Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered allwhom they found, both good and bad; so the weddinghall was filled with guests. (Matthew 22:10)
Back in primary school, I read a lot of books. Most I’ve forgotten, but I remember reading Roald Dahl’s “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory”. Do you know the story? There’s a sweet factory owned by the reclusive Willy Wonka and nobody’s been inside it for years. Five golden tickets are sent out inside the wrappers of sweets to invite the recipients on a tour of the factory. One of the children who receives a golden ticket is Charlie Bucket who, after a number of adventures winds up owning the factory.
There are similarities and there are differences between the parable Jesus tells and the story of Charlie Bucket, and I’ll get to some of them. For the moment it’s worth reflecting on why Matthew has chosen to record this parable of Jesus at this point. It’s one of a sequence of parables he’s set down over the course of two chapters or so in his Gospel - the labourers in the vineyard, the tenants of the vineyard and now this one. In the midst of them he records Jesus cursing the fig tree. All these share a common theme.
Matthew was a Jewish Christian. For centuries the Jews had been the chosen people of God: they had received his promises and believed themselves to be under his protection. They had read prophecies like those of Isaiah that spoke of all peoples coming to God’s holy mountain and understood that one day they - the people of God - would be top of the heap. What Jewish Christians were coming to understand, though, is that a strain in Jewish thinking had come to take things for granted. There was a strain of Jewish thinking that said if you were circumcised that put you right with God and made you part of his chosen people. There were others that reckoned if you made all the right sacrifices and attended all the festivals that put you right with God and made you part of his chosen people. There were others who reckoned if you just obeyed all the rules - the commands of the Torah - that put you right with God and made you part of his chosen people.
Trouble is, you can be circumcised and not commit an act of generosity in your entire life. You can carry out all the sacrifices - or turn up to church on a Sunday morning - and not give the needs of others on this planet a second thought. You can follow the ten commandments - or whatever rules you want - and never show a single person what the love of God is about. You can follow all the forms of religion and not live the kind of life that reflects the love of God for his children. You can be a fig tree that does not yield figs. You can be invited by God to his party and turn him down.
Why Matthew puts all these parables together is he’s saying that the true chosen people of God are those who accept God’s invitation to yield good fruit: to be the kind of people and to live the kind of life he wants us to live and - at the time Matthew was writing - it seemed to him that increasingly the folk who were taking up that offer were not Jews - they were the outsiders: the goyim.
So much for the situation when Matthew was writing. What does this parable mean for us today? In the parable, after the king has rejected the folk who refused his invitation, he sends out more invitations. He sends his servants out into the streets with his invitation. Here’s where, in a sense, the golden tickets of Roald Dahl come in. They are indiscriminate. They aren’t sent out to specific people of a particular type or race of whatever. They go out to anyone who finds them. In the same way the invitation of God to follow in his way goes out to everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. It doesn’t matter what a person’s done in their life, through the grace of God in Jesus Christ they can be washed clean and given another chance any time they need it. It doesn’t matter where a person comes from, what their background is, what language they speak or what the colour of their skin is. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor or important or not in the eyes of the world. The love of God in Jesus Christ reaches out to one and all inviting them to come home to him and to spend eternity in his presence, bound together in love with all those who have accepted that invitation.
That’s you. It’s me. It’s everyone, in their billions across the face of the globe right at this moment - and maybe not just Christians, perhaps - who respond to God’s call and invitation. What, though, are we to make of the guy in the parable who turns up without a wedding robe and is turfed out? This is someone who hasn’t made himself ready for the party. He hasn’t made himself ready forHeaven. He’s like the kids in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory - they’ve turned up with their greed and their selfishness and they get turfed out.
How do you get ready for Heaven? By living here and now as if you already lived there. By living the kind of life that speaks of what the love of God and the kingdom of Heaven are all about. If we look forward to spending eternity bathed in the light of Heaven then we should spend our time here on Earth getting ready for that by letting a little of that light into the world around us. If we look forward to spending eternity in peace, we should get ready for that by living in peace with those around us. If we look forward to spending eternity surrounded by love then we should get ready for that by loving others.
Because the Christian faith is about more than coming to church on a Sunday -not that I’m knocking that - or about following a whole bunch of rules or accepting a whole bunch of beliefs. It’s about accepting the golden ticket: it’s about accepting God’s invitation to be what we’re meant to be - light for the world and salt for the earth. It’s about living lives that show what really matters in this world.
This is the golden ticket God sends out indiscriminately to anyone who finds it.The chance to reflect an idea in this world: the idea that everybody matters. The chance to speak up for the poor and forgotten when the world bangs on about the Kardashians. The chance to make choices when you do something as simple as go to the shop that mean that folk aren’t forced to work in sweatshops or to sell their crops at prices that won’t feed their kids or see them through school. The chance to reach across the barriers the world throws up and take the hand of your brothers and sisters - whatever their race or language or region or culture. The chance to shine in the world with the light of Heaven itself. The chance to wear that robe.
This is the golden ticket. It’s the chance God offers you and me and everyone:the chance not just to accept his invitation but to be his invitation. In the way that you deal with those around you - through simple acts of kindness and words of support for those who need it, you can reflect the love of God in the world. Andone day you and I will dwell for eternity with those who got the golden ticket from us.
Lord we accept your invitation to the feast. Help us to get ready for it by living the kind of life you want us to lead: lives that mark us out as your children
Preached at Gretna Old parish church