Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Readings: Exodus 32: 1 – 14, Psalm 106: 1 – 6, 20 – 24, Philippians 4: 1 – 9, Matthew 22: 1 – 14

By the end of the 2nd century after Christ there appear to have been two particular methods, schools if you like, of biblical interpretation. The first was centred on the Syrian city of Antioch and took the Bible literally. The second, focused on Alexandria in Egypt, used allegory to interpret the biblical message. The first, the literal, said this is what the Bible says, this is what God says – and there is no deviation, that’s how it is. The second, the allegorical, took a more circumspect approach acknowledging that the words on the page, even while purported to have been written by Moses or spoken by Jesus, were in fact open to interpretation.

There are two versions of today’s parable of the wedding banquet – one in Matthew and one in Luke. That in Luke 14: 15 – 24 is much more straightforward and, for my money, is much easier to preach on. But we don’t have St Luke’s account of the parable today so must make something of Matthew’s. Before we do that let me add a word or two more about reading the Bible literally or allegorically. Over the past few decades the church in the West – in the UK, America and Australia – has torn itself apart over the question of sex. Back in 1998 at the Lambeth Conference a close friend and former bishop chaired one of the committee sessions on the church and homosexuality. He spoke afterwards as that being the worst experience of his life.

The Lambeth Conference is a gathering of all the Anglican bishops across the world, to spend some weeks in meeting, getting to know one another, sharing ideas, and debating issues that are topical in the world at the time; it is called by the Archbishop of Canterbury and meets roughly every ten years. Following the 1998 meeting of Lambeth a number of initiatives were instigated to explore and recognise the different ways of reading and understanding the Bible. The present debate around same-sex marriage probably owes much of its heat, at least within the church, as much to biblical interpretation as to anything else. People not associated with the church can’t quite work out what the problem with same-sex marriage is, and are likely dumbfounded by the announcement this week that the Diocese of Sydney has voted to give a million dollars to the “No’ campaign.

Leaving Lambeth and even Alexandria and Antioch aside, we can easily see that Matthew’s Gospel is one in which allegory plays a part. The most obvious example is the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. Having told the parable to the crowds, Jesus then interprets it for his disciples – in an allegorical manner. The seed is the ‘word’ of God, the different types of soil the reactions of different people in hearing God’s word. Matthew was already interpreting the message even as he wrote his Gospel. And the fact that there are two slightly different accounts of today’s parable, one in Luke and one in Matthew, suggests interpretation somewhere along the line.

Today’s parable comes as the third of a series of three. The first, the story of two sons who were each asked to work in the fields by their father, suggests the Jewish rejection of John the Baptist. (Matt 21: 28ff) The second is the story of the landowner who planted a vineyard and sent various envoys to collect the rent. All were badly treated until he sent his own son – who was thrown out of the vineyard and killed. This parable suggests the Jewish rejection of Jesus (Matt 21: 33 ff). In each case Matthew puts words into Jesus’s mouth which add explanation – mentioning John the Baptist in relation to the first, and specifically telling us that the chief priests and the Pharisees realised Jesus was telling the parable against them. And incidentally, in Matthew ‘chief priests and Pharisees’ is code for those Jews who rejected Jesus.

So to today’s parable. The king invites his friends to his son’s wedding and sends his slaves/messengers out with the invitation. But ‘they would not come’ – we are not told why at this stage. Again the invitation is issued, with more detail this time – ‘the oxen and fat calves have been slaughtered and everything is ready, come…’ Again there is rejection, stronger this time – some making excuses but others maltreating and then killing the messengers.

The story of the parable stops here for a moment while the rage of the king is dealt with. It’s not slaves with a message of invitation who are sent out this time, but troops sent to kill, burn and destroy. Did Matthew have in mind the terrible destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD? Or perhaps a couple of verses embedded in Isaiah

… for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts,
and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. 

Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them…

(Is 5: 24 – 25)

The story continues as the slaves are again sent out – this time inviting ‘all whom they found, both good and bad.’ In Luke’s version the parable ends with this invitation as the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are brought in, even those who lived in the roads and lanes. This is how the early church saw itself – not an exclusive group of the privileged, those with power and money – but open to all. Matthew too would have understood the church in this way. The Gentiles, called dogs by the Jews, definitely outsiders and barely worthy of being called human, were the ones who heard and responded to the Gospel message. It is this that St Paul makes clear in his Epistle to the Romans. No one is more worthy than others, for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. It is only through the grace of God, shown supremely in the death of Jesus on the cross, that God’s Kingdom has been opened to all – Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, black and white, straight and gay.

But of course, Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet does not end there. We have an extra paragraph. The king comes along and notices a man not dressed in his wedding garment. The treatment given to this man, to say the least, is draconian. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. What to make of it?

Remember I said that the earlier two parables – the two sons and the vineyard – were aimed at making sense of the Jewish rejection of John the Baptist, and the Jewish rejection of Jesus – and that the chief priest and Pharisees were aware that Jesus was talking against them? We can well imagine the members of Matthew’s church community listening to this parable. Yes, they nod, the Jews did not accept the testimony of John. Nor did they accept Jesus. And guess what, even our own missionaries have been rejected by the Jews. Matthew’s church must have felt pretty smug – we heard the message, we came to the banquet, we are the in-crowd. And then the man without the wedding garment!

On a number of occasions Matthew has Jesus warned the disciples that it is not enough to pay lip service to being a disciple. There must be fruit. Their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees, there must be consistency between word and deed. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ demands more than simply words and going to church on Sunday. It demands a total and wholehearted commitment, the turning over of one’s whole life, to Jesus – perhaps not dissimilar to putting on a wedding robe. In order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, to truly be disciples of Jesus Christ, we must change into a wedding robe; we must change our smug judgmental ways; we must change tack and follow Jesus.

All are invited to the wedding banquet – the good and the bad – but in the end all will be judged and some will be found wanting. Jesus’s final parable in Matthew is in chapter 25 and begins

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Who goes left and who goes right is based on the words:

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

In the end, it seems, our loving welcoming actions towards others may well count for more than the often harsh judgmental positions of those who know that they are right.

As we wrestle with the difficult questions of our day, seeking help and guidance from the Bible and those who have gone before us, let us remember that, over the years, there have been many different understandings of God’s word in many different contexts. At the end of the day it is for us to bear fruit, to stand firm, to love God and to love our neighbour.