The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity


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O almighty and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us…
Ephesians 5:15-21
Matthew 22:1-14

The way in which Archbishop Stephen Langton divided the New Testament into chapters c1227 is not always logical and can be misleading because our notion of a chapter comprises ideas such as coherence, unity and structure but although today’s Gospel parable of the wedding banquet is placed at the beginning of Chapter 22 it is actually the last and least significant of three parables, the preceding being the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32) and the Vineyard Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) which almost certainly drove the religious authorities to seek to prosecute Jesus. The issue in question which introduces these three parables is that of authority. Given that the Pharisees believe in an after-life, who are its earthly gate keepers? Jesus, at the very least, challenges the Pharisee monopoly: First, in a manoeuvre which reminds one of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, He refuses to cite the source of His authority because they will not come clean about John the Baptist (Matthew 21:23-27); secondly, He says that the people who actually do the work are more important than those who pretend to do it; and, crucially, He then accuses them of being impostors and murderers, rejecting the genuine Kingdom, “The stone which the builder rejected”.

After this dense and dramatic set of arguments in Chapter 21 which might be characterised symphonically as a short but telling First Movement, a short Minuet Second Movement and a long and serious slow Third Movement, this parable of the Wedding Banquet might be characterised as a rather showy Rondo Finale, certainly not to be taken so seriously as the other three. Jesus again says that the Pharisees are to be replaced in the Kingdom by “The good and the bad” who are apparently trawled at random from society. They are installed in The Kingdom and the King of the Banquet destroys the absentees; but there is one man wearing the wrong clothes and he is discredited. These ideas sit uncomfortably together: if The Kingdom is for the good and the bad alike, surely that has to include Pharisees, whichever way you characterise them? If the servant has let all the guests in, whose fault is it that one person is not wearing the right clothes and, in any case, is there any such thing as the right clothes? Or might Matthew have transposed the story so that Jesus was portraying Himself as the person not wearing the right clothes?

Of course none of these questions would have been asked by the compilers of the Lectionary: first, they would have been attracted by the apparent randomness of salvation which, some thought at the time, divorced it from personal behaviour; secondly, they were committed to taking every word of The Bible at the same weight, denying a latitude of understanding which, paradoxically, late Medieval Christianity enjoyed prior to the explosion of Renaissance-generated Biblical criticism and, thirdly, the idea of ‘form criticism’—recognising different literary attributes to the text—had not as yet been crystallised. It is therefore important to recognise that this is one of those instances where many of us stand in a very different relationship to the text from those who chose it.

The passage from Ephesians casts a uniquely liturgical light on our relationship to God and the Kingdom. Paul, who was most frequently concerned with the relationship—or lack of it—between personal conduct and salvation, emphasises that we will only attain The Kingdom through proper worship, a predictable stance, given his own pharisaic origins; and so, in a sense which makes neatness impossible, the Epistle is emphasising those very elements upon which Jesus appeared to cast some doubt.

The idea of The Kingdom is at the core of all three parables and this raises the critical question of what we think Jesus meant by this mystery and what we mean by it. For Jesus the critical point is that his role is intermediary and that the realisation of The Kingdom involves the restoration of the true relationship between the Creator (“The Father”) and the created. It would be disturbing if it meant something radically different for us but we have been not so much led astray as blown off course by the mighty rhetorical gales of Revelation which has imprinted on our tradition deep resonances of place and posture, of drama and experience so that the theological simplicity of the idea of being enfolded back into perfect unity with the Creator has been complicated by a massive dose of fantasy. Where Jesus quite comfortably talks in terms of kingdoms and thrones as a way of illustrating his point, our respect for the Bible has led us to take the images of that kingdom far too literally. What we are promised, from the calling of Abraham until the last words of John’s Gospel is a restoration whose beauty and completeness are impossible to conceive, bearing no relationship to the literary gargoyles of Revelation. The transcendence is underlined in the last three chapters but our problem is that we cannot appreciate the full texture of the book’s conclusion without reading what goes before. As always, our ambition to enter more fully into the mystery of Godhead inevitably involves adding colour to what is so transparent that we cannot see it; the danger is that we disfigure what we seek with human desire. Even so, it is better to leave a finger print than not touch.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Is it legitimate and/or helpful to rank texts such as parables as less or more important than each other?
  2. What do you understand by the idea that the good and bad shall equally enter The Kingdom without any questions being asked?
  3. Discuss the case of the diner who lacked a wedding garment
  4. Explain the concept of Christ’s Kingdom in simple, jargon-free language
  5. Discuss the merits and drawbacks of apocalyptic literature.

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