All dressed up and nowhere to go

Proper 23a – Sunday 9th October 2011
Matthew 22: 1-14

King of NorwayDid I ever tell you I once met the King of Norway? Went to Church with him. Had dinner with him? Got all dressed up. Even combed my hair. It would be remiss of me not to say that I was one of 1500 in Trondheim Cathedral with him – and on the back but one row. And also, he was actually in the (VIP) dining room next door to me at lunch-time. But I was honoured to be there.

A friend said something similar about a visit to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party this summer. And I suppose if you were lucky to blag an invite to William and Kate’s Westminster Abbey gig this year you’d say you were honoured to be there.

And that’s what gets to the heart of our reading this week – feeling honoured by an invitation from the king. And yet everything goes pear shaped in a short space of time.

First of all, the servants sent out to bring in the invited guests report that they’re not coming. Whilst not actually begging them to come, the king comes closest to going down on bended knee and implores the guests a second time: ‘Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’

As Catherine Tate would say, they’re not bothered. They’ve better things to do, ‘…one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them.’ The king is infuriated.

Then comes the first of my problems with this passage. The king sends his soldiers to destroy those who refused his invite and to level their city. All of a sudden the New Testament God of love is replaced by the vengeful God of hate reminiscence of the pages of the Old Testament.

Ok. Perhaps we can overlook that momentary lapse of reason for in the next breadth we discover a much heartier king telling his servants: ‘We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren’t up to it. Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.’

Now that’s more like it.

But then comes my second problem. The king all happy now begins to wander amongst his (uninvited but much welcomed) guests – only to discover some interloper isn’t properly dressed. Now I don’t know enough about middle eastern wedding customs from the time of Jesus, but did the guest wear some sort of gown/outfit prepared by the host? Methinks not. So what follows seems a bit unreasonable.

The king said, ‘Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!’ The man was speechless, and quite rightly so. He was just off down the Red Lion for a pint and a game of darts when he was dragged unceremoniously to the guild hall – although actually it was quite an honour to go to the wedding banquet for the king’s son. He didn’t see the printed invite. He didn’t know the dress code. He didn’t know what time last carriages were. He didn’t know who the DJ was.

So the king tells his lads: ‘Get him out of here—fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn’t get back in.’ I like that, make sure he doesn’t get back in! Who is he? Houdini? He’s bound up like a Christmas turkey, he’s fed-exed to the outer reaches of hell. He won’t be sneaking in through the back door.

The parable concludes (are these the words of Jesus, or the words of the king???): “That’s what I mean when I say, ‘Many get invited; only a few make it.'” (All quotes from The Message)

Then there’s silence. Well, what can you say? Can you see a practical lesson to be learnt here? Jesus didn’t finish by saying ‘Go and do likewise’. There’s no real nugget of wisdom just waiting to be revealed – I know, the end result of our community outreach scheme is to nuke all those who don’t want to come! Can’t see it being applied by many churches.

This is one of those passages at which we – more often than not – shrug our shoulders at. But what would our faith be if it didn’t contain many uncomfortable and unsettling episodes that confound and frustrate us. Faith is about wrestling with God, grappling with his wisdom. Faith is knowing that there are more questions than answers. Faith knows than pain and hurt sit side by side with goodness and faithfulness. Faith is discovering that good and bad alike sit in the kingdom. Faith is about a tremendous journey of heartache and happiness. Faith is … good stuff.

Right, I’m off down the gym. I hope not to be accosted by any servants of the realm on the way.

Happy days

About Neil Chappell

Husband, father, Congregational Minister and football fan all rolled into one convenient package.
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