We had a lovely time at Sherston’s Harvest Festival last week. There was a good service in the evening, and when that had finished, in no time at all, platefuls of food started appearing from the kitchen. It was a wonderful spread, generously provided, and a great atmosphere as people mingled and chatted and enjoyed a glass of wine. Good company, laughter and a truly enjoyable evening!
It reminded me of one of the things the Archbishop of Canterbury said when he came to Malmesbury: ‘The church should have fewer meetings and more parties’. I wholeheartedly agree!
Not least because, according to Jesus, a good party is a foretaste of heaven. Many of Jesus’ parables use a banquet to describe what the Kingdom of God is like. Think of the celebration thrown at the return of the Prodigal Son; the shepherd’s party when he finds his lost sheep; the rich man and Lazarus; and of course today’s story. Jesus may have drawn on the images of the Old Testament Isaiah reading, where God destroys evil from the world, wipes away all tears, and provides a feast for all peoples. Heaven, says Jesus, is full of people, full of celebration.
Of course, that’s not the only Biblical image of God’s new creation. Revelation speaks about a city full of life, light and beauty. The Old Testament talks about every person sitting under their own fig tree – a picture of pastoral contentment. But the party is an important picture. It connects with most people – even if you’re someone who’s a bit shy and doesn’t enjoy networking events, still it’s a rare person who doesn’t appreciate a get together with people they love, their friends and family.
What a contrast to the common images of heaven. No fluffy clouds and bored angels playing harps in the Bible! What a challenge to those misconceptions of Christianity: that God at best tolerates people; that anything fun is a bit suspect; that if we enjoy it it’s probably sinful; that being religious is self-restricting, boring. Apparently Nietschze said ‘I would believe in the Redeemer if his people looked more Redeemed’
You have to ask: where do people get those misconceptions from? It certainly wasn’t from Jesus. Nor was it from the apostle Paul, who although he has a forbidding reputation, writes in the Philippians passage we had today ‘Rejoice in the Lord always – again I say rejoice.’
That’s not a kind of false, shallow joy, pretending that all is well. Paul was in prison when he wrote this! Instead, it’s a much deeper joy founded on the promise of what is to come; as v6 and 7 in the reading show, it’s a confidence that when we have entrusted everything to God, his peace will stay with us.
So the first thing to learn from this parable is that God wants knowing him to be life giving, affirming, the best way. Even in the midst of difficulty, following Christ can be transforming and inspiring. He invites everyone to this life – but we need to accept the invitation.
Maybe another good reason Jesus liked talking about heaven as a banquet is that it allowed him to explore the idea of invitation. In the parable the king, who represents God, throws a banquet and invites lots of people. He sends out his slaves to tell them it’s time to come. But the guests reject his offer.
Because you can receive an invitation and not go. You can put it on your mantelpiece so all your friends can see you have an invitation from Lord so and so – but you don’t need to tell them you can’t go! An invitation is like a cheque – it’s no use unless you do something about it. If you don’t cash the cheque it’s just a worthless piece of paper. If you don’t accept the invitation, it doesn’t do you much good.
The meaning of the parable is clear: God invites people to be part of his Kingdom life. He asks us to join in the party. He gives us an invitation, but it is up to us what we do about it. Jesus explores various responses in the parable.
In v.5 they make light of it. Some people are like that when you speak of faith, they brush it off, no interest. Others feel they have better things to do: one goes to his farm, another to his business. If they were to respond to God’s invitation it would take up their time and effort, and they don’t want to do that.
The excuses may seem trite – I’ve got some shopping to do, an animal to look after, the family are busy – but maybe that’s part of the point. Jesus asks, you’re turning down God’s invitation for what exactly? Finally v 6. reminds us of the angry persecution that we hear about in the Middle East: the rest seized his slaves, maltreated and killed them.
If this sounds familiar it’s because we had something very like it last week. Both parables have developed into an allegory for the way God’s prophets were treated by the leaders of Israel.
The religious leaders one might have expected to receive Jesus joyfully often did not. Those who responded to him were from all levels of society, some who had been waiting for the Messiah, others very much from the wrong side of the tracks but seeing hope in Jesus. As v.10 says: ‘The slaves went out into the streets and gathered all they could find, both good and bad.’ Like the king, we shouldn’t give up when rejected, nor restrict God’s invitation to the obvious candidates. Anyone can accept God’s love for all by turning to Christ and being forgiven!
But as someone asked the other week at Foundations – does response matter? If Jesus died for everyone, do we need to do anything about it? If God wants to forgive us and offers forgiveness through Christ to us all, is it conditional on believing or accepting him as Lord?
I think there are three ways of replying to that. Firstly, if we know Jesus died for us and we can be forgiven through him, it’s a bit rude not to make the effort to live his way. This is the point of the little story in verses 11-13 about the chap who turns up without a wedding robe.
Basically he can’t be bothered. He’s been invited to a special do but ignored the dress code. How can he really claim to be part of the celebration? It is no use accepting God’s gracious invitation and then carrying on living our own way, not allowing it to make any difference.
For, secondly, God invites us to a transformed life. What he offers is a new existence lived in relationship with him. A different way of being which is grounded in God and which reflects the way that humanity was meant to live. The good news is about finding a meaningful life in God – it’s much more than just being legally absolved and released.
We often understand ‘being forgiven’ as being like a legal cancellation. As if someone had committed a crime in the past, but society moves on and decides maybe that’s no longer a crime anymore, so the Queen sends a Royal Pardon. That person is forgiven, in a legal kind of way. But God’s forgiveness is reconciliation and sharing in his life – it’s as if that Royal Pardon also came with an invitation to spend a weekend at Balmoral. God adopts us as part of his family. It’s a relationship.
And thirdly, God gives us free will. He respects our ability to choose. If we decide we don’t want to have anything to do with him, how could he then force us to spend eternity with him? God’s love means we can make that choice.
It may sound odd that anyone could turn down heaven. One of the most psychologically convincing books I’ve ever read about it was by C.S. Lewis. It’s called the Great Divorce, but don’t let the title put you off. Read it if you can find it. It is remarkably touching, and challenging, as various characters respond in different ways to the love, forgiveness, and self-acceptance that heaven offers.
For today’s parable has a very simple message. You are invited to be part of God’s Kingdom. It is an invitation to a thrilling journey with a wonderful destination. But like all invitations, you need to respond. Will you decide to come, and to make it your own by living that way? Don’t just display the invitation on the mantelpiece, come on in and join the party!