I suspect that a moment ago, when our gospel reading ended with the words ‘This is the gospel of Christ’, a few of you had difficulty replying ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. You might even be thinking “I was told the word gospel meant ‘good news’. How is it good news that God loses his temper, destroys people and burns their city? How is it good news that people get bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How can that possibly be the gospel of Jesus Christ? It sounds more like Donald Trump on a Tweet storm!”
Usually when we react viscerally to a scripture reading like this, it means we need to find a different way into it. Sometimes when we look at something from a different direction, the view can suddenly be transformed. So instead of taking the role of God’s judge and jury in this reading, maybe we should take a different point of view. Maybe we should put ourselves into the story as the ones who refused the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. Maybe the question we should be asking is “Why do we do that? Why refuse God’s invitation to the greatest joy imaginable to human beings? And what sort of feeble substitutes do we prefer instead?”
Let’s set the scene for a minute. This Gospel reading follows on closely from the second half of Matthew chapter 21. The scene is the temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. The chief priests and elders have come to Jesus where he’s teaching in the temple courts. “Who gave you authority to do this?” they ask.
In reply Jesus reminds them of his baptism by John at the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit filled him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son”. He then begins a series of parables. The first concerns two sons. The father came to each of them and asked them to go work in his vineyard. One of them said he would, but then did nothing about it. The other refused, but later changed his mind and went out to work after all. “Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John”, Jesus said; “They turned away from their sins and accepted his message, but you people did nothing about it, despite all your fine words” (see Matthew 21:23-32).
Then comes a second parable, a well-known one in ancient Israel. A landowner has a vineyard and he lets it out to tenants, hoping for a share of the crop as his rent. “Ah”, the hearers would have thought, “We know this story – it’s in Isaiah! The landowner is God, and the tenants are the leaders and people of Israel”. But then Jesus gives the story a twist: when harvest comes the tenants refuse to pay the rent. When the landowner sends servants, they beat them up, and when he finally sends his son, they kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. Remember, this story is told in the Temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. Let the reader understand!
Jesus ends the story by asking the question, “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Good thinking, priests and elders! Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (see Matthew 21:33-46).
You see what’s going on here? Jesus is the Son of God, sent by God to the tenants of his vineyard, asking for the fruit of holiness and faithfulness. But what does he get instead? Leaders who are in love with their own power. People who assume they’re on the inside track with God, but there’s very little real love of God in their hearts, and very little practice of love in their lives. They have the name of God’s people, but actually they love something else more than God. And because of that, the vineyard will be taken from them and given to someone else. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the message of Jesus had gone out to the Gentile world, and Gentiles were pouring into the church, full of the joy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the majority of the original invitees – Israel – continued to reject Jesus and his message.
And that brings us to today’s parable. A wedding banquet was a common symbol for the kingdom of God in the time of Jesus. This is the marriage of earth and heaven! For so many people God seems far away; his presence is just a dream they long for, not a daily reality! But Jesus has come to change that; he’s come among us to reconcile us with God and one another. Already the work of reconciliation has begun; Jesus has gone to the Cross out of love for all people, forgiving us rather than taking revenge on us. Now the invitations are going out to all the world: Come to the feast! Any day now, it’s going to take place!
In the time of Jesus there were no clocks, so you couldn’t say “Come to the wedding banquet next Saturday at 3.00 p.m.” Preliminary invitations would go out, but when the actual day came people just had to make sure they were ready. When the food was cooked and everything was prepared, the servants would go out again: “The feast is ready – come and enjoy it!”
That’s what happens in Jesus’ story. The original invitees are the people of Israel, and especially their leaders. They know there’s a seat at the banquet for them, ready to be claimed. But when the time actually comes, suddenly they aren’t interested. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (vv.5-6). Luke’s version of the story goes into more detail:
‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come”’ (Luke 14:18-20).
So these are folks who have accepted the original invitation, but when the day arrives, they suddenly find that they have something better to do. Their love for the King and his Son takes second place: there’s business to take care of, land to buy, people to please. God will understand, won’t he?
Let me ask you: who is really being hurt here?
Consider this: Long before anything existed – long before there was even a ‘long before’ – there was God. God has always existed. God is three in one and one in three, a perfect community, full of love and totally satisfied. It’s impossible to imagine God being dependant on us for happiness. God had no needs that God could not take care of. All joy, all love, all life, was in God, to a degree that would fry our brains if we tried to imagine it.
But then God decided to create. And what God created was vast. We can’t even take in the sort of numbers involved. Millions of light years. Billions of stars. Fourteen billion years between the big bang and us. Stars spinning. Planets orbiting. We feeble little humans have only begun to explore it all, even with all our modern scientific knowledge.
This is the God who in joy decides that earth needs five hundred thousand species of beetles! The God who puts the most beautiful creatures on the planet down in the depths of the ocean where it’s totally dark, where no one can see them except him. The God who designed the incredible mystery of DNA. The God who created Mount Robson, who thought dinosaurs were a cool idea, who defies artistic rules and paints the skyline in orange and gold in incredible sunsets.
Wouldn’t you love to know a God like that? I mean, it’s a scary thought, given how much power he must have, but the thought of actually having a relationship with that God - learning from him – living your life in his company – doesn’t it get your heart beating just a little bit faster?
Well, the Bible says, that’s exactly what God wants! That’s exactly why God created you! God wants you to live for all eternity in his presence. He created you for the pleasure of knowing you, and he wants you to have the pleasure of knowing him. And as you begin to know him, you will gradually discover that it’s the most absorbing and thrilling and fulfilling experience you can have in your life. Getting rich can’t compare to it. Being successful can’t compare to it. Sex can’t compare to it. They’re all fleeting and temporary pleasures. What he’s offering is something that starts much more quietly and unobtrusively, but gradually grows into a joy we can’t begin to imagine right now. When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, he’s saying “This is what life is all about. Find this, and you’ll find the very reason you were born. Nothing less than this will satisfy”.
But to be honest, I don’t always believe him.
In a sermon preached during World War Two, C.S. Lewis said these words:
‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’
We’re offered the wedding banquet, and we choose the five yoke of oxen instead. I mean, oxen can be cool, but do you really want to choose plodding through a muddy field behind oxen, rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet? Really?
Well, this is me. Maybe it’s you, too, I don’t know, but I know for sure that it’s me.
Let’s get real here. Let me tell you about a conversation that plays itself out in my head from time to time. “I’m late this morning, Lord, and I’ve got work commitments. I’m going to have to take a rain check on prayer this morning”. “Why are you late, Tim?” “Well, I accidentally stayed up too late last night, Lord, and I overslept this morning”. “Why did you stay up late, Tim?” “Um, I’d rather not say, Lord”. “Come on, Tim – are you seriously trying to fool me. You do remember who I am, right?” “Oh – all right, I was on the computer, Lord!” “Doing what, Tim? Reading about the suffering of refugees, or feasting your mind on thrilling theology?” “Er - not exactly…” “Well, then…?” “Oh, if you must know, I was on Facebook! Someone on Facebook was wrong, and I had to correct them!” “And what time did you finish correcting them?” “2 a.m.!”
So who’s suffering in this scenario? Me, of course. I’m the one building the mud pie in the slum. I’m the one choosing the muddy field and the five yoke of oxen rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet.
I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t think God has to cast me into the outer darkness. Usually, I’m the one who casts myself there. I choose the oxen in the muddy field, and then I experience the consequences of it. God doesn’t take away my joy; I can do that all by myself.
So in this parable Jesus is giving us a loving warning: choices have consequences. I’m sorry, Great Big Sea, but there is no such thing as living ‘consequence-free’! If I choose to live my life without taking time each day for prayer, the consequence is going to be that God is a distant rumour to me, not a living Father. If I only go to church on Sunday when I don’t have a better offer, then I’m going to miss out on the consistent experience of listening to the scriptures, praying with God’s people and being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. If I choose the couch and the TV rather than caring for the lonely and cultivating better relationships with my family members, then I’m going to experience more and more loneliness and depression myself.
This is not about fear of punishment. It’s about being offered everlasting joy, and choosing something less than that. I wonder what your favourite joy substitute is? And I wonder how it stacks up against the King’s wedding banquet?
So here’s the challenge. The invitation has been sent out. It’s in your hands and mine. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) or “in all its fullness” as the NIV says. The banquet table is set. Your seat is reserved. Now’s the time to come.
Don’t put it off. Don’t leave it to tomorrow - or when the kids get a bit older – or when you retire and have more time. You have all the time in the world to do the things God is asking you to do.
He does not ask you to do the impossible. We all have the same number of hours each day; we all make choices about how we use them. The question is not about how I’m going to use next week, or next year, or ten years from now. It’s about what I’m going to do today. Mud pies in a slum, or the joy of the beach and the ocean? Five yoke of oxen in a muddy field, or the wedding banquet of the king? The joy of gradually growing closer to the God whose love keeps all of creation in existence, or the quiet desperation of realizing that my favourite excuse isn’t nearly as attractive as I thought it was?
Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Who knows whether or not they have a tomorrow? I don’t, and neither do you. The only day we have is today. So today, let’s accept the invitation from the king and come to his wedding banquet.