There is a picture which is repeated all the way through the Bible of what God is offering people. It is the picture of a banquet. Jesus says – on more than one occasion:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a banquet for his son.
This picture comes up again and again in Jesus’ description of what God’s rule will be like. It will be something like a family gathering. It will be a bit like the party you might have for a big birthday or to celebrate a christening or of course a wedding reception. There will be the best sort of food, with the richest most satisfying flavours, things we enjoy eating, in part because we only eat them at a celebration. But perhaps more important than the food there will be the sense of togetherness. Everyone we know and love, everyone who is important to us, will be gathered together, with a really strong sense of connection with one another. And all of this will take place in that atmosphere of joy and celebration that those sorts of occasions create. Our experience of that kind of celebration, weddings and christenings and birthday parties, at their very best, offer us a sense, a small taste of the kind of life God is offering us together under his rule. That is what Jesus came to offer. That is why we call it Good News.
Of course in the story which Jesus tells the invitation which the king makes doesn’t get the kind of response that we might expect:
He [the king] sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.
The people who the king invited, it seems, have no need of the meal, not even the grand meal that the king is offering. They have better things to do instead.
Jesus comes to feed us. His invitation is readily accepted by those who are hungry. Those who are too busy and who are well fed are less like to accept what he has to offer. This is the real challenge for the Gospel and the church now. Most people don’t think they need what it has to offer. Most people are happy to think that they have or can get everything they need from their own resources. And that they can do that without having to respond to the kind of invitation which Jesus is making. It is not the case that we must people must be made to feel bad before the gospel can make them feel good again. We perhaps don’t need to convince well-fed people that they are hungry. Although the truth is perhaps that they are in ways they have never grasped. We don’t have to convince the well fed that they are hungry, but rather we should remember that what we have on offer is a great celebration. In spite of what we sometimes say, the kingdom of God is not just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. But rather it is the open invitation to the grandest celebration imaginable. It is a call into a life lived with the sense of joy and togetherness that the best of family gathering creates. You don’t have to be particularly hungry to want to go to that sort of meal.
Jesus’ stories are never quite the quaint tales that we expect them to be. Often they seem to leave the safe, reassuring familiarities of the world we live in and enter a world of frightening possibilities. And this story takes a really shocking turn. It seems it was not enough simply to reject the generous offer to join in a celebration, to accept the hospitality and generosity that was on offer to them, some of those who had been invited actually became abusive:
They . . .seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
And then things go from bad to worse. The king reacts as kings tend to, with the violent assertion of his authority:
The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city
All this seems like things have spiralled out of control. The refusal of an invitation had turned into a pretext for abuse and violence. Which in turn produced a terrible reaction. Which lead to more death and destruction. This all seems rather over the to. It is too much for what in the end was meant to be a party. What kind of a world is it where people would mistreat and even kill those who were only offering an invitation to be part of a celebration. What kind of a world is it where these kinds of thing can happen to those who were only extending welcome and generosity.And what kind of a king would wage war against those who would refuse his invitation.
Shockingly we might have to say: This kind of a world! Despite the strange extravagance of Jesus’ story the world we live in is actually the kind of world where those sorts of thing happen. Jesus’ story to begin with points to the history of his own people Israel. The Old Testament is filled with exactly that kind of reaction to God’s repeated invitations to his people. Over and over God’s messengers were mistreated by the very people they were sent to make the invitation to. Jesus at this point is also addressing the chief-priests and the Pharisees who are refusing to respond to the invitation he is making. And as the story unfolds in the next few days, that is exactly the way that Jesus is treated by them. The chief-priests and the Pharisees seize him, mistreat him and hand him over to be killed. And of course it hasn’t stopped there. Those who would still call the world to be a better place, who make the invitation to celebratory community, who make the call to live in the world as God intends it to be, who call for the hungry to be fed as all are at a party, and for everyone to be welcomed, as justice demands, still often they fall foul of those who have different, usually more selfish, visions of the way the world should be. And still wars are waged for reasons as seemingly trivial as turning down an invitation to a party. Particularly tragic are those conflicts created by those who would claim to speak for God, from whatever perspective, representing God from whatever religion. There are who take into their own hands the violent defence of God’s honour against those who they perceived to have insulted God, like those who turned the king’s invitation down and had their city burnt down. Tragically there is no shortage of people willing to take what they assume to be God’s rightfully indignation into their own hands!
But the gospel remains Good News. Another common feature of all these stories is God’s persistence God’s determination that there will be a celebration and it will be full of people of every kind:
Then he [the king] said to his slaves, ‘The wedding feast is ready but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invited everyone you find to the wedding banquet
One of the prayers in the communion service talks about the communion being: a foretaste of the banquet prepared for all people. The good news is that the invitation which God makes is universal. This is what we call grace. God wants everyone swept up into that great banquet. The invitation is being made to all people, in all places and at all times. Everyone is invited to take a place in this great celebration. The ongoing mission of the church is to make this invitation. “Come and be part of this – all are welcome.”
Sometimes we misunderstand the church. That it is only for a certain sort of person, usually a reckoned to be a bit better than others. It is a false picture that people both on the inside and the outside of the church have. On the inside we sometimes think ourselves rather privileged, somehow special to have received an invitation. Such an attitude, however unconscious it might be, is of course off-putting to those on the outside because it sometimes gives Christians a superior air. But sometimes also people stay away from church because they think they don’t belong, that somehow you have to be a certain sort of person to have share in this invitation. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. Jesus’ story gives a picture of who it is that is being swept up by the invitation that God is making. And it punctures the presumption that those who receive the invitation are in anyway superior to anyone else:
Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests
“Both good and bad,” I find that picture both realistic and reassuring. It is realistic because we all know that people involved in church are a pretty mixed bunch. But is also reassuring because it is a reminder that God’s call to be his people, to be swept up into his celebration, is truly inclusive. Anyone and everyone can be part of this.
On other occasions Jesus ends his story there. The kingdom of heaven is a banquet to which everyone, especially those who are not normally invited to parties, to which everyone is invited. But this time his story takes a second really shocking turn:
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding robe
The under-dressed wedding guest is dealt with swiftly and harshly. He is grabbed by the king’s servants. He is tied up. And he is thrown out.
Our naturally reaction of course is to sympathise with the ejected guest. “Poor fellow, one minute he’s been swept up into this glorious celebration, and the next he’s being tossed out of the banquet, He is treated so harshly and only because he wasn’t dressed right!” We want to make excuses for him: “Maybe he was too poor to have any fancy clothes.” “Maybe he didn’t have time to go back and get changed, after all remember what happened to the last group of people who made excuses when the invitation came around.” We want to see an injustice here. That the judgement against the man is false and unjustified. But by now we should realise that Jesus’ story isn’t about a real party. And the wedding garments that the man was lacking aren’t just smart clothes. The man in question is thrown:
into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth
I don’t know of any venue: a pub or a club, or church hall that has a door that opens into “outer darkness.” Jesus’ words are of course a metaphor for something much bigger and important, something we might call existential. This has all been about the way God reaches out to us, and how we might respond. The “wedding robe” is being dressed in the kind of life that God calls us to live
At the end of this month there is an anniversary that we don’t celebrate because we hardly know it’s there, though perhaps we should. The 31st of October is the anniversary of the start of the Reformation, which some traditions within the church do recognise and commemorate. The date (like most historical anniversaries) is somewhat artificial. It marks the date when Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg which marks the beginning of his break with the Church of his day. And this became the immediate catalyst that brought about the break in the Church into Protestant and Roman Catholic. What Luther emphasised, and what we celebrate as the distinctively Protestant insight, is that salvation is by grace through faith, not works. That is the first part of this parable of the wedding banquet: Grace is the universal invitation. And faith is the willingness to accept the invitation. “Faith alone” has been the great totem of Protestantism.
Two or three years ago a survey was conducted, asking Christians of both sides of that historical divide Protestant and Roman Catholic, what salvation required: faith? Works? Or a combination of both? The outcome was, to those conducting the survey at least surprising. A majority in both traditions and in more or less the same proportion, most Protestants and Catholics agree that a combination of both faith and works is required. That is in the metaphor of the story: Accepting the invitation that has been made by God, but turning up in the right clothes. Perhaps as Methodists we should not be surprised by this, and indeed welcome this as what we thought all along. Wesley got into trouble with the very “protestant,” “reformed” Church of England of his own day for suggesting just that faith need to become real in the lives that believers live. He posed his famous questions to those who would be Methodists: “Who shall be members of the society?” His answer puts the invitation to the banquet in its negative form: “all those who desire to flee the wrath to come.” But he goes on: “Who shall remain members? Only those who bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In the terms of Jesus’ parable: only those who put on a wedding robe. The answer to Wesley’s questions is the same as the answer to the challenge which Jesus’ parable makes: The banquet is for those whose lives are an appropriate joyful response to the invitation they have received. That is the fuller insight of both parts of Jesus’ telling of this parable
The mission of the church was and always will be to make the universal invitation. God invites all to take part in the great celebration that is his rule. But also the church is a movement of discipleship. It is us helping one another to “dress appropriately,” to lead lives worthy of the gracious invitation we have accepted
Accepting the Invitation and Going Properly Dressed by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.