The Wedding Banquet – Campfire Church 11th October 2020
It’s tough to be a minister of religion. I have never been ordained, but during the course of my life I have worked with hundreds of ministers. There have been one or two bad apples, but the great majority have been decent, hard-working, conscientious people.
Which is quite a considerable achievement because there are a number of hurdles facing any minister.
One of the most obvious is that you are a representative of your faith. Ordinary women and men will form their opinion about the God you serve at least in part as a result of your conduct. This can lead to the habit of watching yourself anxiously to see what impression you are creating. To do this is a path to disaster, as you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, and in truth your faith, your identity and your character run through you like the lettering in a stick of rock. It is fatal to try and prop up your public image, because those around you will detect a false note in your behaviour.
Another hurdle is that you will usually belong to a denomination, or a church, or a social group, which demands certain fixed positions and the following of certain rules. Whether it is your interpretation of the Bible, or where you stand when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, or your views on gay identity: all are matters which can cause trouble, and for many ministers it is important not to offend their peer group. It costs a lot to disagree with those who hold your reputation in their hands.
A third hurdle is that almost all religious and political movements ossify over time and lose touch with their original identity, and you may find yourself attached to something you no longer support. What was once a matter of vision and fervour becomes an preoccupation with form over substance. A striking recent example has been the obsession over safeguarding, where a legitimate and passionate conviction about protecting the vulnerable has quickly morphed into an exercise in box-ticking.
When we think about the Pharisees, we need to understand what was driving them. At heart they were not bad people. In first century Palestine religion carried the identity of her people. The Romans had crushed, very brutally, a number of political uprisings, and although they usually left matters of day to day administration in the hands of local leaders, the Roman presence was everywhere.
The Jews coped by maintaining a strict code of living which covered all aspects of daily life. God was holy, Israel was holy, and she expressed her holiness by clinging to God and keeping herself separate from anything that would threaten her identity as his chosen people. In practice this came to mean a rigid adherence to a body of social and religious observances designed to prevent assimilation between the Jewish nation and her Roman masters. Ritual became all-important, as did strict laws covering diet, personal cleansing, social relationships and even permitted occupations.
Several groups adopted strategies to foster national identity, including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. For today’s purposes we will focus on the first of these.
The word ‘Pharisee’ meant ‘separatist’. Pharisees were not priests. They were a lay movement of men committed to the preservation of holiness by devotion to all aspects of religious law, which for ease of access they had expanded into a system of 248 commands, 365 prohibitions and 1521 amendments. The Pharisee movement began as a sincere attempt to do all that was humanly possible to live in a way pleasing to God. They drew support from the scribes, scholars trained in the law.
The Sadducees shared the Pharisaic emphasis on the law, but focused solely on the written law, excluding the vast body of oral law which had grown up around it. They also denied the survival of the soul after death. They were an aristocratic and conservative group, and at the time of Jesus they occupied most of the seats on the ruling council of the Sanhedrin.
Jesus had no time for either group. In chapters 21 and 22 of Matthew’s Gospel he tells three parables about the dangers of religious observance and religious hypocrisy. These follow on immediately after he had driven the moneychangers out of the temple. First comes the story of the two brothers, one of whom refused to work in his father’s vineyard, then changed his mind and set to work, while the other willingly agreed to lend a hand but didn’t actually do so. Then Jesus told the parable of the tenants, who rented a vineyard but refused to give the landowner his fruit when he sent his servant to collect his share of the harvest. Today’s reading concerns the third parable, about the wedding banquet.
There are two parts to this story. The first concerns the original invited guests, who not only ignored the invitations, but seized and killed the servants who delivered them. The second part concerns one of those invited to replace the original guests, who does not wear a wedding gown. This individual is bound hand and foot, and thrown out. Jesus could have made his point about the Pharisees – the first group of guests – without adding the second story about the man without suitable clothing. The first part of the parable is addressed to the Pharisees, but the second part applies to everyone listening.
Let’s unpack the parable. I am indebted to the theologians Ian Paul, Jonathan Bower, Alison Morgan and John Barclay for some of what follows.
The first thing to note is the setting. Jesus uses various metaphors to speak of heaven, such as the pearl of great price. Here he speaks of heaven as a wedding feast – something unusual and precious and wonderful. In this story the king is the author of all good things; he is the source of all power, and all blessing. He greets the guests in person, and sees them clearly for who they are.
It was a huge honour to be invited, and a grave offence to refuse.
Preparing a feast in Jesus’ day was a costly, time-consuming and strongly communal process. Formal invitations would be issued, and then, on the basis of the number of those who had accepted, the host would slaughter the appropriate number of animals (which itself would be an important communal activity, involving other members of the village), and prepare the meal over several days. Only then would the second invitation, announcing that the feast was ready, be sent out.
Those who now refused would be reneging on their initial acceptance, would be spurning the offer of food that had, at some expense, already been prepared, and would be publicly insulting the host in front of the whole community. The equivalent for us would be coming to dinner in someone’s house, enjoying the drinks and nibbles, and then when the main course is put on the table, taking one look at it and getting up and leaving.
Read in context, it is clear that those originally invited never really intended to come. They clearly thought the long-term occupations of their present lives much more important than the feast of the king, so much so that they are ready to spurn his generosity and humiliate him in public—particularly significant in a culture so aware of honour and shame.
The fate of those who were first invited is not in question. They are for the chop. There are no ways round this: Jesus was publicly undermining the authority of the Pharisees.
However, the anger of the king is transformed into energetic grace; the places at the table will not be left empty, and the generosity of the king will not go to waste.
As is often the case, behind Jesus’s words lies a familiar Old Testament passage. In this instance behind the parable lie verses from Isaiah 25: 6-8. Note the repetition of ‘all peoples’:
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.
Those listening to Jesus would certainly have picked up the reference. Jesus makes it clear in his telling of the story that the invitation will go out to everyone, good and bad, deserving and undeserving.
So far, then, Jesus has told the Pharisees in no uncertain terms that they have lost the plot, they have abused their trust and position. He has spoken of the kingdom of heaven in terms of a wedding feast, that most precious and celebrated event, and he has made it clear that the invitation is open to all, specifically including those of low status. In his previous parable, the story of the two sons, he says unambiguously to the Pharisees, ‘the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.’
Now he transfers his attention to the interloper, the guest without a wedding garment. The feast was in honour of the son, but the wedding crasher was only there to enjoy the meat and drink. He offered no homage to the son. Why was the wedding guest not wearing appropriate apparel? We are not told, but may speculate. He may have been indifferent, or may have had a misleading sense of his own importance.
If you want to enter the palace – if you want to join the party – you play by the rules of the king. And to join the party there is only one rule: you have to accept the king’s grace.
The idea of putting on righteousness like a garment is a strand of teaching that runs through the Bible. For example:
Job 29:14 -
‘I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
My justice was like a robe and a turban.’
Isaiah 61:10 –
‘I will rejoice greatly in the Lord,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’
Revelation 7: 13 –
‘Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”’
The whole idea of grace can be hard to accept. It was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so gifts in antiquity were normally given according to some criterion of worth.
For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth. If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, then your whole notion of worth, and thus of social value, is thrown into disarray.
In our parable about the wedding feast, the guest cannot accept this. I suspect he was clinging to the idea that he deserved to be there. Many people struggle with this idea, and in practice a lot of religion is about following rules which bring you a bigger dose of merit. They are all an illusion.
This is not a cheap or passing matter. The price was immense, but it was paid by the king’s son. The gift is free and readily available. Our part is to accept it.
You can see why Jesus grew so impatient with the Pharisees and the teachers of law, who imposed such severe restrictions on the people. They had a laudable aim in mind, to maintain the identity of the nation of Israel. But in this case the lesser aim conflicts with the greater.
From this parable, I think we can take three things.
First, the gates of the kingdom are open wide. Salvation is not based on ethnicity, education, income bracket, popularity, ministry position, personality type, cultural savvy, athletic ability, or attractiveness. For this reason, we should be very careful not to assume that the people most fit for the kingdom are those who look most like us.
Second, though the gates of the kingdom are open wide, the kingdom still has gates and we must enter through them. The kingdom imposes conditions on us. We must bear its fruits. We have a particular kind of clothing to wear to the feast. In the words of Paul in Colossians, we must put on, as God’s chosen ones, compassionate hearts, kindness, and humility. A bitter and unforgiving heart is not a part of the Christian way.
Finally — and we mustn’t miss this point — the kingdom of God is a feast. And we should act like it. God means to be enjoyed. He is the God of laughter, full bellies, and second helpings. In his presence, says David, there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
So come. There’s a seat with your name on it.