Reflection: Matthew 22:1-14

October 15, 2023

I wonder if any of you remember singing a song about the Wedding Banquet back in the 70s or 80s?  The chorus went like this “ I cannot come. I cannot come to the Banquet, don’t trouble me now. I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow. I have fields and commitments, that cost a pretty sum. Pray hold me excused I cannot come.”  We used to sing it with great enthusiasm – it had a very catchy tune!  Of course, many kids thought it was hilarious to sing “I have bought me a wife, I have married a cow!”…   The last verse went like this:  Now God has written a lesson for the rest of mankind, if you’re slow in responding he may leave us behind. He’s preparing a banquet for that great and glorious day. When the Lord and Master calls us, be certain not to say, “I cannot come!”

That last verse gives us one of the traditional interpretations of this parable – but I suspect that Miriam Therese Winter, who wrote the song, would reject that interpretation these days – and I wonder about it myself. Our tendency when Jesus tells a story is to assume that the most powerful figure in the story must be God – so then God is the king who is inviting everyone to a heavenly banquet, who throws a colossal temper tantrum when people reject the invitation, kills everyone who refuses, forces people to come in whether they want to or not, then punishes someone who isn’t dressed for the occasion!  Really?  Is that who we truly believe God is?  We don’t throw people out of the Community Dinner because they’re not dressed a certain way; we don’t turn people away from the Food Bank because they don’t behave the way we think they should; why would we think God would behave in a less compassionate and understanding manner than we would?

There’s a thing about parables – they’re not allegories, where one thing in the story represents something specific, and another thing represents something else. They’re meant not to be easily interpreted – even in cases where the Gospel writer adds an interpretation for us.  They’re meant to shock us, surprise us, make us laugh or think or wonder.  Matthew is taking a parable of Jesus that appears in other early Christian works and is interpreted differently by each recorder. He adds his own allegorical interpretation.  Matthew’s story is one about the history of salvation. He presents this as part of a three-parable series which in his view are about the relationship between the Jewish authorities and the early church. He reads the original dinner party as the great banquet in the new kingdom of God. Israel is seen as the wedding guests who turn down the invitation to be part of the banquet, and the Gentiles – that’s us! – are the rag-tag bunch brought in from the streets to be part of God’s salvation.  The slaves sent out with the invitations are the Hebrew prophets, rejected by those who do not care to hear God’s message, followed by the early missionaries of the Gospel.  Matthew presents Jesus speaking this parable to the Pharisees, the chief priests and the elders of the people.  Jesus and his followers are understood to be part of the long line of prophets sent by God and rejected by God’s people.

In the ancient world, refusal of a King’s invitation was equal to rebellion.  So, supposedly while dinner is waiting, the King wages a war and destroys a whole people. Obviously, this is not meant to be history.  This may be an interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which was seen by many Christians and Jews, as a sign of God’s judgement on the people.  The language of changing clothes, in early Christianity, was a way of speaking about the new way of living that came with knowing Jesus. At baptism, they would put on a new set of clothing – the origin of today’s Christening Robes. So the person who does not have the right outfit is someone who accepted the invitation to live the Christian life, but then chose not to follow.  Again, the judgement is overwhelmingly harsh – a depiction of the last judgement Matthew expected soon.

We need not accept Matthew’s understanding of the relationship of God to Jews and Christians – in fact, the United Church explicitly rejects the understanding that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen and saved people. Nor do we have to accept his expectation that the world as he knew it would end and the Messiah would return within his lifetime, because we know that didn’t happen.  Instead, we can read this parable as a reminder not to be “smug” about our salvation.

Just because we’ve been baptized, or we go to church, regularly or once in a while, just because we know our Bibles or say our prayers, just because we claim to have a relationship with the One Creator through Jesus, that does not mean we can simply rest on our laurels and fail to live the life Jesus and the prophets before him call us to.  You’ll remember that for the prophets the true worship of God was to feed the hungry, to comfort the widow and the orphan, to help the stranger and shelter the homeless.  You may remember that it is in Matthew’ Gospel (ch.25) that Jesus tells a story about the Son of Man who is also a king who reminds his people that “whatever they do for the least of those” who are part of the community,” they do for him” .

Life in the kingdom of heaven is a free gift of God, to be lived – not in some future time – but right now.  It’s life lived in the way that Jesus lived – with grace, forgiveness, compassion, generosity.  This rag-tag bunch here on a Sunday morning know the grace of an unexpected invitation.  None of us were forced to be in relationship with Jesus – at least I hope we weren’t.  We know how badly that goes from our history here in Canada!  Many of us were brought up in the Christian faith, United Church or not, and some of us found our way here as we sought a relationship that could change our hearts and our lives.  Some of us maybe feel that instead of waiting to be asked we’ve been knocking on the doors of the banquet hall and are just relieved that finally the doors opened and we were welcomed in!

My prayer is that our community here will not be about judging the faithfulness of others – nor about whose place in God’s community is assured and who is on shaky ground.  If you think liberal Protestants don’t think like that, think again! Sometimes we can be just as self-righteous in our calls for justice and inclusion as other denominations can be about morality or family values.  Let us not worry about judgement at all but instead focus on the mercy of God, the compassion of God, the openness of God being extended through us into our communities and out to the wider world.  Don’t’ be afraid to share your experience of God’s love with others; don’t be afraid to extend the forgiveness of God to others; don’t hesitate to share the compassion of God through a caring presence, a phone call, a food card, a box of Kraft Dinner, a bag of veggies, or a letter to your MP or MLA.

I’ll tell you, the more I see of the horrors human beings can inflict on one another – or even the harm done through carelessness or apathy – the more I believe this alternative vision of human life is desperately needed, in our community and our world.  So each day, as you begin your days, I invite you, as the apostle Paul wrote,   Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:5–14).  May it be so.

(10 mins)  Biblical commentary mainly from the New Interpreter’s Bible.

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