Bring 'em all in....
Pete Stevenson led our service on Sunday. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet from Matthew 22 is not an easy scripture, and we appreciate Pete talking about this.The passage is about the Inclusivity of God.It is challenging for religious people, who feel justified by keeping all the rules.And others less “worthy” are challenged by how they would respond to God’s invitation.Instead of presuming anything, we should try keep “right minded thinking” so we have a “right view of God”.
In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew places the parable of the wedding banquet in-between Palm Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and Good Friday. Jesus is increasingly speaking against the Scribes and the Pharisees, first in parables, then, by the time we reach chapter 23, very openly with the chapter of seven woes when he holds nothing back and inevitably the events of holy week unfold. In the parable of the wedding banquet invited guests excuse themselves saying they have got a better offer and so the king invites waifs and strays, the good the bad and the ugly. The scribes and Pharisees picked up immediately that this parable is about them – and it made them angry. And they might have quoted their history to justify themselves by arguing they were doing their best to keep the rules laid down in the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible.
For the Jewish nation who in Gospel times believed God was only on their side wanted their independence and freedom to follow their ways, laws and traditions. The Roman occupation was very bad news and the teachers of the law reaction to being occupied was possibly ‘this wouldn’t have happened if only we had kept the rules!’ Recalling Deut 30, The LORD will make you prosperous in all that you do; ... but you will have to obey Him and keep all His laws that are written in this book of his teachings.’ The law teachers might have said ‘We need to be more strict about the rules... and add new ones!’. By the time of the Gospels, there were many rules. Park that thought for a moment while we look at the Old Testament reading.
In the reading abut the golden calf, Moses and Joshua are on top of Mount Sinai receiving the 10 commandments and God’s law. We read they were there for 40 days, during which time people began to think maybe something’s happened and they are not coming back. Rather than sit twiddling their thumbs, they ask Aaron to take charge and he instructs them to bring all their gold and they cast a calf they can worship, possibly copying the Egyptian bull god Apis. But since it takes an awful lot of earrings to make a golden bull, it came out as a calf. Aaron, probably realising its not a very big calf, makes an altar for it to sit on to make it look more impressive.
We can’t be sure what exactly happened over the 40 days Moses and Joshua were on Mount Sinai but between them departing and arriving back, the chronicler chooses to insert lot of social law. For instance, chapter 21 is essentially about what we would call today, employment law and compensation for personal injury. Chapter 22 is about protection of personal property and social responsibility, about not exploiting widows, foreigners, immigrants, lending money. Chapter 23 describes guidelines for laws on justice and mercy. I don’t know if we should cut the Israelites a little slack over the golden calf because, according to the order recorded, they have yet to receive the 10 commandments or any other law when they approached Aaron to do something. Although Aaron should have known better and if you read Aaron’s defence when faced with Moses’ wrath, it’s quite comical. ‘We threw the gold into the fire and out came this golden calf! Who would have thought it!’. As if to point out what rubbish Aaron is speaking, Moses throws it into the fire and it burns. Presumably it was mainly made from wood.
They had broken the 1st commandment, You shall have no other Gods before me...’. Jesus quotes it when asked which is the greatest commandment? He says ‘To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul. ... And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If we think just for a moment, if our own greatest commandment is to pursue health, wealth and happiness, then it’s a tricky thing to do without it negatively impacting on the treatment of others at some point. The right and decent order of how we treat others begins with right minded ideas about God, the social laws written between the 10 commandments and the golden calf, depends on having something bigger than ourselves. We read it in both the Old Testament and the New.
Our atheistic friends and colleagues like to take issue with this and say doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and, creating fair social laws are what any right minded person thinks. I’m not sure we are so naturally altruistic, in fact, I’m not sure the colleague who put this ‘any right minded person...’ argument to me, was very altruistic himself, he rather took the view that the world was a lifeboat and if there wasn’t room for everyone then, tough, easy to say so long as your seat in the lifeboat is assured. Contrast that with the dozens of Christian charities who serve all. As I heard Rob Parsons who started Care for the Family once say, ‘We exist to help anyone who darkens our door, whatever their faith or none, but it’s our Christian faith that gets us out of bed each morning.’ I suggest right minded thinking is difficult without having a right minded view of God.
It’s true, we will each be able to point to folk who seem just naturally good but I wonder if there is often a tap root of Christian thought in their lives which drills deep down, whether they are aware of it or not. What John Polkinghorne calls anonymous Christians in his book ‘The Way The World Is’. In my time working at sea, you get to know people very well after weeks on a small ship. I could name one or two who I’d best describe as true gentlemen and they did it without any sign of religion. They would probably deny my idea of a ‘tap root of Christian thought’’. May be it’s evidence that we are all created in the image of God. Something to think about.
But back to our Gospel reading. It’s this ‘right minded thinking about God and others’ that Jesus sees the Scribes and the Pharisees have been blind to, and will bar them from entering any kingdom of God. Because of this tendency to bolster up themselves and their peers in piety or as we might say today, religiosity. They don’t even want to go to the wedding banquet! Everything will be fine so long as we keep the rules. ‘Step never on the cracks, No only on the squares Or else we'll be abducted by the bears’ in the words of the Carly Simon song.
It takes a while to get the hang of rules but after a bit it becomes easy and after a while they’ll be people giving you new rules so you can become even more religious. I speak with some experience, keeping sets of rules I found was quite easy, but forgiving, being gracious, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek – that’s hard.
So those who kept unimportant rules while neglecting the important ones found their wedding banquet invites withdrawn and instead the riff raff got to enjoy this party of a lifetime. A wonderful picture of inclusivity captured by Mike Scott’s song ‘Bring Em All In’, a great song by someone who denies being a Christian but then writes about the inclusivity of God! A tap root of Christian thought in his life may be?
But there is a loose end in the parable; the man found not to be wearing a wedding garment who is challenged, bound and then thrown out. This parable used to be a favourite of evangelists who saw it as fair game to use the carrot of eternal life – entering the banquet; and the stick of eternal torment – being forcibly taken to a place where there’s gnashing of teeth.
This is not an easy parable, it doesn’t appear in Mark and Luke leaves out the guest who is thrown out into the outer darkness. One thing to keep in mind is the audience Jesus was speaking to is very targeted. There are three chapters where Jesus has Scribes and Pharisees in his sights. Not that we should tar them all with the same brush There were undoubtedly good ones, Nichodemus for instance, or the Scribe to whom Jesus says ‘you are not far from the kingdom of heaven’, or simply ‘you are not far from God’ would be a viable translation, which stops the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ getting confused with a state of eternal bliss.
The group that were first invited presumed they were accepted because they kept the rules, their religiosity was squeaky clean. The man thrown out of the banquet presumed he was accepted simply because he was invited. He thought the king’s grace and favour was a one way street, nothing is needed in return. If we receive God’s forgiveness, we need to learn to forgive. If we receive God’s grace, we need to learn to be gracious. And so on; the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5;’... love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness self-control...against which there is no law.’
We shouldn’t presume we’ll be accepted. During each communion service we pray the prayer of humble access...
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy...
As long as we do not presume we will be accepted, there is hope for us.
In our Epistle reading, ‘... whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.