“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness”

Washington National Cathedral

 

Do these words of Jesus offend our sense of justice and fairness? Jesus uses them in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:2-14). Those invited to the banquet not only refuse to come, they make light of the invitation and even kill the king’s servants who delivered the invitations. So, the king sends his troops and has them destroyed, then he sends his servants out into the streets to invite everyone else they can find. The servants bring in the good and the bad, until the wedding hall is filled. When the king comes in to survey his guests, his eyes fix on one man who has ignored the dress code. The king shows no mercy and orders the attendants to “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Before looking at this parable in more detail, it is important to note that in the Sunday lectionary it is coupled with a passage from the prophet Isaiah speaking of the abundant providence of God for all peoples (28th Sunday, Year A): “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast rich food… he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:6-10). Earlier in the passage the prophet says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around, they all gather together, they come to you” (60:3-4). The prophet’s words transcend his time and take hold of a dream written in the depth of the hearts of all people, of every generation, place and faith. So many people are in need of a peaceful life; many desire to set out toward a new future; all need to get out of a shameful situation.

The prophet says that a banquet has already been prepared and that God is the one who has set the table. That is to say that life, peace and fellowship are already prepared. It is God who gives all these things to us as a gift. They are not so far off that we should despair of having them, or so high and unattainable that we cannot reach them. They are within our reach. The real problem lies in our refusal to accept the invitation and go toward that mountain to participate in the banquet of life and peace. The obstacles we encounter are that we become distracted, preoccupied by our ‘things’, we fail to consider the invitation and we even despise the gifts on offer to us. The defence of our personal interests at every cost and at any price distances us from peace and fellowship. In this sense, the meaning of the parable of the banquet is obvious. The protagonist of the parable, the king, who, having prepared a wedding banquet for his son and sends out invitations meets resistance. Everyone has something else they should be doing: tending a field, attending to other, more important, business; all agree in refusing the invitation.

The king is nothing if not persistent. Once more he sends his servants out, renewing the invitation. This time, those who are called not only dismiss the invitation but abuse and even kill the king’s servants. This is what happens every time we push the Gospel off to the margins and expel it from our life. In the face of such an incredible reaction, the king, feeling disdained, has the assassins punished. In truth, they are the ones who inflict self-punishment by excluding themselves from the banquet of life, peace and love. Undeterred, the king does not abandon his desire for guests, he sends other servants with orders to turn to everyone they meet on the streets and in the squares without discrimination, “good and bad” alike. It does not matter to God how we are; all that matters is that we are there. It is not the pure and holy who are in the hall; everyone is there. Jesus says that everyone is invited and whoever arrives is welcomed. It does not matter if one has many or few merits, nor if one feels righteous or not, in that banquet hall one cannot distinguish who is saint and who is sinner, who is pure and who is impure. What matters is having “the wedding robes”. “Ay, there’s the rub!”

According to the custom of the time in the East, the guest, whoever it may be, was welcomed with every honour: the guest would be washed and robed before being conducted to the banquet hall. Whoever shunned this custom showed that they did not accept the hospitality on offer, that somehow they had the right to attend as if they were the ones who were in charge of the event and, therefore, to dress as they please. Whereas, those who are invited must accept the obligations which go with it, act as someone worthy of this invitation, and we should understand that the wedding robes represent God’s love which is poured out over us, covering all our faults and weaknesses. This one guest who ignores the dress code shows contempt for God’s love and faces the consequences of his refusal of grace.

At first sight this parable is shocking, it is over the top, it is exaggerated, but its purpose is simply this, it is a wake-up call. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, God has a plan for this bankrupt world. When Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a wedding banquet, he revealed that God is at work in the world in order to take us all to the final Kingdom in which no one will feel isolated, no one will feel excluded, no one will go away hungry or thirsting, and where there will be plenty of buzz, excitement and every one will get a lift. If that sounds too pie in the sky, it is vital that we remember that God’s plan for our humanity requires that we work with God in the here and now to realise it. Complacency is not an option. All Christians accept the call to follow the way of Christ and build the Kingdom when they are baptised and confirmed. But accepting God’s call is like graduating from University. Graduation is not the end of the learning process, only the launching pad for further learning. So too our baptism and confirmation should be the inauguration of our commitment to build the Kingdom of God, a process that requires a constant, lifetime updating.

The vision of God for the world as a fellowship of nations is to some extent unrealisable in our lifetime. Brexit and the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere, clearly manifested in increased Russian aggression, the devastation and cruelty evidenced in Syria, Yemen etc, have taught us that. It will remain a matter of hope. As we work towards the realisation of God’s abundance, we have to live with its absence. The biblical scholar, José Antonio Pagola says of this passage, “Satisfied with our prosperity, deaf to anything other than our own immediate interests, we do not need God. Are we not gradually getting used to living without a final hope in anything?” He concludes: “But now it is necessary to go to the street corners, where so many people hang around, those who have no lands or businesses, those whom no one has ever invited for anything. They, more than anyone else, will appreciate the invitation. They can remind us of the ultimate need we have for God. They can teach us to hope.” [1]

Benedict Luckhurst

[1] Following in the Footsteps of Jesus, Meditations on the Gospels for Year A. José Antonio Pagola. Convivium Press. Series Ministeria, 2010.

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