Our Gospel today is part of a section in St Matthew’s (22:1-14) where Jesus is challenged by the chief priests and Pharisees after he overturned the money-changers tables and cleared the Temple. They question his authority or right to have acted like this – after all, he’s an ‘outsider’, not a member of the priestly caste nor licensed to minister in the Temple.
Jesus responds by telling a story about a wedding feast that a king gives for his son but those originally invited spurning the invitation. More than simply excusing themselves from attending, they abuse and even murder the servants who are the bearers of the invitation. The king responds angrily, first by inviting the “street people” of the day – the public sinners – to the feast and then having the city of the murderers destroyed. Finally, one of the late attendees not properly dressed for the wedding banquet is evicted.
The image of a wedding banquet is a frequently used in the Old Testament to depict the new era or Kingdom of God to be inaugurated by the future Messiah. Among people on the breadline, it is easy to understand why this image would be popular. The First Reading (Isaiah 25:6-10) promises such a banquet to the exiles in Babylon, asking them to look forward with hope to the day when they would enjoy such a banquet hosted by God, where the richest foods and superb mature wines would be on offer, and when their present grief and sorrow would be ended.
By deliberately choosing the imagery of a banquet, Jesus is telling his critics that the age of the Messiah’s wedding banquet has begun with him; that they are the original guests who have rejected the invitation; and that God has now invited a host of others – the public sinners and Gentiles held in contempt by the religious leaders – to join his banquet.
However, the story ends with a sting in the tale. The king singles out a guest who is not wearing a wedding garment. It was customary then for a host to supply a closetful of festive garments for the wedding guests. So it is this man’s own fault that he has not bothered a select one of the garments provided. Not being properly dressed was a standard Jewish image of the time to convey the good works (generosity to the poor, service of others etc) expected of every faithful Jew.
By the time St Matthew recorded this parable – about 50 years after Jesus told it – it had taken on an added emphasis. In the story the original guests also mistreat the innocent servants and even the king’s son bearing the invitation to the wedding feast. This referred now to both how the Israelites had persecuted the prophets in the past and how the religious leaders were doing the same now to the early Christian leaders. Furthermore, the king’s response of destroying their town was a clear reference to Jerusalem being destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
So what might this parable mean for us today?
The first thing to note, perhaps, s that this parable is Jesus’ way of explaining that the invitation to be part of his Kingdom – to share in his banquet – is an open one, is extended to everyone that can be found and no one is to be excluded. Young or old, married, single or divorced and whatever your sexuality, all are welcome.
The second is that while many are called or invited, we are expected to get the ‘dress code’ right. Jesus asks us to wear the wedding garment of living by his principles, being selfless rather than selfish, and offering care and support where we can to people in need – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the isolated, lonely and sick and so on …
The third and last thing to note is that, like the Israelites addressed by Isaiah in the First Reading, we also are now living in exile – because of the pandemic we are exiled from a former way of life, living in a strange ‘land’ unknown to any of us before. We are exiled from family and friends whom we cannot hug or sit down with for a meal, let alone a banquet for a wedding or a funeral reception. So let us not lose hope that one day we will gather safely again in our homes and elsewhere to be reunited and celebrating our friendship and love of each other.
And let us not lose sight of the heavenly banquet that awaits us all when our exile here on earth is ended, when God calls us home to celebrate the greatest feast of all with loved ones who have gone before us. As today’s Psalm reminds us:
You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes;
my head you have anointed with oil,
my cup id overflowing …
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell forever and ever.
Holy Name, Jesmond
11 October 2020