Service of the Word; Matthew 22:1-14
An old friend of mine was invited to a royal occasion several years ago – and though I haven’t visited her lately, I think the invitation is still on her mantelpiece. You might wonder if that’s because she wants to show off. I’m sure it isn’t – it’s a reminder for her of one of the big occasions of her life, and it shows how honoured she felt by the invitation and how much she appreciated it.
Our readings today, and particularly today’s Gospel, all point towards what is in fact a royal invitation. God requests the pleasure of His people’s company. And He means that. Our company, if he can have it, is a pleasure to Him. Sometimes we may ask ourselves why – but there it is. We aren’t talking about a jaded West End hostess working through her address book – we are talking about the most gracious royal host we can imagine, who seeks our friendship.
Christopher Robin watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and asked: “Do you think the King knows all about me?”
Well, in this case, this King does know all about me – and He still wants to be my friend, and He wants my company. Hence the invitation.
Our Lord’s story today, as Matthew presents it, is really two stories. It’s fair to say that our Lord might not even have told them on the same occasion – St Luke includes the first but not the second, but for St Matthew they belong together. And, in combination, they can make a modern hearer do a double-take. I can remember being quite upset by today’s Gospel when I first heard it in my schooldays. We finish up with a poor man who has apparently been scooped up off the street and deposited in the middle of a royal banquet, who then gets thrown out because he isn’t wearing the right clothes. Well, any fairly bolshy schoolgirl will say that that isn’t fair.
I think it helps if we take the two stories in turn, and – important – put them together and ask ourselves how they applied to St Matthew’s audience, and how they can apply to us.
First of all, the story about the royal invitations, sent out by royal messenger. St Matthew has this coming immediately after the story about the landowner and his vineyard, and he evidently sees those stories as parallels: in the vineyard story the landowner sends out messengers to ask for something (the landlord’s share of the produce) while in this story the king sends out messengers with invitations to something – a royal wedding celebration. But in both stories the messengers are greeted, not with a welcome; not even with a perfunctory “Oh, all right”; but with utter contempt, and, then, with violence. These stories are being told in Jerusalem, and Matthew links them with a comment that the religious establishment figures in that Jerusalem audience knew that what the Lord was saying was about them. God has called His chosen people into a relationship with Him; He expects, from them, respect for Him, and justice in their dealings with one another; He has prepared a feast of rich food and wants to share it with them. He sends messengers to carry the reminders and the invitations, and His messengers get attacked – they don’t even have the guarantee of safety that a messenger has by age-old convention. We might think, as our Lord surely did, of John the Baptist – but also, further back, of Elijah fleeing for his life, or Jeremiah thrown into an underground cistern, or Amos, told to take his prophecies elsewhere before something nasty happened to him. They were all attacked by people who had political or religious power, and who misused it; and our Lord here makes it clear that you can’t go on treating the messengers, and their message, like that for ever. To insult the messenger, or worse, is to insult the one who sent him. If you go on doing that, you can find yourself running out of chances, and someone else (possibly someone you would want nothing to do with) will be given the chance you threw away. Now it looks as if St Matthew, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 AD, interprets that warning in the light of history – as far as he’s concerned, the burning and pillaging of the temple, and the massacres and atrocities that went with it, were divine retribution, and that’s why, in Matthew’s report of the parable, there seems to be a military expedition just as the banquet is coming to the table. But it’s the punchline of the story that matters, and St Luke agrees about that – that the original guests proved not to be worthy, and they are now going to be replaced by a motley crew, both bad and good, who will be quite astonished to find themselves invited. Matthew and his original audience had, between them, plenty of Jewish background – but they would have got the point: if the Jewish establishment of Our Lord’s time had thrown away their chance, there was room at the table, now, for Jewish people who perhaps didn’t tick all the boxes, and for people who weren’t Jewish at all – a feast of rich food for all peoples, in fact, as Isaiah had suggested there would be.
So much for the messages of invitation. What about the wedding garment? Again, this is about respect for a gracious host. When the Queen gives a garden party these days, she invites all sorts of people who are not millionaires, and she doesn’t expect them to dress like millionaires; the invitation just comes with a line or two of guidance about what you should wear – a suit for the men, a smart summer dress for the women. In other words, take a little bit of trouble. And why wouldn’t we?
Move the scene to a very opulent oriental court in the ancient world, where a royal wedding celebration would go on for a week or more, and things become much more elaborate. The king’s domestic staff will of course greet you on arrival, and wash your feet, and anoint you with perfumed oil, because that’s just common politeness to any dinner guest anywhere – but if you’ve had a difficult journey to come to this royal wedding, and most journeys were difficult, the king’s servants will surely invite you to have a bath and change your clothes before you join the company. And if your clothes are travel-stained and your luggage still on its way – or if the king wants to give you a particular welcome – the servants will offer you, from the palace wardrobes, a fresh robe to put on when you’ve had your bath. So, do you then say to the servants, “I thought this was a come-as-you-are party. Keep your robe, you’re lucky to see me here at all.”? Well, in our Lord’s story, when the King went to mingle with his guests in person, he found a guest who, from the look of him, had quite clearly said just that. And when the King addressed him as “Friend”, he had nothing to say – because, although he was there in the building, he wasn’t there as a friend. He was, as we would say, just there for the beer, and although he was in someone else’s house, he was going to conduct himself exactly as he liked. The king wanted his company, but he didn’t want the king’s company. And once that was clear to all concerned – well, I’m surprised if he waited to be thrown out. In that moment he had come face to face with the king, and seeing the look on the king’s face, he simply vanished into the dark.
For St Matthew’s original audience, there would have been a double message here. First: a message of encouragement, suggesting that God welcomed them to His table, whatever their origins or their past record, and had more pleasure in them than in those who, within living memory, had treated His messenger and His Son with contempt instead of accepting his invitation. They were invited to come “Just as I am….”, and they did. But the second message is a message of warning: Don’t presume on God’s welcome to the point of forgetting your manners. If you do, you yourself will be treating your royal host with contempt. When you arrived, you were invited to take off your tired clothes, to have a bath, and to put on new ones – in other words, as St Paul explains it, to put off your old self, be renewed and put on your new self, put on Christ. Indeed, in the early centuries of the Church, and often today where people are baptised as grown-ups, baptisms would be done just like that. You took off your own clothes, you went down into the water, and when you came up out of the water, there was – a white robe waiting for you to put it on. That was part of the sacramental sign of the fresh start God was giving you. You came just as you were, but you came in repentance, seeking renewal. So: you should be behaving like someone who has had a fresh start.
So what about us? I’d suggest that, for us, there might be an element of warning in both parts of the story. First, perhaps we aren’t given to treating the messengers, or the invitation, with active contempt – but are we… inclined to take God’s invitations for granted? Indeed, do we always recognise them when they come, or appreciate them for the privileges they are? Yes, a royal invitation might indeed involve rearranging one’s timetable or one’s diary – oh, dear, Sunday Mass is at 10.30 and the PCC meets 6 times a year on Wednesdays. Some royal occasions are thrilling, others generally aren’t, and the King probably finds that as well. But He is faithful, and he invites us to be faithful. When he says, “Do this”, he isn’t saying “Come along now and then, if you happen to feel like it”. He’s saying, “I am completely committed to being there, always, because your friendship matters so much to Me. So what about you?”
And second: are we, as well, inclined to take for granted that fresh robe – the opportunities God gives us for renewal? For most of us, our baptism was a long time ago – when did we last stop and thank God for it? And in addition, we may then realise that our baptismal robe is a bit travel-stained these days – but God is always waiting for us, waiting with a fresh robe, just as the father did for the prodigal son, when we come to ourselves and turn towards home. That’s what sacramental Confession is there for – and it isn’t just for distinguished sinners or distinguished saints; it’s there for ordinary, common-or-garden Christians who find it a source of refreshment and renewal, and choose it as a concrete way of making a fresh start – perhaps before a new stage in their lives, perhaps as a special preparation just before Easter or another festival, perhaps as a way of kick-starting their Christian lives when they feel they’re getting bogged down, perhaps as part of their ordinary rule of life. It’s a sacrament that tends to be under-recognised and under-used in the Church of England, and it shouldn’t be; having it available, and keeping it available, is one of the things a church like St Michael’s stands for. We, of all people in Maidstone, shouldn’t take that for granted.
Today – a day when we are without a priest and can’t therefore celebrate the holy Eucharist – is an opportunity to stand back and appreciate that royal invitation that comes to us, in the ordinary way, Sunday after Sunday. Let us never be tempted to take God’s invitations, or God’s opportunities for refreshment and renewal, for granted.
O may Thy table honoured be,
And furnished well with joyful guests;
And may each soul salvation see
That here its sacred pledges tastes. Amen.