12 October 2014
Revd Simon Cowling
Readings: Philippians 4 .1 – 9; Matthew 22. 1 – 14
Twenty years ago the Spice Girls passed fleetingly across my cultural horizon during a period when our two daughters, like most little girls at the time, became ardent fans of girl power. It was doubtless this brief – and I have to say vicarious – acquaintance with Posh, Scary, Sporty and the rest that drew my attention a few months ago to a memorable headline in the newspaper: ‘hosiery horror’. Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) had apparently been photographed wearing the same pair of sensible grey winter tights two days running. Whatever next, I thought. Men wearing belts with double-breasted suits? It reminded me of the fuss there was a few years ago at a royal wedding when David Beckham was spotted with his OBE decoration pinned, incorrectly, to his right lapel.
I don’t suppose that Geri Halliwell or David Beckham have suffered any lasting damage from their fashion faux pas – nothing worse than mild embarrassment. How different from the fate of the wedding guest at the end of the parable in today’s Gospel reading. A king has had to gather up an impromptu set of guests for his son’s wedding because the intended guests have declined their formal invitation. The king notices that one of the replacement guests is not wearing a wedding garment. His reaction, excessive we might think, is to have the man bound hand and foot and thrown into outer darkness. Matthew has already told us that the guests whom the slaves had gathered up from the streets were a mixture of good and bad. Clearly the guest without a garment is one of the bad ones. More of him later.
In Matthew’s Gospel the parable of the royal wedding feast is told by Jesus during the final week of his life. The parable is framed by the developing conflict with the chief priests and Pharisees: immediately before and after they are portrayed as attempting to devise a way to entrap and arrest Jesus. His teachings about the priority of prostitutes and tax collectors over religious types, and his stories of the brutality of over- comfortable vineyard tenants and favoured weddings guests, all these are so obviously directed at the religious establishment that one writer has remarked that this section of Jesus’ teaching might as well be subtitled ‘how to get yourself killed’. As we know, Jesus will soon suffer like the prophets before him for his increasingly fierce words and behaviour.
But like all parables, the story of the royal wedding feast has messages for the Church, for us, as well. I want to suggest three in particular. Firstly there is a message for the Church about invitation. After the original guests have met their fate for not accepting the invitation, the king’s slaves go into the streets and issue invitations quite indiscriminately. All are invited. This tells us all we need to know about the generous and open invitation that God offers to all people. The Church is being challenged to mirror this openness and generosity in our own mission, to be radically, indiscriminately inclusive in our invitation. Secondly, there is a message for the Church about faithfulness to God in Christ. The parable of the royal wedding feast clearly identifies Jesus as the son for whom the king – God the Father – is giving the feast. In accepting – or rejecting – the invitation, we are demonstrating the measure of our faithfulness to Christ and our obedience to God’s call on our lives. Finally there is a message for the Church which is deeply sacramental. The banquet to which the guests are invited is the king’s banquet for his son. The language is profoundly suggestive of the Eucharist, the sacred meal that we share today and at which we pray that God will gather us in his loving arms and bring us to feast at the table of his heavenly banquet. Invitation; faithfulness; sacrament: what the Church is called to do; what the Church is called to be; and what the Church is called to proclaim.
I promised to come back to the guest who is found not to be wearing a wedding robe. I wonder if his fate is also a message for the Church. God’s invitation is an unfailingly open and generous one, but it is not an invitation to remain unchanged. In the early Church it was the custom for baptismal candidates to be clothed in fresh white robes after they had emerged from the waters of baptism. Those who were baptised were no longer the same, and the fresh robe was a sign of this change, a sign of being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The guest whom the king notices, it seems, has not changed, either literally or figuratively, in response to the invitation. That guest’s fate reminds all of us that although God invites us knowing who and what we are, we can only honour the invitation by accepting the need to change in response to the graciousness of God’s invitation. The inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God is not the same as an easy and easy-going tolerance. Anything does not go.
We might understand Matthew’s account of the parable of the royal wedding feast as an exploration of two great New Testament themes that are often held to be in opposition: on the one hand the undeserved grace of God towards human beings, grace that was St Paul’s key to unlocking his own sense of unworthiness; on the other, the need to change in response to that grace by heeding words we find in the letter of James: faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. The wedding guest who was not wearing the right clothing had assumed that the invitation from the king was all he needed, but such complacency was his undoing. And a reminder to us of the parable’s central message: any of us who wish to enter fully into God’s Kingdom must be willing to respond to God’s grace with repentance, amendment of life, and the fruit of good works.