Sermon preached at St Peter at Vincula, Broad Hinton on 15th October 2017
The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, Matthew 22.1-14
I have to say that I agree with Martin Luther when he said whilst preaching 1531 that he thought this was a ‘terrible gospel’ to preach. This month, churches throughout the world commemorate the start of the Reformation, which was marked by Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in Germany.
Scholars and theologians still debate whether Luther wanted to start a revolution by doing this, or whether he wanted to reform the Church from the inside, without causing any factions. As many of you will know, Luther’s main objection to the practices of the Church at that time was the selling of indulgences, by which people could pay money to reduce their time in purgatory.
When I was thinking about this the other day, I felt that at the heart of this practice, the selling of indulgences, is the use of fear to gain power over others. In this case, the Church used the fear of what may happen in the life after this to get money from people. The use of fear to exert some sort of power over people is very common: we see it every day. Not only on a large scale, such as terrorists attacking innocent people to make whole nations feel afraid, but also on an individual level. I’m sure many of us will know stories of bad managers who threaten to fire people if they don’t do precisely as they are told. Or people using other threats when relationships have gone askew.
Maybe that is precisely why the parable we hear today is such a difficult one. Because it sounds as if the king in the parable is doing precisely the same. ‘If you don’t come when I tell you, and don’t wear what I want you, you’ll be thrown out into hell’, he seems to say. And, agreeing that the king in this parable is representing God, do we thus need to draw the conclusion that our God is like that? Does the God we believe in rule by fear, threatening ‘do as I tell you, or else …’
This question, the question of the reality, the role and purpose of judgement, is one that keeps coming up when we read through Matthew’s Gospel. When we would look at some of the other parables, such as the tenants in the vineyard and the parable of the talents, we see that judgment is an important theme in Matthew’s theology, so we can’t and shouldn’t really want to ignore it. So, the question is there: if we believe in a loving, merciful and forgiving God, as I think I do, does this concept of judgment negate the power of the promise of God’s faithfulness, forgiveness and hence salvation?
I think we can only do this if we look at this parable in the context of Matthew’s understanding of God and Jesus as a whole. At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew gives Jesus, the Messiah, the name ‘Emmanuel’, which means God is with us. And the famous last words of Matthew’s Gospel are the promise to his disciples ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.
Hence, for Matthew, in Jesus God shows firstly and most importantly that God is with us, from our beginning until our end, and yes, even beyond. The purpose of the parable we hear today then, is not to deny that fundamental truth, but to warn us not to take it lightly and become complacent, forgetting what it means to be God’s people.
The king is celebrating the wedding of his son, and he invites us to be part of this. We are invited to be part of God’s story, not just spectators, but participants. So, the king invites a first lot of people, but they would not come. We may think that this first group refers to the Pharisees and the Scribes, or the people of Israel in general, but there is no real clue for this. The only thing we hear is that they will not come, they will not respond to the invitation to join the banquet and celebrate.
One goes to his farm, another to his business – are they too busy and distracted by their daily lives and making money? And the others, well, they kill the king’s slaves, they don’t want anything to do with him or his servants. The king is enraged. Of course, it is always risky to attribute human properties to God, but one may wonder if it is his disappointment turning into anger? The king wanted these people to join him in the feast for his son, but no one wants to join him. This is almost the opposite of a ruler who rules by fear: we see here the disappointment of someone whose generosity is ignored and denied. They were invited, not summoned, but they did not want to come.
The wedding is ready, the meal is waiting, so the king sends out another lot of slaves, this time to invite everyone they can find to the banquet. Again, it’s an invitation, not an order, it seems, and those on the streets respond. These people may be representing the Gentiles, the others, the ones who were not special guests to start with. They may represent us, or maybe the people who don’t come to church. They are the people, both good and bad, who respond to the king’s invitation to join him.
If the parable had ended here, it would have been more or less straightforward, despite the challenges we already identified. But, it doesn’t. There is one person who is not wearing the right garment. It feels like rather a minor detail, but again the king is enraged and has him thrown into the outer darkness. Without any hesitation, he is thrown into hell. There has been much discussion about what the significance of the wedding robe is, and why the parable ends like this. Again, I would say, it is a warning to us not to be complacent. It is not about what we wear, or what we look like, but about a willingness to not only accept God’s invitation, but also to respect it and take it seriously.
To be invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son, to celebrate the feast that God invites us to, is an honour and a joy. It is not only open to special people, but to everyone, but we cannot ever forget how great a privilege it is, and we need to take that seriously. Joyfully, yet seriously. That, for me, is then the essence of this parable: that we are invited, not compelled, to join, but that we have to honour the invitation by accepting it with gratitude and respect. God wants us to join in his kingdom. It is up to us to accept that invitation, not in our own time, but at the appointed time, which is now.
God doesn’t reign by fear, but by an open invitation. I cannot help but be reminded of the last words of George Herbert’s famous poem ‘Love’: You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
We too must sit down, not out of fear, but out of love. So, let us sit and eat.