Philippians 4. 1 – 9
Matthew 22. 1 – 14
I heard a story recently about an English businessman working in Nigeria, who was invited to a party. The invitation said “fancy dress compulsory.” He didn’t know where to get fancy dress at short notice, but he was an enthusiastic scuba diver, and had taken his gear with him on his business trip.
So he dressed up, took a taxi to the house, squelched up the drive in wet suit, mask, and fins, and entered the party.
But to his horror, he saw that all the men were wearing dinner jackets and bow ties – because in Nigeria, “fancy dress” means “black tie.”
Needless to say he turned and fled, as fast as you can flee in a pair of flippers, and never showed his face there again.
There’s a sartorial faux pas in our Gospel reading today, but it has rather more dire consequences than mere embarrassment. At the climax of today’s parable, all sorts of people are welcomed into a great feast – except the one who isn’t wearing the right clothes. He’s bound and thrown into outer darkness.
People have often found this story difficult, because at first reading, it seems to point to a heartless and rather mean God. It makes us uncomfortable to think of Jesus actively excluding people from the kingdom – especially over something so trivial as clothing.
But I would like to suggest that, far from showing us a side of God we’d rather not see, in fact this story shows us once again the God we know and rejoice in: the God of love, and abundant welcome.
For the last few weeks of Gospel readings, Jesus has been addressing the moral and spiritual leadership of Israel – the pharisees and scribes and so on.
They, of course, believe themselves to be in the right. But in these challenging stories, Jesus completely upends things: he says that in God’s kingdom, those who receive a welcome are in fact the ones the authorities have always excluded or neglected: the gentiles, the poor, the blind and lame; even tax-collectors and prostitutes.
And not only that, but God has been trying to tell them this for generations.
In today’s story he takes them right back through their history. Long ago, Isaiah had prophesied that God would “make for all peoples a feast of rich foods and well-matured wines.” God plans to fulfil this promise: and now the Son is here and this great banquet is ready.
But where are those whom God has called? He’s sent his servants, the prophets, again and again; but they’ve been rejected, they’ve not been taken seriously. People have always found an excuse not to change their ways – and they’ve even persecuted and killed those whom God has sent.
And so, in another challenging sentence, we hear about what they have brought upon themselves.
Matthew was writing this Gospel shortly after the Romans had sent their armies against the people of Israel. They’d destroyed the great city of Jerusalem, and burnt its temple to the ground. Jesus gives them this final, dire warning: and only forty years later his warning proved true.
But this is where the parable takes a perhaps unexpected turn, and we begin to see that this is a story not about a mean and heartless God; but rather, a God of generosity, and a God of gracious welcome.
Amazingly, the king persists in his welcome, even after so many refusals and let-downs. He doesn’t give up on his desire to share this great feast. And at this moment his anger and fury are transformed into extravagant welcome, as the slaves go out into the streets and gather everyone they find, “both good and bad,” and fill the hall with guests.
Those who were invited first were “not worthy;” but neither really were those who were gathered in from the streets. They had done nothing to merit such an extraordinary honour, to be invited to the banquet of a king.
But they had come, where so many others had refused. And they had clothed themselves in readiness for the feast. And so we come to the strange conclusion of the parable, and the exchange between the king and the badly-dressed guest.
Think of the grandest wedding you’ve ever been to – or perhaps the royal weddings we’ve seen over the last few years. No doubt there were loads of people dressed in brand new clothes, beautiful dresses maybe only ever worn once. And of course the mother-in-law’s huge and expensive hat.
But in Jesus’ culture, a bride would simply wear the best dress that she already had. And the guests wouldn’t be expected to buy anything flash, but rather wear the best linen garment they already had. Only the smallest effort was needed in making sure it was clean, and putting it on.
But this guest has not even bothered to do that. Even after such a gracious invitation, to the banquet of a king, he hadn’t made even the tiny effort expected of the guests of such a gathering.
The point is tat God’s welcome is offered to all, regardless of status or position: but it’s not an unconditional welcome. We are all called to the feast, but we are called first to repentance, and to holiness. We are called to clothe ourselves with the kind of virtues St Paul talked about in our first reading: with gentleness, with whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable. All that is excellent and worthy of praise.
The pharisees and so on had forgotten these virtues in their adherence to the law above all else, and their separation from whatever and whoever might make them unclean.
But here again we see again the generosity of God. Because he already gives us all that we need to join the feast, in Jesus. In our baptism we are given the finest robe of all, as we are clothed with Christ. We are given the potential for holiness: all we have to do is tend to it, and remember to keep that garment on – to nurture those virtues within us, and strive for God’s kingdom in all that we do.
And we are strengthened in this holy task by this foretaste today of the heavenly wedding banquet, to which we are all invited. In our own feast of bread and wine, we renew our promise to live for God’s kingdom: and we are gifted the strength and inspiration we need, in the presence of Jesus Christ within us.
May we rejoice in this gift, always. Amen.