Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 28 • 12 Oct 2014

Exodus 32:1-14
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Rev. Chris Udy

Parables are sneaky stories.

They look harmless and straightforward,
but Jesus told them
because they have a way
of getting through the defences
of those who hear them
and leaving us unsettled.
But Jesus wasn’t the only parable teller.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
are all in the parable business –
and it’s when they re-tell
the parables of Jesus
that we need to be careful,
because sometimes they sneak in
a little something of their own.
‘The kingdom of heaven’ - Matthew writes -
‘may be compared to a king
who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
He sent his slaves to call those
who had been invited to the wedding banquet,
but they would not come.
Again he sent other slaves, saying,
‘Tell those who have been invited:
Look, I have prepared my dinner,
my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered,
and everything is ready;
come to the wedding banquet!’
But they made light of it and went away,
one to his farm,
another to his business,
while the rest seized his slaves,
mistreated them, and killed them.’
So far this parable
is very like the one in last week’s Gospel reading -
where the owner of the vineyard
sent servants, and then his son,
to collect his share of the produce from his tenants -
only to have them mistreated and killed.
But last week Jesus left his parable open
with a question -
“When the owner of the vineyard comes,
what will he do to his tenants?”
this week Matthew takes the parable much further.
‘The king was enraged.
He sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers,
and burned their city.
Then he said to his slaves,
‘The wedding is ready,
but those invited were not worthy.
Go therefore into the main streets,
and invite everyone you find
to the wedding banquet.’
So those slaves went out to the streets
and gathered all whom they found,
both good and bad;
and the wedding hall was filled with guests.’
When Luke tells this parable
that’s where he leaves it -
with the banquet hall full of waifs and strays
enjoying the celebration.
In Luke’s parable the host of the banquet
didn’t send in the troops,
but after he’d collected up
the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame
he then compelled – that is: he forced -
everyone from the highways and the byways
to come to his party and fill his home -
he compelled them because - he said -
‘none of those who were invited
will taste my dinner.’
For Luke, this is a parable
about the kingdom of God
moving beyond Israel to include Gentiles.
Those who were originally invited -
those who were originally called -
will no longer sit at God’s table - he says -
or at least, he has Jesus say it -
and for most of us - as Gentiles -
it’s Luke’s account of the parable
that we prefer to hear.
Everyone’s welcome at God’s party, we say,
and we tend to gloss over and forget
that for his own reasons,
and in his own way,
Luke has slipped in a judgement,
a judgement that excluded the children of Israel –
Jewish people -
from the celebration of the kingdom.
It’s one of those subtle anti-Semitic ideas
that we find all through the new Testament -
ideas that were formed and took root
in the early political struggles of the Church,
but then grew into prejudice and oppression
and became an excuse
for terrible and continuing suffering.
Matthew ends his telling of this parable
in a very different way.
The king came in to his banqueting hall
to see and greet his guests,
and as he walked among them
he found a man
who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe.
‘Friend’ he said,
how did you get in here
without a wedding robe?’
But the man didn’t answer –
he was speechless.
So the king said to his servants -
‘Bind him, hand and foot,
and throw him into the outer darkness,
where there will be weeping
and gnashing of teeth.’
For many are called,
but few are chosen.’
Most people
who read Matthew’s version of the parable
are a bit disturbed by Matthew’s ending.
This idea of the king
who throws people out
because they aren’t properly dressed
doesn’t fit with our image
of a loving and gracious God -
or with the openness of the reign of God.
And it doesn’t help
that no-one really knows
what a wedding robe is -
or what it might mean in the parable.
People who want to soften the parable
suggest that the king might have supplied a robe
for all his guests to wear to the party -
and that the speechless man refused to wear it -
but there’s nothing in the parable -
or anywhere else in the Bible -
to support that interpretation.
Most interpreters
think the robe represents
some kind of appropriate response
to God’s invitation
to the celebration of the kingdom -
and they suggest a number of possibilities
for what that appropriate response might be:
maybe it’s behaviour,
doing the right thing,
a life lived in grateful thanks and good works -
and certainly that fits
with the rest of Matthew’s gospel.
Maybe it’s something more specific,
some sign of membership and belonging -
like baptism,
and again, that fits
with Matthew’s understanding of the faith -
and maybe - since Matthew seems to be writing
in and for a Jewish Christian community
maybe the wedding robe
represents the visible sign
of God’s covenant with Abraham - circumcision -
and this is Matthew’s subtle contribution
to that early political struggle in the Church
and his response to Paul and Luke
and their enlistment of Jesus
in the mission to the Gentiles.
We don’t really know,
and we can’t know for certain -
but there are three things
we can certainly hold onto from this reading.
One is that all the Gospel writers –
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -
tell us that Jesus told stories
in which he described God’s kingdom -
God’s hope and intention for the world
as a surprising and wonderful celebration,
where people
who had once been rejected and excluded
were received and made welcome.
First and most importantly
this is a story of liberation and joy
for all the world’s waifs and strays;
for people whose lives
are anything but a party -
and Jesus says a day will come
when the banquet will be laid out for them.
Two – it’s terribly sad
that most of us,
when we hear about God’s generosity and openness
respond like Matthew and Luke
and try to put limits on God’s grace.
Surely, we think,
it can’t be for everyone.
Surely there must be something
that will keep the really bad people out -
those truly evil people
we keep being told about -
surely there must be some test, some boundary,
some limit to the love of God …
and so when we re-tell the stories of the kingdom
we build in hesitations, and reservations -
we put a fence around heaven,
and set up conditions for salvation -
as if God needed our protection,
or our advice with managing his budget.
And three -
it seems that while we’re protecting God
and ensuring God doesn’t waste his grace
on people who don’t deserve it,
we usually end up enlisting God
to validate our morality,
to endorse our politics,
and to pass judgement on our enemies.
Like Matthew and Luke,
and like Aaron at mount Sinai,
and, I suspect, like Moses too -
maybe for all good reasons,
and with maybe the best intentions,
we keep remoulding God
into an image that promotes and supports us -
but in the process
we diminish and limit God
to an idol we can use to threaten and control.
Moses came down the mountain
with the story of an angry God -
but a God who would conveniently
change his mind
when Moses asked him.
Matthew and Luke retold Jesus’ parables
in ways that supported their politics –
their party, their team, their clan –
and sadly, like them, we often suggest
that God is on our side
and God supports our morals and our mission.
So what are we going to do
with this awkward parable,
and what does this parable
say to us as a congregation,
especially on a day when we’re preparing
to share in a feast that celebrates
the variety and diversity of God’s people?
First, let’s hold firm
to something everyone agrees on:
God’s celebrations are about inclusion.
God made all this variety.
God made everyone different.
God obviously isn’t interested
in having everyone wear the same clothes or colours
or eat the same food
or say the same prayers
or love the same person –
and when people choose and promise
to love and trust –
even despite their difference –
and maybe even because of it – as they do in a wedding,
that’s when God arrives to join the party.
Second – let’s not put a hedge around heaven.
The reign of God will always be
bigger and more generous
than we can possibly imagine,
and the grace of God
is always deeper than we can believe,
so when we talk to people,
and when we re-tell the parables of the kingdom,
let’s err on the side of trust and hope,
and do all we can to open up God’s party.
And third, if we have to be cautious,
let’s be cautious about making idols.
It looks like what Aaron did with the calf,
Moses then did with the Law,
and both Matthew and Luke did
with things that their communities
thought were important.
So when we’re tempted
to enlist Jesus onto our team –
when we suggest
that he might prefer the songs we do,
or vote the way we do,
or like people like us
more than people like them,
we need to remember
that’s why Jesus told those sneaky stories
to unsettle people just like us
whenever we feel certain or exclusively secure.