Sermon - 12th October 2014
The Clothes of the Kingdom
Scripture - Matthew 22:1-14
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s reading is another parable which speaks about the Kingdom of God. It’s a major theme for Matthew in this part of his gospel and we’ve had quite a string of them in recent weeks.
Last week Lee reflected on the story of the workers in the vineyard and how resentment arose at God’s generosity to latecomers in his kingdom. Today we hear a rather sad response to the Jewish leaders’ refusal - past present and future - to accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
The text is a curious mixture of regret about misjudgments from Jewish history, a scolding about the behaviour of the authorities at the time of Jesus’s ministry, and a reflection of the devastating effect which the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in AD 70 had upon the Jewish nation.
All these viewpoints are embedded in the parable if we can identify the clues when we hear them.
The king in the story is God who gives a wedding banquet for his son, Jesus - the Messiah at the core of Matthew’s message.
The people whom God invites are coded language for the Jews, but they refuse to come and make all kinds of excuses. Others actually attack the king’s servants and messengers, and this is taken to refer to the prophets who foresaw the coming of the Messiah and the early Christian converts and evangelisers who proclaimed Jesus as that Messiah.
The king becomes angry and “sent his army to destroy those murderers and burn their city”. Matthew’s gospel took its final shape in around AD 90 when Jewish communities - including those in Matthew’s own circle - were still feeling the effects of the destruction of the Temple by the Roman army under the emperor Titus only twenty year’s previously. The Temple was the heart of Judaism and has never since been rebuilt. Its destruction was quite literally the end of an era.
Because the invited guests will not come, the servants - namely, the Jewish disciples of Jesus - are instructed to go out and bring in anyone they can find. “They rounded up everyone they met, bad as well as good.” All are called – both the good and sinful.
The climax of the story at first seems somewhat unfair. People have been pulled in from highways and byways, but suddenly, in the story, one man is condemned for not wearing a wedding garment! The story suddenly twists from focusing on inclusion to a description of what seems like very arbitrary exclusion - on the basis of a fashion faux-pas???
This is where we recognise two voices in the parable: we hear Jesus saying something profound about the Kingdom of God, and we hear Matthew - 60 years later - saying something about Jews and Christians. The parable has brought us, so far, from the prophets of Jewish history who were disbelieved, to the first century Jews who would not accept Jesus as the Messiah and who attacked the early Christians, via the Roman army as the unstoppable destroyers of the ultimate symbol of Jewish faith, to what now seems to be a reference to the end of the world and the final judgment
The wedding garment probably stands for faith and baptism combined with a lived-out commitment to the teachings and message of Jesus - things which are necessary, in Matthew’s understanding, for acceptance into the eternal happiness of the Kingdom. This man who is challenged about his appearance represents those who respond to God's invitation, but refuse to change their lives to conform to the values of God's Reign, those who refuse to wear the "clothes" of the kingdom - particularly those of grace, compassion, welcome, and justice.
Then the parable is rounded off with the memorable phrase, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Many were called and invited to attend the banquet: but more than that was expected of them. They had to answer the call by saying an unqualified Yes to Jesus. Being baptised and having the label ‘Christian’ or ‘Saved’ or ‘Redeemed’ or ‘Chosen’ is not enough. We have also to live out in our lives and relationships the values we claim to believe in - grace, compassion, welcome and justice.
This is not an easy parable to take to heart. Unless you unpick the hidden references, it remains surprising and enigmatic. On the one hand it tells a story of inclusion for the marginalised, but then it changes to a story of exclusion for those who are not committed to the values of God’s Kingdom.
Parables are like that: they tend to simplify choices into absolute rights and absolute wrongs: but we know our lives are full of decisions between various shades of grey, and we can only do what we can to follow a path of honesty, integrity, and values which affirm our own lives and lives of others.
Priorities do come into it. Those who had originally been invited to the wedding feast had other priorities, and so they excused themselves. They claimed to follow Jesus, but rejected the values and priorities of God's Reign - service, simplicity, and self-giving. But, this does not stop God from inviting whoever will come to be part of God's new order.
And consider that twist in the story: the ones who most readily respond to God's invitation are those who have the least investment in human systems - the marginalised and rejected: often the people who wear the ‘clothes of the kingdom’.
The message of the parable is that we cannot really respond to God's invitation unless we are willing to have our lives shaped to become like Jesus. God's grace does not imply approval of our injustice and lack of love. Rather, it challenges us to become as gracious toward others as God is toward us.
Our challenge is to decide how we can respond to God's invitation today, and whether it is a call to a different kind of life. Are we recognised for the hallmarks of grace, compassion, welcome and justice in our lives? And if we are, what can we do to extend the same gracious invitation to others? Perhaps that is the mirror which we hold up to ourselves and consider whether we, too, wear the "clothes of the kingdom"?