthew has not done a very good job of either making that clear or of blending it in. Others have suggested that at weddings at the time, the host of the wedding would provide proper clothing for the guests to wear and that this particular guest had refused to wear it. That would be a great explanation, if that was, in fact, the practice at the time, but there is little evidence that it was!

Whatever the explanation, there is a guest not dressed as the King expected him to be and, as a consequence, he suffers arguably a greater punishment than those guests who were originally invited and who killed the King’s messengers. It is one thing to kill the King’s messengers, another entirely, apparently, not to wear the right clothes! The badly dressed guest is thrown into ‘outer darkness’ where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. His punishment will last a long time!

Now these are stories, so we have to be careful about interpreting them over literally. But they are stories designed to make a point. They do have a meaning. Just as the slaves gathering everyone in, for example, refers to the Gentile mission, so too the punishments in both parts refer to something, as especially does the guest who is not dressed as the King expects. That the badly dressed guest symbolizes something is clear; quite what that is, however, is not.

Jesus concludes the parable with a saying that is meant to sum up its meaning. The trouble is that rather than making its meaning clearer, it clouds it even further. Jesus says:

‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ (Matthew 22:14)

I can’t help finding a bit amusing the lengths people go to in order to try to explain that when Jesus uses the word ‘chosen’, he doesn’t mean that God chooses some and not others. Most of the commentators are at pains to explain that the ‘chosen’ are those who have themselves willingly chosen to respond to the invitation.

Presumably then, if we apply the same sort of reasoning, when Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says to his disciples, ‘you did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15:16), what Jesus is actually saying is, ‘I did not choose you, you chose me’!

When will we accept that our salvation comes from God and not from ourselves? We are so desperate to hold on to some role for ourselves that we focus on ourselves and our response rather than on God and his grace in reaching out to us in Christ. We have to allow God to be God. It was the King who issued the original invitation to the guests, the King who sent his messengers when the banquet was ready, the King who orders the murder of those originally invited and the burning of their city, and the King who sent his slaves to get replacement guests. It is also the King who has the badly dressed man thrown out.

The only freedom exercised by people in the parable is by the guests who refuse to go to the banquet, by those who murdered the messengers, and, then, by the one who turns up not dressed properly.

Now clearly, we cannot press all the details in the story to describe how God works, but if the story teaches anything, it is that God is in the driving seat. Yes, of course, we have a role to play, but the initiative lies with God both in issuing the invitation in the first place and then deciding how to judge our response.

So, what about our response?

For those to whom the parable was first told and to whom its message was directed, their response had catastrophic consequences. It resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the passing over of Israel - for a time at least.

From this and the subsequent gathering of replacement guests, we learn that we live now in a time when God wants to gather people regardless of their background into his Kingdom. We too can be part of the Kingdom of God. But what of the badly dressed man?

There have been all sorts of suggestions as to what this means. Most of the suggestions focus on the fact that he is not wearing a ‘wedding robe’ and on what the wedding robe symbolizes. The suggestions include that it represents repentance, faith, or good works. While it is true as Jesus elsewhere makes clear that we will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom with out repentance, faith, and good works, the parable itself does not make it clear that this is what Jesus means here.

The idea that the wedding robe refers to all three can be had from the previous parable in chapter 21

A more fruitful approach is to ask not what the lack of a wedding robe represents, but what the man without a wedding robe himself represents. I would suggest that he represents all those who think they can enter the Kingdom of God on their own terms. This, then, does indeed include those who think they can enter God’s Kingdom without repentance, faith, and good works, but, more fundamentally, he represents those who think they can be saved on their own account; that they are perfectly OK just as they are.

This is what St Paul describes as having ‘confidence in the flesh’ (Philippians 3:4). It is as if the man is saying, ‘I get to choose what I wear, there is no dress code that I have to follow. I am fine dressed as I am.’ He represents both those proud of their own ability and their achievements and those who think they don’t need to do anything. They have complete confidence in themselves.

In the letter to the Philippians, St Paul describes how before coming to know Christ, he saw himself as blameless. Now, he describes himself as:

‘… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.’ (Philippians 3:9)

If we rely on ourselves, we are going to be in for a nasty surprise. The badly dressed man was speechless when questioned by the King. We too are not used to being told what we should wear. We get to decide, or so we think, what is right and wrong, what we should or should not do. But that’s not how it works. We follow the dress code of the restaurant or we don’t get to enjoy the meal. We enter in the way the King says or we too get thrown out in the way the badly dressed man was.

Now, even as I say this, I know that all too few will take it seriously. We are so used to thinking that we are in control of our own destiny and that, in any case, God, if there is a God, couldn’t possibly be the sort of God who would reject anyone whatever the cause.

However, here’s the thing: the Bible is clear that one day ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:10). God will decide whether we get to stay or are made to go.

So, before that happens, let us take God’s invitation seriously and seek to enter his presence, his way, while we still have time.

Our Lord said:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

May we be amongst the few who do.


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