Table Manners!

15 October 2017

(Readings: Philippians 4: 1 – 9  *  Matthew 22: 1-14)

Next Wednesday, we celebrate the Feat of St Luke the Evangelist – also known as St Luke the Physician. And so I’d thought I might pick up on that, and on this week’s news items about the shortage of family GP’s and/or the use and overuse of antibiotics, and give you a nice topical sermon this week.

And then I read this morning’s Gospel – and thought I’d better take a look at that instead!

St Luke will get a sideways “look in”, however: he also records this parable in his Gospel – but with some notable differences – and I thought it might be worth just noting those discrepancies, to see what if that might help us make sense of this slightly uncomfortable passage.

Whichever version you read, the central message is not going to be a comforting one for the Pharisees and Jewish leaders who seem to be its intended target: the King invites those whom he assumes will come to the feast and honour his son, only to be sorely disappointed – and so he invites a different set of people to take their place.
The account that Luke gives us is a simple analogy for the way that the Jewish leaders had rejected God’s son: those who saw themselves as God’s people had failed to recognise Jesus as the messiah, therefore God would call a new people who would honour him.

That’s a fairly straightforward message – and, for those who see themselves as part of that second group of people, those early Christians for whom the gospels were first written down, perhaps a reassuring one.

But then Mathew goes and complicates it with further details!

In his account, the intended guests aren’t just rude – ignoring the king’s invitation – they make things far worse by mistreating the slaves who bring their invitations.
Perhaps Matthew adds this in as a reflection of the growing hostility that Jewish Christians were facing from non-Christian Jews: when the Jewish Temple was destroyed, in the year 70, some Christians saw this as a sign that the old order had been destroyed. At the same time some Jewish leaders blamed the Jewish-Christians – seeing this destruction as God’s judgement on their false beliefs.
And so, when Matthew sets down his gospel, it’s against a backdrop of division within the Jewish faith – with those who are followers of Jesus finding themselves less welcome, and eventually being expelled from the synagogues altogether by those who rejected Jesus and his teaching.

Is this what Matthew is reflecting when he describes the mistreatment of the King’s slaves? Are we meant to recognise them as the Jewish Christians – offering the invitation to Christ’s banquet and being persecuted for their troubles?

And then the second “extra” in Matthew’s account seems even harsher – and that’s the poor man without the robe.
It’s really not clear what’s going on here and it’s hard not to feel sorry for this man: he had no idea that he would going to a wedding feast – but has responded to the invitation and turned up anyway. So it feels rather unfair to criticise him, then, for not wearing the correct robe.

The king’s initial civility – “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” – can’t disguise the harshness of his punishment he then suffers: “Bind him .. and throw him into the outer darkness.”
So what is that all about? – why couldn’t Matthew just have left things uncomplicated like Luke!?

Presumably the key must lie in the man’s response to the King – or rather his lack of response. It’s almost as if the man doesn’t realise who is speaking to him – that he hasn’t actually bothered to find out whose feast this is, or the reason for it – the marriage of his future king.

He’s simply accepted the offer of free food – without entering into the spirit of the occasion – a gate-crasher rather than a guest. He’s really not that interested in the king’s feelings – or in honouring his son – and it’s for this discourtesy – it seems – that he faces the king’s wrath..
So, with this added twist to the tale, is Matthew perhaps sharpening the divisions within Judaism – emphasising that those who ignore Jesus (the son) will themselves be rejected by his father?

Again, to those early Christians – that would come across more as a message of reassurance – that they WERE on the right track, they were “God’s chosen ones” even if they were facing hostility for their beliefs.

To us that message is rather less immediate and possibly less reassuring – we’re rightly wary of anything that seems to cause even more divisions and religious tension.

And, unusually for me, I found far more solace in the Epistle this week – that far more approachable passage from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians – written before the gospels, and before the destruction of the Temple.

Paul is also focused on Jesus, the Son of God – but his vision here is far more encouraging and far more inclusive: “Stand firm in the Lord, Rejoice in the Lord. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

For Paul, then, Christ is clearly present among his people – among us – not as a scolding, threatening presence but as the way to the Father and as the source of our salvation.

“Do not worry….,
but let your requests be made known to God,
and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
In Paul’s experience, then, Christ is not the spoilt son of the king – sulking because no-one wanted to come to his party. Nor is he here among us to judge our motives – whether we are here for the right reasons, whether we are showing him due respect?

Christ, he suggests, comes among us – as both mediator and friend – taking our deepest concerns straight into the heart of God – protecting us both from ourselves and our own selfish desires and also from those who would wish us harm.

We don’t have to go out and buy an expensive gown before we can come to his feast – we just have to ask, and we will be provided for.

We don’t have to be perfect saints to gather round his table – we just have to come and we will be accepted.

The later wedding guests were invited, not just to eat up all the food, but to rejoice in the good fortune of the king’s son.

Christ calls us to his feast – not just to take bread and wine – but to find and receive true life and true peace.