Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Introduction and Call to Worship
God our Father invites us all to share in the banquet of his love. Let us lift our hearts and minds in worship as we prepare to receive God’s grace in word and sacrament.
First Reading Isaiah 25:1-9
The prophet celebrates the abundant goodness of God, who is a refuge in time of need and will swallow up death for ever.
Second Reading Philippians 4:1-9
Paul urges the Philippians to stand firm together in the work of the Gospel, rejoicing in God and setting their minds on all that is good and true.
Gospel Matthew 22:1-14
A warning to those who reject the good news of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus.
HOMILY “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” (Matthew 22:2)
In 2003 I took part in a pilgrimage, organised for Curates, to various biblical sites in Jordan, and I remember being struck by the hospitality we received. In the Middle East the relationship between host and guest is very important, for a lot hangs upon it, and that would have been just as true, if not more so, in our Lord’s day. Today’s parable is very familiar to many of us, indeed some of us acted it out at the start of Holy Week earlier this year, and what a wonderful tea was on offer that afternoon! Thanks to those who worked so hard to organise everything – we had a good turnout. But there was room for a few more…because, like in the parable itself, some made excuses: some were working, some were busy, some had family staying and so the list goes on… Not everyone who was invited came. I was struck then, as I still am, by the importance to the story of inclusive hospitality – something that is important to us at St Mary’s.
Jesus, a man of Middle Eastern origin, tells today’s parable of hospitality, likening God to a king who has prepared a banquet for his son’s wedding. The king will already have sent out invitations to the local dignitaries, and now, on the day of the banquet, the food is just about ready, the lamb is tender and juicy and the pitta breads lightly toasted (is anyone hungry yet?). Jesus sends servants to summon those who had accepted the invitation. With such a mouth-watering feast on offer, you would have thought people would be flocking in, but they all refuse to come, giving excuses; it is rather disappointing to say the least! So, the king sends his servants out once again, pleading: “The food is on the table, the wine’s uncorked, the band’s playing - please come!” (or words to that effect!). But the guests snub him and even mistreat his messengers. In the end the king makes a brilliant decision: the party will, indeed must go ahead, so if the VIPs won’t come, bring in anybody who’d like a meal - whoever can be found on the streets! Now this is not the normal guest list for a royal banquet, for it seems that everyone is welcome – the hospitality is to be absolutely inclusive of all!
Who would be invited today, we may well ponder? The recipients of food bank support? Asylum seekers with nowhere to go? Bored teenagers? Even you and I? I suspect that those hearing Jesus, like some of us today, could miss the point. The one telling the parable is talking about the people’s response to God’s invitation through him. Context is important here – Jesus has just been welcomed into Jerusalem with jubilant shouts of Hosanna and palms being waved; there is plenty of support on the streets - but he knows this will change to hatred and shouts of “Crucify him!”, for the VIP’s of his day want to kill him and his message of inclusive love and hospitality. Which side are we on and how should we understand this parable? Simply, the king in the parable is God, and the dignitaries who snub him are Israel’s religious leaders. By rejecting Jesus, they are rejecting God the creator of all things, who sent our Lord to redeem Israel and put right broken relationships. By their rejection of Jesus and the Good News they bring judgement upon themselves. In their place, God’s great invitation is extended to those beyond the nation of Israel, for now all people are summoned to God’s banquet and welcomed into his kingdom. That means you and I are invited. But do we want to go? Or are we busy with excuses? If you have ever thrown a party you will know that offering hospitality is not always straightforward. So, when we are expecting guests, most of us feel at least a little nervous – will they come? Will it go to plan? Is there enough food or entertainment? Friends, hospitality makes us vulnerable; we are risking rejection and even humiliation. And it’s like that with God who is hospitable and invites us to the great party of his Kingdom to enjoy the abundance of his love. But God, whose very nature is creative and whose love breathes renewal, offers us a choice. Do we choose to take part, and if so, will we draw others also to be a part of his Kingdom – on earth, as it is in heaven?
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ speaks of rejection also. As we gaze upon the cross we see the fullest vulnerability imaginable: “He opened wide his arms for us on the cross” being the words of Eucharistic Prayer B that we so often use here at St Mary’s. In the face of suffering God still welcomes us with arms open in embrace. In the parable, the royal invitation comes with an RSVP. Other invitations can be declined or accepted without huge implications, but how we respond to this one shapes all that we are and will be, for saying “yes” to God’s invitation is the very heart of the Christian life of discipleship. Invitation and response are themes of the Eucharist which speaks of welcome: Sunday by Sunday we break the bread and proclaim the death of Jesus upon the cross – the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – and indeed we are invited forward – happy are we to be called to his supper, to receive, to participate. And we respond to that invitation, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Our RSVP to God’s invitation in which we acknowledge that we are not perfect. None the less, we are invited, and so is everyone else.
It is in that context that we can perhaps understand the challenging conclusion to the parable, when one of the guests is thrown out for not wearing the right clothes. The parable suggests that God does seem to exclude some and this leaves me, and I’m sure some of you, with a real question, not least as many of us believe that inclusivity is so important. Why are they rejected and thrown out into the darkness? In scripture, clothes are often a metaphor for holiness. Ten years ago, I took a group of young people to visit Chichester Cathedral in Sussex. As we entered, one of the vergers swooped over and shouted at a teenage boy in a loud and quite scary manner, “Remove that cap immediately or leave!” The lad stormed out – humiliated. Once sorted out, I had a little chat with the Verger about it and hopefully he won’t do that again and certainly not in that way. Often our Lord’s parables make the point that all who accept God’s invitation are to “clothe” themselves with an appropriate, Christlike pattern of life. St Paul teaches this in his epistle to the Romans (13:14). This is a metaphor for our choices and decisions but as Bishop Tom Wright reflects, it is not exactly the message that many want to hear today. Ultimately, we all require forgiveness for our failings and that is surely the place to start. Those invited in were not perfect yet nonetheless they were invited. The Eucharist itself mirrors a pattern of reconciliation with God and with one another which is why we pray from the heart, Sunday by Sunday, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” A culture of hospitality and welcome is important to us here at St Mary’s – as I also experienced while on pilgrimage in Jordan. Today’s parable also reminds us that we are not perfect and God is judge, not us. We are invited to be his faithful disciples, forgiven and clothed ready for his kingdom where hospitality, love, justice and truth reign.
This parable dramatises the climax of Jesus’ ministry: his proclamation of God’s kingdom is rejected by Israel’s leaders but welcomed by others.
In Jesus we see a God whose generous, hospitable love makes him vulnerable to human rejection.
The love of God calls for our response, the “yes” which we renew regularly, especially in the Eucharist, and which we seek to live out day by day.