Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ’Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ’The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ’Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ’Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen."
Jesus says "The Kingdom of God is like a party", and that sounds like good news, especially if you are a lover of parties.
Personally, I am not a great lover of parties. Indeed, I generally dread it when I receive a party invitation in the mail. Questions immediately come to mind: ’who else is going to be there?’, ’do I have to get dressed up?’, ’can I get out of it?’
I received an invitation to a party a couple of weeks ago, from my high-school sweetheart - a girl I haven’t seen in a good many years. She’s turning 40. That’s rather sobering. I managed to get out of that one.
And I was supposed to dress ’glam’ for that party. Ange went to a party recently where she had to dress up as something starting with the letter ’M’, and where she was told up-front that Marilyn Monroe had already been taken! She looked rather good as the parish minister I thought. I suppose I could have accompanied her as Moby Dick, but I stayed home instead and got on with my work, because I had a sermon to write, and because I would have found it hard work, and Ange is very understanding in these matters.
Parties are meant to be fun of course, but we all know that some parties are just a hard slog. If you go to one of the Archbishop’s dinner parties, you’ll quickly discover that this is not the sort of party where you loll around drinking beer and telling rude jokes. This is the sort of party where you dress well, speak appropriately, and make sure you pass the port in the right direction. These are the sorts of parties I try to avoid.
Jesus says, "The Kingdom of God is like a party". What sort of party is it?
The party Jesus is talking about is a royal wedding party, which means that it’s a rather significant party, and it starts out with a more exclusive guest list than you’d find at any of the Archbishop’s dinner parties. All the important people have been invited - the nobles, the clergy, politicians and legal people, community leaders, business people, movers and shakers from across the king’s domain, but, strangely, none of them want to come!
The king is a bit taken aback by this, so he reissues his invitation a little more forcefully, lest anyone should have misunderstood the exact nature of the party, or perhaps missed the fact that not attending was not really an option.
Strangely though the invited guests just don’t take the king seriously at all. One woman has an appointment with her hairdresser that day. Another guy had that day set aside to go looking for a new car. And some of the invited guests got so annoyed at being bothered again by the king that they set the dogs onto his messengers, and some of these messenger boys and messenger girls were killed.
So the king gets jack of this, and he sends the army out, and they work through the same guest list, butchering each of the invited guests who decided that they had better things to do than go to the kings party. And then the army goes through and burns the villages where each of these characters lived!
When the king’s servants return from their grizzly work they find that their master (strangely perhaps) is still in the mood for a party. So he sends his messengers out again, but this time, instead of sending them out to the provincial corridors of power (which have now all been burnt to the ground) he sends them anywhere and everywhere, telling them "invite everybody" - rich and poor, black and white, slave and free, young and old, male and female, wise and stupid, gay and straight, good and bad. And this time, not surprisingly perhaps, it seems that nobody takes the king’s invitation lightly.
And so the story seems to be concluding with a happy scene of a palace filled with guests enjoying a great party, despite the lingering smell of the recently scorched villages in the background. Everybody appears to be having a good time, and the king is there, strolling amongst his invited guests, greeting each of them, regardless of their colour or station, until he finds one character who didn’t bother to get dressed properly, and he says ’buddy, where is your tux?’ And this guy, who has come straight from work and is still in his overalls, doesn’t know what to say, so the king calls the security guards, who slap the guy around a bit and then throw him out into the car park (where men weep and gnash their teeth).
And Jesus says, "the Kingdom of God is just like that - many are called, but few are chosen!"
This is not my favourite parable. This isn’t even my favourite ’parable of the wedding feast’. There’s another version of this parable in Luke, where a lot less people get killed and beaten up.
’Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame... Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’ (Luke 14:21-23)
The parable in Luke is told as part of Jesus’ explanation as to why he hangs about with so many social drop-outs. In Matthew though the parable is delivered as part of Jesus’ tirade against the establishment, and it is the third volley of a three-barrelled shotgun.
In quick succession Jesus comes out with the ’parable of the two sons’ (one son who says the right thing and one son who does the right thing), ’the parable of the bad tenants’ who refuse to pay the rent to the owner and end up murdering the real estate agents, and then this ’parable of the great party’ -where the party celebrations are set against this backdrop of violence.
"The Kingdom of God is like a party," says Jesus, but what sort of party is this? It’s a very serious party. It’s the sort of party that makes the Archbishop’s dinner party look like drunken frivolity. This is not the sort of party where you turn up when you like and come as you are. This is the sort of party where you turn up at the right place and at the right time and where you come dressed to the nines, and where, if you decide to stay home to work on your sermon, you do so at your own risk.
What sort of party is this? It’s a serious party. And perhaps the even more important question here is ’what sort of king is this who is throwing this party?’ And he seems to be a serious king, who in the end is going to demand people’s respect!
And there are lots of ways of getting on the wrong side of this king:
Ignore his party invitation. That will put him offside.
Murder his messengers. That’s bound to do it.
Turn up to his wedding banquet dressed like a slob. That’ll work.
And I’m sure we can think of other ways. You could try urinating in the punch. That would work. Or perhaps try getting drunk and vomiting all over the king’s shag-pile carpet.
There are plenty of ways of upsetting the king. There seems to be just one way of making him happy. Come to the party, and come on the king’s own terms.
A guy called David Randolph spoke about a time when he was in Milan in Italy, and was watching a circus parade moving through the streets. Suddenly one of the elephants veered off and marched into a church. The church doors were large, and were open because of the summer heat. So the elephant wandered up the aisle, trumpeted a bit, swung her trunk around and then headed back to the parade. Randolph said that it occurred to him at that moment, the extent to which his own spiritual life was embodied in the behaviour of this elephant - lurching into church, making a few noises, and then resuming his place in the parade!
In the end, the Kingdom of God is serious business, and the invitation of the King - to come and join his party - is to be taken seriously.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 13th, 2002