10 October 2020
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Psalm 106.1-6, 106.20-24
Laughing with sinners and crying with saints ©Sue Grimmett
I wonder what you really think about the idea of a wedding banquet to which we are all invited?
This parable can bring to the surface our real beliefs about judgement and eternity, about heaven and hell; beliefs that often find their way into song lyrics. Billy Joel sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…the sinners are much more fun..”
Did you ever find yourself with an uncomfortable concern that he might be right?
It can be tempting at times to only pay attention to our thoughts about God that fit our favourite narrative and ignore those flickering doubts. So when I come to this actually very difficult Gospel reading today, I am resisting the urge to simply play up the good bits- a king’s open invitation to all, welcoming the good and the bad, (which is the sermon I wanted to preach)- and look honestly at the whole story which we have all heard. The whole story which includes an enraged king who sends troops in to burn the city down. A king who binds a guest hand and foot and throws him to outer darkness for not wearing the right clothes. A puritanical reading of such a story as this, one that categorises the wedding guests into those who are the
real guests and those who are imposters, is exactly what lands us with the kind of popular understanding about judgment where we end up singing rebelliously, even if only under our breath, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…” After all, we all feel like imposters sometimes, and we might wonder how any of us can be happy whilst others are excluded.
A two-tier universe, real followers and fake followers, heaven and hell, is not the good news and not what I believe this parable is about. But neither can we explain away the sense of warning and foreboding in this rather dark story.
Like all parables, we need to also resist the temptation to make this a pure allegory where the king is identified completely with God. We need to allow instead, this parable to read us, noticing our reaction to its imagery and characters. I think we also need to attempt to immerse ourselves in the narrative world of Matthew, whose Gospel begins with an extensive genealogy of Jesus. Here Matthew takes great pains to make clear that the genealogy of King Jesus reveals no line of heroes but a motley bunch of characters, many of whom are more remarkable for their failures than their faithfulness, rather like those gathered in the wilderness making gods out of gold in our Exodus reading. You would be hard pressed to sort out which ones amongst this collected ancestry would fit right in at the wedding banquet and who should have remained outside.
Another Matthean theme we see in this parable is the idea that it is the religious leaders who are placing themselves as guardians of the truth and revelation but are in fact blind to what Yahweh is doing in Jesus. In the opening words of his public ministry in Matthew’s
Gospel Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. The kingdom has come upon them and the religious leaders are being invited to the feast. Instead of recognising the joy of the invitation, they continue blindly going about their business as usual. Some go beyond disregarding the invitation and violently try to suppress it. In their inability to receive the good news, they condemn themselves, unable to open themselves to the joy of recognising the bridegroom.
Then the parable takes a strange twist. The king who had sent out these invitations becomes enraged, sending armed forces in to destroy and burn the city to the ground. I agree with the vast majority of Biblical scholars who believe Matthew’s Gospel was written after AD 70, and likely a decade or few later than that. When we have that knowledge, we can hear this parable in the context of the world where conflict with the Jews had bubbled over and the Roman occupying forces had laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the city and burning the temple to the ground. The behaviour of this king is more like a Roman emperor than the God revealed in Jesus who wept over the city because it refused to listen. Yet how many would have seen in the Roman action an inevitable consequence of a religious establishment who would reject and put to death the holy one of God.
If we aren’t confused enough with what this strange parable means, we then find the invitations going out to others. In Luke’s version of this parable the invitations go to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Matthew sends out invitations with even less discrimination, it seems, because now the banquet is open to everyone whether they be evil or good. If we wish to settle in to any comfortable narrative where we know who gets the invites, we are mistaken. But again, we need to recognise the context of Matthew where the reason given for the religious leaders rejecting Jesus was this very lack of discrimination. He eats with tax collectors and sinners of all kinds. He mingles with the clean and unclean. No one wants to join in the celebration because of the rest of the crowd who has been invited. This is not a “cry with the saints” kind of party. Jesus seems to be living up to the promise of his genealogy that casts his lot in with a motley bunch of humans. No wonder so many politely excused themselves, or (less politely) violently resisted the direction this was all going.
So there is an abundant generosity around that table; a hospitality that joyfully invites everyone.
Everyone, it appears, that is, except the one not wearing wedding clothes. This one appears to be here under false pretences; turning up, but not allowing himself to be transformed by the joy of the feast. How often to we turn away from the love that is offered us? It is in the very laying down of all our pretensions to worth or religious or moral spirituality that we are able to accept the invitation to the wedding feast. As much as it is true that we cannot do anything at all to enter the kingdom, it is equally true that the Spirit of Christ calls us to follow and in the words of C.S Lewis, “go in for the whole treatment.” We are to be transformed by our union with God, and that surely is expressed in the imagery of “putting on the wedding robe”.
But if this is a wedding, where is the bride and groom? With the beautiful image of love and sexual union used so often in Scripture, we are the bride; sought after, beloved. But we are here with all our history of faithlessness and betrayal, our weaknesses and bad habits, our addictions and self-obsessions. If we are thinking of a two-tiered universe of sinners and saints, this bunch at the wedding feast just can’t be made to comfortably fit either category. And the celebrations can’t begin anyway, without the groom.
Have you noticed there is no groom in this story? If the crucified Christ is the groom, then where does he appear? Strangely, of any character in this parable, it is the one without the wedding robes who is rejected and cast out who bears the strongest resemblance. Jesus, who was condemned, excluded by his own tradition and put to death, is the despised one who can become a stand in for all those who turn up without their wedding robes.
We know that if we live in a binary world of righteous and unrighteous, holy and unholy, worthy and unworthy, we are all in trouble. I think we know, too, that if we were condemned to an eternity where only some could come to the feast and others we loved were suffering, this would not be heaven. The wedding feast is a symbol of our belonging, our place at the table with everyone else, where we know that the party has come to us, just as we are, in all our earthly mess. And because the crucified and risen Christ is the bridegroom, we can finally learn that we have no longer have a place to throw anybody, because Christ will always be the advocate, forever on the side of the excluded and condemned. This is not about saints or sinners, worthy or unworthy, laughter or tears. We don’t need to worry about the balancing scales that would separate us from love and one another. There is no outer darkness when the bridegroom is with us. So let the feasting begin.