Sermon 12 October 2014

THE KING’S FEAST Mt 22:1-14

This parable is full of contradictions and peculiarities. This may seem a blasphemous thing to say of a story Jesus told but we can’t begin to understand it until we recognise the oddities:

What seems to have happened is that a fairly simple story has been allegorised. It began, maybe, as a story aimed at the Pharisees. The marriage feast is a symbol of the Kingdom of God and it is the Pharisees and those who were especially good who could expect to be invited into it. However, they turn out to be too busy; too distracted by other things to come to it. Clearly, they were so busy observing their rules and living the Law perfectly that they could not recognise when the Kingdom of God was placed in front of them, so they lost it. Instead, the people who were normally excluded from such favours were invited in. At the time Jesus spoke this parable, that probably referred to the prostitutes and sinners, whom he often said would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the Scribes and Pharisees. Later, of course, it came to mean us Christians who have replaced the Jews as guests at the Lord’s table.

That is a nice comforting thought for us. We may feel a bit sorry for the Jews who got left out. We may even hope that God will be generous and let them in, despite their failure to respond to Jesus. At least we are secure. We follow the one true Christ. We are members of his church. We read his words every day in the Gospels. We even try quite hard to live our lives in the way in which Jesus did. We can be sure of a place at the heavenly banquet – at least so we like to believe. Yet the parable is aimed at us as well as the Pharisees; do we keep our eyes focussed on Jesus; do we get distracted by other concerns so we don’t recognise Jesus when he stands in front of us? If we are at all honest, we all have to admit that we do precisely that. We don’t recognise Jesus in the asylum seeker, the homeless man, the drunkard. We don’t recognise him either in the British Fascist, the UKIP leader or the Muslim Terrorist. One of the scary points of this parable - and many others, like that of the Good Samaritan - is that it is precisely the people we most loathe or despise whom God wants us to welcome into our midst. Those are quite big issues; there are much smaller ones that can be just as destructive.

A few years ago I spent Holy Week in a lovely church with a very fine tradition of liturgy and music. On Holy Saturday there was a row such as one could find well described in a Barbara Pym novel: the servers wanted the Vicar to wear a lace alb. The Vicar refused since the lace was so tacky. There wasn’t time to buy a new one but the servers threatened not to come to mass on Easter Day if the Vicar wouldn’t wear that alb. Clearly, the servers had got their priorities a bit wrong. Going to mass on Easter Day is always more important than what the Vicar wears at it.

That is obvious to all of us here today. Yet all of us who live in community know how easy it is to lose the plot. The basic plot is a simple one: we are following the one Christ; we are worshiping the same God. That is why we can hold together even though we may disagree ferociously over the best shape for a chasuble, or who should be Ordained, or whether we should have puddings during Lent. I think most of us will have to admit there are moments in every day when we lose the plot. Anyone who has read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters knows how dangerous such a losing of the plot can be.

Then there is the wedding garment: commentators from the early centuries say that the garment is that of repentance. We may find ourselves in the Kingdom but we will actually have no place there if we believe we got there on our own merits. Maybe that is why every mass begins with a confession of our sins. The only suitable attitude for receiving this extraordinary gift of Christ himself is knowing we don’t deserve it. It comes as a free gift of his love.

The parable ends with an ambiguity: who then will be saved? It seems to make clear that lots of people will be left outside the banquet, particularly the Pharisees, or the Jews or some other group of self-righteous people, Christians maybe, who think they’ve got it made. It seems to say that lots of really undesirable people, smelly and dirty ones will be compelled to come in. It ends on that chilling note – many will be called but few are chosen. Does God want us to be saved, or will he in the end be quite picky about whom he has?

Well, I do not know the mind of God but I’m encouraged by C.S. Lewis’ description of his own conversion when God compelled him to come in:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet but who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare”, compel them to come in, … plumb the depth of the Divine mercy.”

It is that mercy, not our goodness, which is the cause of our hope.

            Nicolas Stebbing CR