Sunday, 12 October 2008

The Banquet and the Naughty Step

1. We all love a good wedding, don’t we!

It’s lovely to be able to join the bride and groom, and their families, to rejoice in their love for each other and to wish them joy in their new life together. It’s so much fun to join in their celebration feast and raise a glass to toast them. And it’s so rewarding to meet and get to know the other half of their family. I never turn down a wedding invitation if I can help it!

In today’s gospel reading Matthew (22:1-14) records Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a sumptuous wedding reception prepared by a king for his son. But the guests the king planned to invite would not come! They were asked twice, but they ignored the invitation: some went on working on their farms and in their businesses; others went so far as to mistreat and even kill the king’s messengers. The king, quite reasonably, was enraged. He sent his army to destroy the murderers and their city. He declared those who had been invited unworthy of the celebration, and sent his servants out into the streets to gather all the people they could find, good and bad, to fill the wedding hall and feast in their place.

This is a parable, and parables used by Jesus always have multiple meanings: one will be the meaning understood by the people who first heard it; and there will also be at least one, probably many, deeper spiritual meanings, revealed by reflection to Christians over the ages and ourselves. Let us tease out some of these meanings.

2. This is one of several parables that Jesus addresses to the chief priests and the elders of the people – in other words the Jewish elite of the time.

They understood his meaning very well: he was talking about them, they were the rude and unworthy guests. He was saying that they had ignored God’s invitation to the wedding banquet made first through the prophets, and later by John the Baptist and himself. Jesus was promising the people that they, not the elite, would enjoy the kingdom of heaven. The elite wanted to arrest him to shut him up, but they were afraid of the crowds who followed him, we are told.

The early Christians interpreted it this way too, including Matthew who was writing probably half a century later between AD80 and 90. For them of course the king’s son was Jesus, God’s own Son. And they saw themselves, by now primarily a gentile church, as the people chosen by God to replace the bad Jewish elite at the banquet, in the kingdom of heaven. By this time Jerusalem and the 2nd temple had been destroyed by the Romans following the Jewish revolt around AD70. Did Matthew, with hind-sight, add the passage about the king’s troops destroying the murderers and burning their city, in order to turn Jesus’s parable into a prophecy? Perhaps, or perhaps not; for Jesus elsewhere is recorded using strong violent images in his teaching to ram his point home.

But what is certain, shamefully certain, is that later on Christians identified not the Jewish elite but all Jews, as a race and as a religious community, as the unworthy, the Christ-killers. In a sermon on this parable, the great reformer Luther could say that this is why ‘there is not now a poorer, a more miserable and forsaken people on the earth than the Jews. Such is the end of the despisers of God’s Word.’ Mainstream churches no longer preach this, but some fundamentalists do. It is one of the roots of the anti-Semitism that led to the horror of the Holocaust. It is a false and wicked doctrine I believe – we must always test our interpretation of scripture against the fruits it yields. This one has yielded very bad fruit.

Rather, I think, we should see the parable as good news, good news for each and every one of us. The OT prophets had imagined God as a stern judge loving only the righteous, with a special relationship with the children of Israel. Here Jesus reveals a different image of God to us, a king like a loving Father who invites every passer by on the street to join him in a heavenly kingdom as joyful as any wedding feast - Jew and gentile, Irish and immigrant, settled and traveller, black and white, banker and labourer. We do not even have to be particularly righteous, for both good and bad are invited to fill the wedding hall. We are all invited to rejoice with him: as Christians we are to be joyful, not gloomy and depressed! All we must do is to respond to the invitation, not behave like rude, unworthy guests!

3. But I have missed out the second half of the parable. What are we to make of the man without a wedding robe thrown into the outer darkness?

The first half of the parable teaches us that by God’s grace the door to the kingdom is open to all of us. Christians have traditionally seen the second half as teaching us that with that grace comes a responsibility to amend our lives. We all know that we are by nature sinful creatures. To share in the banquet the stains of our sins must be washed from our garments through our true repentance and God’s forgiveness. The man without a wedding robe could make no answer when God challenged him: he could not repent, so he was bound hand and foot, removed from the banquet, and cast into the outer darkness.

Some people have seen the outer darkness as a terrible thing, nothing less than eternal damnation, forever cut off from the joyful kingdom. But I can’t agree. That would not be the act of a loving Father. And the king starts by calling the man ‘Friend’, after all. I prefer to see the outer darkness as the ‘naughty step’.

Do you know about the naughty step? All parents do! When our children behave badly we tell them they must go and sit on the naughty step, or go to their room, until they are ready to say sorry and really mean it. It can be very difficult for a parent to bear the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but this is the way a loving parent teaches children how to behave. When the children feel properly sorry we give them a kiss and let them rejoin the family.

In just this way, I think, God uses the outer darkness to teach us the self-discipline to recognise when we have done wrong and to repent. When we have finished wailing and gnashing our teeth, when we are truly contrite, he will forgive us, and he will allow us to return to the joy of the banquet.

4. So to conclude
  • Let us give thanks for the grace of God revealed by Jesus in this parable.
  • Let us joyfully accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet of the kingdom of heaven.
  • And let us trust in God’s Fatherly goodness as he teaches us how we are to behave there!

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