SERMON: Heavenly Banquets

SERMON: Heavenly Banquets

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 15th October 2023

Have you ever invited friends to dinner, done the shopping, selected the wine, and started preparing the food only to have them pull out at the last minute?  “Too busy at work”; “the dog is ill”; “the in-laws have suddenly turned up”.  You are justified in feeling a bit miffed.  Well, in today’s Gospel reading it is not just any dinner party: it is a royal wedding banquet.  Surely, everyone invited would turn up?  When the invitees don’t show, the king sends his servants to tell them everything is ready and the splendid food will get cold if they don’t come immediately.  Not only do some of them say they are too busy, others attack and kill the servants.  No wonder the king was furious.

A wedding party with no guests would be a miserable affair.  And all that lovely food would go to waste.   So, after dealing summarily with the murderers, he makes sure the party goes ahead by getting his servants to go into the town centre and invite everyone they come across, rich and poor, good and bad, to the feast until the banqueting hall is packed.

What is the message of this story?  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells it while teaching in the Temple in the days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, what we call Palm Sunday.  It immediately follows two other parables.  One is about two sons; their father asks them to work in his vineyard.  One says “yes” but does not go; the other says he will not but the goes.  The second is about another vineyard owner; this time he has let it to tenants in return for a share of the produce and has gone abroad.  The tenants refuse to pay up and mistreat the servants sent to collect the rent.  Finally he sends his son; seeing their chance to steal the property, they murder the son.  In both cases, Jesus gives an explanation of the parable which equates the disobedient son and the evil tenants to the Jewish religious establishment.  The servants who are attacked and killed are the prophets. Although the parable of the wedding feast does not have an express explanation, that explanation must be similar to that in the two previous parables.  It certainly infuriated the Pharisees who heard it, because Matthew says they then went away and agreed on a plan to trap Jesus.

Jesus’ hearers would know that there was a tradition of comparing God’s kingdom to a meal, even a banquet.  In today’s reading from Isiah we heard that ‘On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear’.  That is expensive luxury food and drink.  In the familiar words of Psalm 23, the Lord our shepherd spreads a table before us and fills our cup.

Luke contains a very similar parable in chapter 14, but it does have differences which help with the interpretation of the parable in Matthew.  In Luke it is not specifically a wedding feast, and the host is not a king.  Luke’s version omits the violence of Matthew; no servants bringing the invitation are badly treated and there is no violent revenge.  On the other hand, the alternative guests in Luke are to be the poor, crippled, blind and lame, and when all those who came from the town did not fill the hall, others from the countryside were compelled to come.  The setting in Luke is also different: Jesus is having dinner in the house of a leading Pharisee.  He tells several parables relating to feasts, and this one is in response to another guest saying, “Happy are those who will sit at the feast in the kingdom of God!”.

This comparison shows we are safe in assuming that the banquet is God’s invitation to the kingdom of his Son.  When those originally invited through God’s promise, his people Israel, reject Christ, the invitation is extended to outsiders, especially those disadvantaged or rejected by society.  However, like any story, there are dangers in trying to find a literal meaning for every detail.  For a long time the Church fell into the danger of interpreting this and similar parables to mean that God had completely rejected the Jews and that the Church had taken the place of Israel in God’s promises.  This belief, known technically as supersessionism, combined with the accusation that Jews were “Christ killers” and other hostile attitudes, led to widespread antisemitism throughout the history of Christian Europe.  As we know, this had frightful consequences, including mass expulsions of Jews, pogroms and the Holocaust.  The terrible news headlines of this last week are another consequence.  After the Holocaust, Jews understandably sought the security of a country of their own, in their ancestral home.  Unfortunately, that area had been lived in for many centuries by Palestinian Arabs.  The state of Israel was created by a war in 1948, and violence has never been far away since then.

Now most Christians do not accept this idea of God’s rejection of the Jews, relying on Paul’s arguments in the letter to the Romans that God had not rejected his people.  Rather, he had permitted their blindness and rejection of his Son so that the Gentiles could also benefit from God’s promise of salvation.

There is another significant difference between Luke and Matthew; Luke does not have the puzzling last part of Matthew’s version, the man who did not have the correct clothing.  If these random people had all been brought in from the streets, how could they possibly have had suitable clothes for a wedding reception?  And he wasn’t just politely shown the door; he was bound hand and foot and thrown out into a terrible dark place.  Very puzzling!

Biblical scholars have also been puzzled by this.  F. F. Bruce in his book Hard Sayings of Jesus suggests that this was originally a separate parable: perhaps about a guest to a royal banquet who turned up in the equivalent at the time of a dirty hoody and torn jeans.  We would certainly expect someone who turned up dressed like that to a banquet at Buckingham Palace to be thrown out.  Bruce thinks this was a story which warned against false discipleship, because clothes are used in the Bible to indicate character.  Paula Gooder  in her book on the Parables does not think this was a separate parable but reaches a similar conclusion; exclusion from the banquet is not about being Jewish but about the response to Jesus.  The first guests dishonoured the host by making their worldly interests more important than the invitation to the feast; the new guests still had to honour the host by dressing appropriately. So, a response to the invitation from Jesus to his banquet that does not appreciate the honour of being invited will have the same result, whether you are the original guest or a replacement.

So, as we are shortly to approach the altar to partake in a foretaste to the banquet to which Christ has invited us, are we appropriately dressed?  I’m not talking about the state of the physical clothes we are wearing.  I’m talking about what Jesus was surely referring to; the state of our spiritual clothing.  In several places St Paul urges Christians to “put on Christ”.  In Romans 13:14, he instructs believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”.  In Galatians 3:27 Paul ties this to baptism: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  How do we “put on Christ”?  By seeking with the help of the Holy Spirit to do as Jesus did in his earthly ministry; to pray, to care for others, to put God first.  Just as people who deeply love each other start to resemble each other in the way they act, so through our love for Jesus we will start to resemble him.  That is the wedding clothing we must wear if we are to accept the invitation to the banquet in God’s kingdom.

We have not only been invited to God’s banquet: we are also his servants, sent out to get others to come and join the party.  The banquet Isiah is talking about is for “all people”.  People we meet at work, our neighbours, our friends and family.  If they see us wearing our “wedding clothes”, if they can see the love and care of Christ reflected in us, they should be able to see that they also are invited to the party.  Let us accept the challenge expressed in a saying attributed to St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which He looks with compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.