Hespeler, 17 April, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 22:1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 3:23-29
m I the only one who reads this morning’s passage from the Gospel according to Matthew and just wishes that everybody would just calm down a little bit? We have, in this passage, a parable of Jesus – a story of a dinner party. In this case, it is a wedding feast given by a king in honour
of his son. The basic premise of the story is simple enough. The
host of the feast wants lots of prominent guests and so he invites a large
number of important people. The twist comes when none of the important people
are able to attend the meal and the king kind of panics because, in that
society, to give a feast and have nobody show up would reflect very negatively
on the host. He ends up packing his dining hall with all sorts of undesirable
people in the end.
And that is, basically, the parable that Jesus did tell to his disciples. In fact, if you were to turn over to the Gospel of Luke you would find a version of this same parable where that is all that happens. I have always preferred Luke’s version of this parable for that reason. The story is simple and straightforward without anything extra going on. I’ve always kind of avoided Matthew’s version of the parable because everybody in the story seems a little bit crazy. They all overreact.
We have, first of all, the guests who are first invited to the feast. The king sends his servants out to deliver the invitations because, of course, this was before the days of the internet when you can invite a bunch of people to your party with a few emails and Facebook messages. And the people who receive the invitations, just like in the parable in Luke’s gospel, are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to come. Now, I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that if you are invited to go someplace and you cannot attend, you politely say that you are very sorry. You return the RSVP with a friendly note that expresses your regrets. Is that what these invitees do? No they do not.
They seize the servants who bring the invitations, turture and kill them! I don’t care how much you don’t want to go to a dinner party, there is absolutely no way that murder and torture is a reasonable way to communicate that to your host. So yes, I really wish that the invitees would just calm down a little bit.
But then, as I continue reading, I’m not sure that the king’s reaction is all that much better. The king is upset at how the people he invited to his party treated his servants. That is understandable. But his reaction is very much an over-reaction. He doesn’t just punish the murderers, no. He gathers his troops, attacks the entire city where they live and burns the place to the ground. That is definitely overkill.
So we go from a bloody RSVP to an even worse response on the part of the king. After that, however, the whole thing just becomes bizarre. The king has just filled his banqueting hall with whoever the slaves could find – a crowd that is described as including “both good and bad.” It is clearly a mixed bag and he knew that when he invited them to come in. But then the king comes across one of these guests who is, in his estimation, not appropriately dressed. Well what did he expect?
Nevertheless (and we really shouldn’t be surprised at this point) the king overreacts. He kicks the inappropriately dressed guest out of his party but he’s not even content just with doing that, as excessive as that might seem. No, his instructions are, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Once again, how is this an appropriate way to respond to the minor ettiquet breach of somebody being underdressed at a party?
So there seem to be all kinds of problems specifically with how this parable is told in Matthew’s gospel. Did Jesus have two wildly different versions of this one parable – one where people acted in a fairly reasonable fashion and one where everyone acted a little crazy – that he told on different occasions? And then did Luke copy one version into his gospel while Matthew copied the other?
That’s one possibility, but it is more likely that, when Matthew wrote down his version of this parable, he was trying to help his readers by making it clear to them what his own understanding of the parable was. And Matthew, plainly, saw this parable as an allegory. An allegory is a special kind of story in which every element represents something else. So, in Matthew’s mind, the king, in this parable represents God. The people invited to the feast are the Jews whom God has invited into his kingdom. The servants are the prophets who bring God’s message to the people of Israel and so on.
When you read it as an allegory, the strange overreactions make a lot more sense. The way that the invitees abuse the messengers is so crazy because it is supposed to represent how the nation of Israel historically rejected God’s message by abusing and killing the prophets.
And by the time that Matthew wrote this gospel, the City of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army and so Matthew even states that this parable predicted that terrible event by including the destruction of a city by troops in his allegorical interpretation. Again, an event that makes little sense if it is an attack provoked by an impolite response to an invitation to a party but that makes a whole lot more sense if you see it as the consequence of an entire nation rejecting the message of God that was brought by the prophets and by Jesus the Christ himself.
So that is one thing that is going on in this passage: Matthew is turning Jesus’ parable into an allegory. But that particular allegory does not especially help us to understand the part at the end of the parable where the guest is thrown out of the party because he is not appropriately dressed, so let me point out something else about the way that Matthew tells the story. Did you notice one very particularly annoying pattern of behaviour in this parable? Did you notice, in particular, that nobody seems to be able to accept a gift or to be the recipient of generosity?
I mean, the people who are invited to the wedding feast, their invitation was essentially a gift. They were turning down nothing other than an evening of good food, entertainment and conversation. And yet they set the whole story off its rails by being unwilling to receive a free gift and doing so violently. What’s more, I would suggest to you that the man who is not wearing the wedding robe at the end of the story is essentially doing the same thing.
We do not know what all of the customs were around wedding celebrations in ancient Biblical societies, but we can be pretty sure that there were a lot of them. And some people have suggested that one of the customs at important weddings may have been for the host of the wedding to provide his guests with fancy robes to wear at the wedding. If that was the custom, then everyone who heard this story would have seen the man who is not wearing the wedding robe in a very different light.
It is not that he doesn’t have appropriate clothes to wear; he has been provided with the appropriate clothes. It is just that he has refused that gift, perhaps because he thinks that his own, dirty and everyday clothes are good enough. When you look at the parable from this angle, it seems to be all about people who have a hard time accepting generosity from others.
And you wouldn’t think that should be a problem, would you? After all, every single one of us has had times in our life when we were unable to meet all of our needs by ourselves. We all have had times when we get by with a little help from our friends. And given that that is something that literally every human being will have to deal with at some point in their life, you would think that it wouldn’t be hard for anybody to accept generosity from somebody else.
But it is. I’ll bet every single person here knows somebody who just can’t stand to receive a gift or a generosity. You all know people who, if you try to give them something or do something for them, they will drive you crazy trying to stop you. Maybe some of you are like that yourself and you just cannot stand being on the receiving end of a gift.
Why do people do that? Why do we have trouble accepting the help we need when we need it? Part of it is that we believe that we are supposed to be entirely self-sufficient in all things and that, if you are anything less than that, you must have failed in some way. Even if you find yourself in a position of need because of something that was entirely out of your control, you are still made to feel that it must, in some way, be your own fault and so you resist accepting help or, if you absolutely have to take it, you do everything that you can to cover up that fact.
If you are involved in the outreach ministry of this church, or most any church, this is something that you run into all the time. We have the privilige of being involved in giving people things – things like food, clothing, good nutritious meals, counselling – that they would not be able to get otherwise or, in some cases, they would have to give up something else that they also needed in order to obtain it.
And, I’ve got to say, it is a real privilige to be able to be involved in this kind of ministry. The people involved genuinely enjoy being able to give these things away and we also enjoy the people that we give them to. But, of course, few people enjoy having to receive in this way. Few people want to come in and access the services that we offer. Over time, the people that we serve become our friends and they enjoy coming here because our workers and volunteers create a warm and hospitable atmosphere.
And it is good that we help people to learn to receive because I would suggest to you that none of us can ever achieve our potential as followers of Christ, or as human beings, if we do not learn to receive. We cannot even be followers of Jesus without learning to receive from Christ. Our salvation, our hope and our new life in Christ are all things that we cannot make happen for ourselves. We can only receive them as gifts from God.
The robe in the parable, the robe that the guest refuses to wear, has often been seen as a symbol of those gifts from God. It is the robe of righteousness and salvation and new beginnings and we do not have the capacity of wearing such robes by providing them ourselves. We can only receive them from the hand of God. God gives these things freely but we, foolishly, often have trouble receiving them. We would like to think that we are good enough and strong enough and capable enough to achieve all of these things on our own. Like the guest at the party, we insist on wearing our own robes instead.
But the lesson of the parable is that if you do not learn to receive from God when you need to receive from God, you do not belong at the party. And I don’t actually even think God needs to cast you into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because you have already cast yourself out of the party by a simple refusal to receive a gift freely given. It is that important to learn to receive. Our very salvation – our potential to be all that we are meant to be in this world – depends upon it. And one of the ways in which we learn to better receive from God is by practicing receiving from others.
Therefore, I would encourage you, this week, to do one simple thing to deepen your walk with God. This week, when somebody offers to give something to you or do something for you and doesn’t want anything in return, just take it. Receive that gift and do it without feeling guilty for receiving. Receive it, without it hurting your pride. Take it without plotting to pay them back in anyway. Just receive it. Just practice gratitude and say thanks. If you are unable to do this, try to get to the bottom of why you can’t. Receiving can be just as important as giving. It is an act of grace. Practice receiving grace from others and you may just find yourself able to receive more from God and starting to grow more into the person that God has called you to be.