The Wedding Feast

Philippians 4:4-9
Matthew 22:1-14

The biggest worry of most Ministers conducting weddings is whether one or other of the bride and groom won’t turn up. The second biggest worry is whether the bride will be sufficiently late to cause problems for the rest of the Minister’s schedule, or their pay and display ticket!

Our reading from Matthew’s gospel was ostensibly about weddings, but of course it was really about God’s promise of joy in the midst of human life, of the foretaste of heaven in any dark day, of the hope that there is a different and more beautiful world threaded somewhere in the stuff of this one which at any moment might be revealed to us in the days of our lives.

A wedding in the Bible is almost always more than a wedding. It’s a sign, a sacrament of the new world that God is bringing, promising joy for everyone alive. Jesus spoke of himself as the bridegroom not because, as far as we know, he was ever married, but because he brought good news and because he told even the most wretched among us that joy awaits us if we can only open our eyes and hearts to welcome it. He spoke often of weddings, feasts, banquets, brides and maids and dancing. And he spoke of these not because he was sentimental or romantic, or because he thought marriage better than singleness, but because just as bread is a symbol of life, so a wedding banquet may be a symbol of love and of the heaven to come in which every loneliness is banished and every joy at last fulfilled.

It is tempting to think that the purpose of preaching is to make the Bible relevant to all our lives, to show how it speaks about the realities we already know. But the Bible points to a reality we do not yet know, but for which we are invited to look, to hope, and to wait. The Bible is given us because it can show us a different world, one strange to the one in which we struggle and labour each day, a world which may be closer than we know, but from which we so easily separate ourselves, a world which is both close at hand and far away, a world which Jesus longs to open for us and welcome us into. By telling these stories, Jesus breaks apart the regular world in which we live and invites us to a new one, a world in which joy is unbounded and love cannot be overwhelmed.

Jesus told us of a man who held a banquet and invited guests. They wouldn’t come and sent their very worthy apologies, but the host didn’t cancel the band and send the caterers home. Instead he invited anyone who could come, good and bad alike. You don’t have to be righteous, stylish or family to come to this party, it’s open house. It’s as though Lord Onslow were to invite anyone at all to come to his son’s wedding. Clandon Park is filled with revellers and the house is packed with guests.

But in the strange parable added on at the end the king spots a guest who is not ready for the wedding, who is not wearing the right clothes, and when he can’t explain why, he is thrown out on his ear with the promise of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. It seems a ridiculous end to the banquet story. If he was dragged in off the street at the last minute, how could he possibly have been expected to be wearing wedding clothes? There was no time for a trip to the shops or even to go home to change, so it seems very unreasonable indeed to expect him to have top hat and tails to hand! What on earth can we make of that?

Well, I wonder if Matthew was in a rush to meet the publisher’s deadline for this chapter and so he’s put two stories together that don’t quite belong. And there’s always going to be some careful armchair reader with plenty of time on their hands to spot that this was a bit of a botched job. What I mean by facetious comments like that is that perhaps we can probably make more sense of this strange parable if we read it on its own, not allowing the first story to colour our reading of the second.

Many of you will have been involved in planning weddings yourselves. But weddings in Jesus’ time were a bit different from ours. Instead of the customs and trappings of today, when a couple got engaged or betrothed in his time the bridegroom kissed his intended farewell and said, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you’; words which might have a familiar echo. He had to go to his father and get things ready and he could only set the date for the wedding when his father agreed it. The bride had little to do but wait, knowing that the groom might come back at a moment’s notice to claim her. She would keep her veil and a lamp beside her bed, so that she could be ready at any time.

Among the stories of other teachers in Jesus’ time are stories about a wedding banquet, and a fool who wasn’t ready, so you might get a sense of what the parable is about after all. It’s not a story about dress codes and exclusion, as though the kingdom of God is like a gentlemen’s club from which we might be thrown out for having no tie. It’s not even like some of those churches from which you can be asked to leave for failing to have your shoulders properly veiled. It’s not that the kingdom of God is policed by fashion fascists or style gurus, or even by angels who keep out the unrighteous or the unworthy.

Perhaps we might not read the parable as a warning, but as an encouragement to live in a certain way, in a certain way of hope and the expectation of joy. The guest who wasn’t prepared was one who didn’t think it worth waiting, who was living in a cynical state of realism, with no expectation that the feast would really happen. This guest has decided to stay in the workaday clothes of the ordinary world. He does not believe in the banquet. He is not ready. He cannot see that joy is around the corner. Yet, he finds himself in the midst of joy, in the world beyond the looking glass, in Narnia, in the kingdom of God, but the dust of mirth is still upon his shoes and he is not prepared.

I like to think that the parable could have a different end, that wedding clothes might be provided, even for those who have turned down every invitation or not even opened the envelope of life. The late Dr Ian Paisley, when preaching on this passage, was once asked how people who didn’t have any teeth could gnash them, and he replied, “teeth will be provided!”

Perhaps the parable warns us that we are in peril of missing the gift of life if we do not believe that it could ever come. The wedding guest with the wrong clothes is like many of us who are ill-fitted for the great miracle of life. Or like any human being who cannot for a moment leave behind worries and problems to welcome the joy which waits to embrace any of us who will allow our hearts to race at the sight of one we love, or sing an ode to joy with Beethoven, or run with the wind down a green hill where the trees shake their branches in the wind. Perhaps the poor soul without the right clothes stands for all of us who sometimes miss the point about being a human being, that it’s not enough just to sign the visitors’ book, just to be here and half aware of what’s going on around us. Life is something to be seized with both hands, something to weep with joy that we have received it, and to be lived out with relish and delight, whenever we can.

We are strange creatures. God invites us to the feast of life, but sometimes we’d rather do something more worthy instead. We’d rather stay in our workaday clothes than put on the glad rags of the heart. The Bible promises us that God invites us to the feast of life. And it encourages us to believe that human life is best lived on tiptoe of expectation, looking, waiting, and ready for the gifts of God. God wants you to enjoy the gift of life, never to refuse joy, and always to find in even the most burdensome day a space for love, for celebration, and for that true holiness which is always on the verge of praise. Only as those who are ready for joy shall we be ready to embrace the new world that God is making, in which a true and deep peace will come.

With acknowledgement of a sermon published by the Revd Dr. Susan Durber.

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