There was a great deal in the news yesterday, and on social media, about the unsung heroes who received honours in the Queen’s delayed birthday honours. Supermarket assistants, drivers for ASDA organising help and deliveries in their own time, nurses on the front line, a 16 year old who made PPE equipment, innovative chefs and organisers who fed hundreds and thousands for free during the COVID pandemic. More ethnically diverse, more age diverse. There were still the politicians, there were still the long serving civil servants who knew they were in for the possibility of honour and there were still celebrities. But it reminded me of our parable today, when the great and the good of Israel snubbed an opportunity and instead guests, much more representative of the local communities, were invited and honoured. Diversity, inclusion.
The parable of the great feast is of course an allegory, a story told to teach a lesson, in this case to the Jewish leaders. We see the lack of recognition by the Jewish leaders that Jesus is the Messiah long awaited by the Jewish people, compared to the giddy joy of the greater rabble of people, unwashed, broken and needy who are sought out, found and come to the feast. The slaves who go out initially unsuccessfully to invite those who would be expected to receive the honour of an invitation to the King’s feast are the prophets. So they turn their attention to the ordinary, they respond to the invitation, they come and the feast can get underway.
It is a wonderful and vivid piece of teaching about Salvation. I think it is fair to say as Christians we don’t hear as much about salvation as we do faith, hope, love, those great bedrocks of our faith. Salvation is God’s big rescue mission. The deep plot line of scripture. The long plot line of the Bible.
Creator God brings all things into being, with human beings the climax of this work, but things go badly wrong, disruption between God and his people, alienation from each other and the world over which they, we, preside. And so the rescue mission, the journeys of God’s people to freedom, the prophets and finally to Jesus.
The big theme of Matthew’s Gospel is trying to show the Jews in Jesus’ time that Jesus was the Messiah, so while there are very similar parables in other Gospels, Matthew seeks to convince Jewish listeners that Jesus is the Son Of God. Jesus is the Son of the King in this parable, and they, and we today, are sought out, invited to recognise this, accept it, and join the celebration. In effect, when we step forward in faith, however tentative that may feel or be, we are allowing ourselves to be found, rescued and seek to live differently.
In Mark Oakley’s recent book about some of George Herbert’s poems, ‘My Sour Sweet Days’, he suggests that in Herbert’s famous poem Love there is a direct connection to this parable, and that the universal appeal of the poem is that the title is Love, instead of God or Christ.
‘Love bade me welcome but my soul drew back
Guiltie of dust and sinne
But quick eyed Love observing me grow slack from my first entrance in
Drew closer to me sweetly questioning if I lacked anything.
A guest I answered, worthy to be here.
Love said you shall be he.
I the unkind the ungrateful
Ah my dear I cannot look on thee.
Love smiling took my hand and did reply
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them,
Let my dust and sinne go where it doth deserve.
And know you not who bore the blame?
My deare then I will serve.
You must sit down says Love and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.’
For some of us, I include myself in this, who like to be in control and direct our own destinies, the very idea of Christ taking our hand and drawing us in can be a painful path and this is where that other parable is slipped in at the end of the passage in Matthew.
Someone is sought out who attends the feast but doesn’t wear the right garment. This little parable has been much written about and my take on it is that this represents the person who recognises the Kingship of Jesus but can’t wear it in their life, can’t practise it. And this also reminds us that however much we might stumble and make mistakes, seeking to live authentically as Christians is going to be seen by and hopefully encourage others.
Christianity is not in itself about a new moral teaching but that our command to love and care for each other and our world is within a much larger framework of God’s intentions for our world. In particular we are invited – in fact using this parable of the feast – summoned to discover, through Jesus, that this new world is a place that demands justice, and good relationships with each other and God’s creation.
Tom Wright says in ‘Simply Christian’
‘in listening to Jesus we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along’.
And so in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians we have that wonderful call to those of us who are rescued: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. That is a big ask as we anticipate an uncertain few months of a winter ahead that will be dominated by how we manage the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Wilma in her newsletter wrote this week about the Ancient Greek emotion ‘acedia’, a combination of feeling listless, bored, afraid and uncertain. In one of my copies of the New Testament I have a little post-it note that I distinctly remember dates from 16 years ago when my daughter was doing voluntary work in Uganda and Rwanda as a teenager and it marks this passage from Philippians. It is a wonderful passage to hold on to and includes a number of phrases such as these:
‘The Lord is near…. do not worry ….. keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard …. and the God of peace will be with you’.
As we step forward, as guests who recognise the Kingship of God and His Son at this commemoration feast, our Eucharist, let’s celebrate the gift and grace of faith. Amen.