St. Paul’s – 19th Sunday after Pentecost – October 11
There’s one question that seems to me to come prior to all other questions about religion, faith, philosophy, meaning, or whatever you want to call it. And that question is this. Is existence simply a series of random, purposeless events, or is there some kind of overarching shape or story that makes sense of all or at least most of the universe’s otherwise scattered happenings?
When something awful happens or we get some terrible news, we experience this question in an extreme form. Why? Why me? Why now? How can I go on? What’s the point? Finding a way to live, and especially coming to terms with a damaging accident or horrible setback, is about identifying some kind of a story that traces together a series of otherwise inexplicable circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you then set about locating where you are in that story. And then you act your part in that story. You could pretty well summarize the human quest as simply as this: searching for a story to live by, discovering one’s place in that story, and living into that place in the story.
And that’s exactly what the Bible is. It’s a story that ties together all things, from creation to the end, and an invitation to discover our place in that story and take up our part in it. And from time to time the Bible gives us little cameo stories that do all that work in just a paragraph or two. Today’s gospel, the parable of the great banquet, is one of those cameo stories. I want to look together at how this tiny story tells the whole story of the Bible, and offers each one of us an invitation to find out where we are in that story, and so make sense of our lives.
The story comes in five parts. Part one is a banquet. Now this is interesting. It’s quite common to portray heaven – the end of the story – as a banquet. But this story portrays creation, the beginning of the story, as a banquet. What that means is that from the very beginning God sees a flourishing creation as having many places at the table, as having humanity and the earth in harmony in the sharing of food, about fundamentally God and humanity finding communion in the breaking of bread. It’s a wedding banquet, and that’s about the union of heaven and earth, of God and humanity – all the things we see united in Jesus. The banquet isn’t the cast party at the end of the show, it’s going on all the time and it’s the purpose of all things. The persons of the Trinity are having a banquet whether anyone else is coming or not.
Part two isn’t such a happy story. People are invited to the banquet. This is important to know. God wants our company. The banquet is fulfilled when it has people to share it. Creation is meant to be enjoyed. But the people who are invited don’t come. There’s nothing more humiliating than having a party that no one wants to come to. The surprise is that this isn’t just our experience, it’s God’s experience even more. There’s a range of reactions to the invitation. Some people are indifferent. It’s often said that it’s easier to deal with hostility than indifference. At least with hostility you realize you matter, you’re a threat, you need to be attacked. But with indifference you feel you’re irrelevant, you hardly matter, you’ve completely misjudged your role in this other person’s life – they’ve scarcely noticed you. But some people are genuinely hostile: they seize those bearing the invitations and batter them and kill them.
This part of the story is a way of talking about how Israel rejected God’s prophets and, as the early church saw it, rejected Christ. It’s troubling to read this kind of account today, because, when it comes to mistreating and putting to death, the Jews have by a massive distance been more on the receiving end than the dishing out end since the gospels were written. It’s maybe more helpful to read this in generalized terms as saying God invited many to the banquet and most found a bunch of reasons why they had better things to do or why it was outrageous to ask.
If this part of the story seems baffling, it’s supposed to. Part of being a Christian is bewilderment about why anyone wouldn’t want to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to believe that God has invited you to a banquet, a banquet that has everything you could want and lasts forever and has a space for everybody. How can anyone say they’ve got other things to do or that they’re insulted to be invited? To say that a lot of those doing the inviting aren’t great representatives is certainly true; and to say sometimes we get so caught up in this existence that we forget that the one who put us here is the same one who’s inviting us to the banquet is undeniable; even to doubt whether there really is a banquet – that’s understandable. But deep down not even to want to come to a banquet, to reject it because who else might be there or because it’s not worth the effort or you prefer the banquet you’ve made for yourself thank you very much – that’s completely implausible.
Now to part three. The king loses his temper and opens the invitation out to all and sundry. If part two is broadly what Christians call the Old Testament, part three is more or less what Christians call the New Testament. What was originally a restricted invitation goes on general release. You might call this a process of inclusion. It’s important to remember that the invitation is still a privilege. It’s not a right. There’s no automatic entry to the banquet. You have to be invited. The whole story is driven by God’s desire to have a banquet. The banquet is a depiction of God being in relationship with us and our being in relationship with one another and creation all at the same time.
Now the vital thing to grasp is that as Gentiles we’re located at a different point in this story to the Jews. The Jews are those first invited. There’s nothing to say their invitation has been cancelled. We’re to take it that if any of those originally invited to the banquet still want to come they can still come. So the Jews are supposed to read this story, find themselves at the end of part two, realize the tragedy and cost of rejecting the invitation, and find it in their hearts to come to the party. But as Gentiles, you’re not in part two. You weren’t originally invited. You’re the fallback plan. You’re located in part three of the story.
Being in part three teaches us that we’re very lucky to be in the story at all. The parable mentions that those doing the inviting made no distinction in those they invited between the good and the bad. So let’s not get too full of ourselves. You weren’t first choice and you’re a rag, tag selection . You know that moment in the primary school playground when the captains pick teams and the good players all get picked first and get impatient to start the game and finally one captain chooses the last decent-looking player and waves a hand over those remaining and says to the other captain, ‘And you can have the rest’? Well, that’s the gentiles. You’re the rest. You’re called the Gentiles.
Your location is the very end of part three of the story, just after you’ve been included, and just before part four. Part four in this story is the day of judgement. It’s when you enter the banquet. It transpires someone’s turned up at the banquet without a wedding garment. Now there’s two ways to read this. It’s quite usual to be up in arms about this part of the story, to say it’s outrageous because how can you expect those gathered from the highways and byways to have a dinner suit and ball gown tucked away somewhere – that the king is just setting people up to fail like a God who makes unreasonable demands and then delights to punish those who don’t meet those demands. But that’s to mistrust the parable too much. What the wedding garment represents is our willingness to respond gratefully to God’s invitation, to turn our wonder into faith, our faith into worship and discipleship and service and holiness, our eagerness to come ready to the banquet and not just turn up and take the invitation for granted.
Originally the parable was a warning to Jews to say your being chosen is a gift not a right, and you risk having this invitation taken away from you if you don’t accept it. At the same time it’s a warning to Gentiles to say your being included isn’t just a random invitation to all creation, it’s an incredible privilege and if you don’t show your recognition of and appreciation for that priceless privilege then you’ll be regarded as someone who didn’t really want to come. The banquet is not a reward for our righteousness; instead, our attempts to be generous, to be compassionate, to be faithful, to be true are our way of showing God that we really do want to come to the banquet. They are our wedding robe. The irony is that it turns out that those efforts take us into the highways and byways and bring us into the company of those whom this story declares will be our companions at the banquet.
And so to part five of the story. Part five doesn’t appear in the parable, but it’s what the parable is about. It’s the banquet itself. The whole parable is designed to make us hungry for that banquet. We’ve discovered that the banquet was the purpose of creation. We’ve seen that God chose a people to share that banquet, but many refused, and thus jeopardized their presence there. We’ve discovered that this is how we come to be invited to the banquet – because others have said no, because we happened to be around, because God is longing for companionship. And we’ve realized that attending the banquet isn’t something we can take for granted – it only comes to those who want to be there, and show they want to be there in the way they think and speak and act. This is the story we’re in. And this is our place in that story – at the moment when we are deciding whether we really want to be at that banquet. Are you hungry to be at that banquet? Do you see that the food on offer there is like nothing on offer anywhere else? Are you hungry for the food that never runs out, the food that’s truly shared, the food that we were made for?
This parable is a cameo of the whole Bible, and it asks us the three questions the Bible asks us – the questions of whether there is a story, where we are in it, and how to play our part in it – and holds our gaze until we give the answers. And these are the three questions. Do you believe the world was created so that we might share in a banquet and be God’s companions forever? Do you believe that through Jesus and at great cost the invitation to that banquet was extended to you and many others by amazing grace? Do you believe that the way to answer God’s invitation is to allow the Holy Spirit to fashion your life so that when you are called to the banquet you clearly belong there because you’ve been living the life of the banquet and sharing the company of those invited to the banquet long before you were finally a guest there? It could be that those three questions are the most important ones anyone will ever ask you.
Invitation to the Offering
The Shepherd cares for us,
providing all that we need in abundance.
The Shepherd calls us to love one another
in truth and action.
May our gifts reflect our trust in the Shepherd’s care.
May our offerings show our willingness to love one another.
God of love,
you abide with us;
you provide for all our needs
and guide us in your ways.
Out of gratitude for your care,
we bring our gifts before you.
Use them for your work of caring,
that all may feast at the table of abundance,
walk without fear,
and drink deeply
from the cup of compassion. Amen.
As we begin a new week
May you be filled with
the peace of God
which passes all human understanding,
May you be filled with the mind of Jesus Chris
which surpasses all human thinking, and
May you be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit
which outlasts all human strength.
And May the blessing of God Almighty…..