Summary: God’s wonderful banquet is free for all.
I wonder if you’ve ever bought a new car? Different things appeal to different people, don’t they. Some people are concerned with the technical details about the engine, others are keen to buy from a local dealer, others want to stick with a manufacturer they’ve bought from before, others are only interested in the colour.
Well, imagine you need to replace your car. You’ve sorted out your budget, and you’ve decided what kind of car you want. You’re wandering around the dealer’s yard, beginning to look through the windows of various different cars, looking for the best value for money. After a little while, someone approaches you. It turns out that he’s the managing director of the company. He has a broad grin on his face and looking very happy to see you.
"Come with me," he invites you. "There’s something I want you to see round the back.” You follow him round to the service area at the back. There in the centre of the yard is a gleaming, brand new Jaguar. You gasp in amazement and delight.
Then the managing director holds out the Jaguar keys, dangling them in front of your face. "It’s yours, all yours! It’s free, gratis and for nothing. Enjoy it," he says and puts the keys into your hand.
What do you think you would do? Imagine this is one of those quizzes in a magazine.
(a) Jump into the car and roar off down the road before he has a chance to change his mind.
(b) Regard him with deep suspicion and edge away, certain he’s either completely mad or has some dark ulterior motive.
(c) Suddenly realise where your neighbour got his brand new Rolls-Royce and tell that used car salesman that you don’t see why you should be fobbed off with a Jaguar when the bloke down the road has a Roller.
And if you do take the car, will you actually enjoy it, or will you spend your time worrying about the cost of the insurance and whether you can afford to run the car?
We human beings are so unused to receiving anything worthwhile for free, that most of us would probably regard an offer such as the one I’ve just described with the utmost suspicion. We know that almost all supposedly "free" offers either aren’t worth having or aren’t free at all. "You get what you pay for," is something many of us have deeply engrained within us.
When the king in today’s Gospel reading threw a sumptuous wedding banquet for his son, none of the invited guests turned up. Perhaps they couldn’t believe such a lavish feast was really going to be free. Perhaps they were too anxious about what the hidden cost would be, or what strings were attached. Perhaps they were worried what they might be asked to do in exchange for this free meal?
Not only did those guests refuse to attend the banquet, but they were so deeply suspicious of the offer that they beat and murdered the servants whose only crime was to carry the invitation. And so the banquet was thrown open to all and sundry: the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick.
God invites everyone into his Kingdom: not just religious people, not just good people, but everyone. There is no weighing up of good deeds and bad deeds to decide who is fit to enter the kingdom. Entry is determined solely by whether or not you accept the invitation. That is, by whether or not you believe in the king who throws the banquet, whether or not you believe you’re in for a good time. Nobody earns the right to enter the kingdom, entry isn’t based on merit.
This banquet wasn’t just a one-off, a feast that only happened once in a blue moon, it’s something for all time. We heard about it in our reading from Isaiah, and it crops up in other gospels, too. In Luke’s version of this story, the rich and the famous who were invited to the Wedding Banquet, but who refused to attend, are simply left outside. But Matthew, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, hints that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s reaction to the murder of Jesus by the important religious people of the day. Matthew adds to Luke’s story, having Jesus say that the king was enraged and sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. And this of course, was exactly what happened to Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in AD 70.
We always need to remember that all the gospels were written in retrospect, years after the death of Jesus. Unlike Luke, Matthew places this story within the events of Holy Week, when the hostility of the religious officials to Jesus was very obvious and there was a feeling of the climax approaching. Luke places the story much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, and therefore his version of the story is much softer than Matthew’s version. In Luke’s version, those who refuse the invitation to the banquet are less hostile than those in Matthew’s version of the story. They make various excuses to avoid attending the feast, but they don’t beat or kill or murder. And similarly, there is no punishment meted out to them. They are simply left outside, because they exclude themselves.