Saturday 30 June 2012

Am I called? (Matthew 22:1-14)

Questioning Jesus

Over the next five weeks, we are looking at a series of debates between Jesus and the religious experts of his day. Now I realise that a debate may not be all that exciting an event compared to say, the Euro 2012 finals happening tonight. We want action. We want to root for our favourite team. In comparison, a boring, intellectual discussion on doctrine and religious issues hardly makes for a fun night out with the guys at the pub.

Yet whenever I get a phone call or email saying to me, “Calvin, could we talk about something important, please?” I have yet to meet up with such a person only to end up talking about football. It is always something urgent. It is always personal.

These debates between Jesus and the religious teachers are not there to entertain us, though the topics of these debates certainly are intriguing: Why should I support a government I didn’t vote for? Isn’t the whole idea of resurrection from the dead nonsensical? Can you seriously believe that God had a Son and his name is Jesus? These are the topics that Jesus deals with, which we will be looking at closely in the coming weeks. They are all there in Chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel. They are interesting topics. They are intriguing issues. But more than that, they have eternal significance. The bible presents us with two ways to live. Just two. And what these debates are designed to do is reveal which team you’re rooting for. Which side you are really on.

The empty banquet

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
Matthew 22:1-3

Jesus tells a story about heaven and he says, “Think of a big wedding dinner with all the decorations laid out, all the food prepared, all the hundreds of waiters, chefs and cooking staff on the ready, but with not a single guest in sight.” The hall is empty not because everyone got the wrong date in their calendars, verse 3 says, but because “they refused to come”.

What would you do? What the main character of this story does is he sends out even more reminders. Look at verse 4.


Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”
Matthew 22:4

He sends out a copy of the menu - Roast duck! Lobster noodles! Abalone mushrooms! He says, “Tell them, all the food is ready. Just come!” But look at their reaction in verse 5, and notice there, two layers of responses to the king’s invitation.

But they paid no attention and went off - one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
Matthew 22:5-6

The first group just tears up the invite and goes back to watching the football. “We’ve got better things to do; more important things to do, than to spend Saturday night at a party - no matter how nice the food might be.” That’s the first response. And if we’re honest, we’ve all done this. We get loads of invites on Facebook which we just ignore. We conveniently chuck that wedding invitation card in the trash. “Can’t you see I’m a busy?”

The second group is more extreme. Verse 6: “They seized his servants, mistreated them,” - meaning, they physically abused and even tortured them - “and killed them.”

There are two levels of responses to the same invitation - one ignores it, the other violently rejects it - two very different responses; and that’s important to see because of what happens next. The king sends in his armies to punish both groups. He destroys their entire city. Look at verse 7.

Two responses, one rejection

The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Matthew 22:7

What’s going on? Understandably, a lot of people read this, they immediately get that Jesus is talking about God, and they object that the king is acting unfairly towards his subjects. “It’s just a dinner!” they might say. “I mean, if he was just punishing the guys who beat up the servants and killed them, that would make sense. But burning down the entire city? That’s going too far.” So the objection goes.

What is so valuable about this parable that it helps us understand what the bible means by sin. Jesus is teaching us that sinning against God means rebelling against the King. It’s not just breaking a rule. It’s not just being bad and sticking pieces of gum under the table in class. To sin is to say to God, “We don’t want you to be king over our lives.”

And this parable is designed to show us how all of us rebel against God in one of two ways - through idolatry or rejection. All of us rebel against God either through idolatry or rejection. What do I mean?

The first group of people, we read in verse 5, “went off” and by that, we think it means they paid no attention to the invitation. But Matthew adds the words, “one to his field, another to his business.” This last description is very emphatic in the Greek, as it literally reads, “to his own (idion) field or farm.” Meaning, they owned their own land. They owned their own business. That’s the emphasis. They were landowners and business owners. You see, the basis of comparison wasn’t the food - how lavish it was for the king to slaughter his cows and oxen or how amazing the evening entertainment was going to be. No, the comparison was that of wealth and power. “I have my own land. I have my own business. Who is the king to tell me what to do? I am my own king.” That’s idolatry. Idolatry is turning away from God to something else other than God and turning that thing into God.

Or, to put it another way: Idolatry is the worship of something less that God. When we use excuses like “I’m busy with work or study or even family issues to talk about God right now” - and I know how acceptable those excuses sound, even here in the Chinese Church sometimes - what we are really saying is, “Instead of worshipping God, I would rather worship my work. I would rather worship my studies. I would rather worship my family.” They are excuses we use to turn away from worshipping the true and living God. That’s the first way we rebel against God, through idolatry.

The second way is outright rejection. But I want you to see, that it is a rejection not simply of God himself - through violence, anger, murder. No, it is the rejection of his word. Notice again, who the people lash out against. It’s the messengers. It is the servants who bring the message of the king, again and again to these same people, calling the hearers to respond to the king’s invitation. The villagers didn’t grab their pitchforks and storm the castle in order to attack the king's army. Rather what they did was more cowardly, and at the same time, more sinister. They took their aggression out on the servants of the king. Literally, the word is douloi, which is the word for slaves: These weren’t soldiers. They were simple postmen carrying the same message. And by the villagers act of violence, they were sending a message back to the king which read, “We reject your word of invitation. We reject your command of authority.”

Together, these two responses constitute one act of rebellion against the authority of the king, which is why Jesus tells this parable. He is saying to the religious teachers and Pharisees, “Do you know who you are dealing with?” God is a king who graciously invites us into his presence. He calls us to celebrate the wedding of his son. He calls us to respond to his word of grace. When we reject his word it is because we are rebelling against his authority. When we reject the invitation to his son’s wedding, it is because we despise how much the king loves his son and we reject how much the king wants us to glorify him through his son.

City of God

The consequence of this rebellion is the complete destruction of the people and their city. Again, it is vital that we notice that judgement falls on two separate levels - the people and their city. The king sends in his army to punish the wrongdoers, those who killed his messengers (together with those who stood and let this happen). But he also burns down their city.

These series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders takes place at a specific time and place. Chapter 21 is a turning point in the whole gospel as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem as the long-awaited king riding on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah that this was the Messiah, the chosen king by God to bring order and salvation to the people of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital, not unlike London, it was the place where everything of significance happens - the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, the opening scenes of Apprentice. But more than that, Jerusalem was God’s city. This was the city of the great King David. This was the city of God’s temple where his presence dwelt, which bore his holy name.

And all the religious leaders and Pharisees would have instantly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the king destroying “their city”. He was talking about Jerusalem. It wasn’t their city, it was God’s. But by their idolatry - by their continual rejection of God’s word - Jerusalem, which historically was a focus of so much of God’s attention; which scripturally, was the focus of God’s revelation; which liturgically, was the centre of God’s worship and presence, this city was now the object of God’s shame and judgement. It had become their city not God’s.

If you look a few verses back to Chapter 21, and verse 45, we read, “When the chief priests and Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.” This parable was directed at people who were confident of their standing in God’s kingdom because of their position on earth. They were church leaders. These were the bible experts. And just in case we are quick to then assume that they weren’t consistent in their living or that they were too liberal in their thinking, we need to understand that the Pharisees were among the most zealous individuals known in history to apply God’s laws in everyday living. They memorised the five books of Moses (word for word, and that includes Leviticus!). Many served in the Temple court for generations. They observed all the cleanliness laws. They gave their tithes and offerings each week. They regarded God as holy, righteous and awesome. In many ways, the Pharisees were the evangelicals of their day. They were mainstream, respected, authoritative, biblical.

They were religious.

Answering the call

Yet through this parable, Jesus exposed how religion can actually lead us away from God. It can even lead us to rebel against God. We see this in the way the city-dwellers were repeatedly described as invited.

Verse 3: The king “sent his servants to those who had been invited”.
Verse 4: “Tell those who have been invited.”
Verse 8: “Those I invited did not deserve to come.”

The Greek word keklemenoi comes from the root word kaleo, which simply means “called”. These were the called ones. In fact, whenever we see the word “tell” in this parable, it is the exact same word for “call”. Meaning, the king send his servants again and again to call those who have been called. The parable is summed up at the end in verse 14, as “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

We misunderstand the word call today whenever we say, “I think God is calling me to be a pastor.” Or, “I feel God’s call for me to go to China.” And whenever we use the word “call” exclusively and primarily to mean some kind of mystical experience which spiritually authenticates God’s direction for our lives, we display that we are dangerously close to being in the same camp as the Pharisees and religious leaders Jesus addresses in this parable. They took God’s call for granted. They assumed by their status and religiosity and knowledge that therefore God was going to accept them based on their status, religiosity and knowledge.

And what they missed was God’s call as his gracious invitation to glorify him through his Son. For us today as the church - which means “called out” in Greek (ekklesia = ek [out] + kaleo [called]) - how much more does this parable remind us the importance of responding to God’s primary call to belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:6), and not to turn away because of idolatry or because of the rejection of his word. In other words, you might have been coming here to the Chinese Church for years. Week after week, you hear about Jesus. But have you ever RSVP’d his call to belong to his Son? Don’t mistake your attendance or even your long service record as your basis of acceptance before God. That was the danger of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Just because you are a musician. Just because you are a church leader. In fact, all the more because you are a leader, the bible is asking you, “Have you answered God’s call to be in Jesus Christ?”

Jesus is speaking to leaders, old-timers, Sunday School teachers. But then he turns to the rest of us to say, “How about you?” As we shall see (from verse 8 onwards), there is yet another invitation. The king sends out more servants, but now the call goes out to everyone, not just to the privileged few. It is a call from God to rejoice in Jesus Christ his Son. And what I want to put to you today is that this call isn’t just a call to be in heaven. Answering this call involves God’s plan for the church here on earth.

The good, the bad and the gospel

Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Matthew 22:8-10

“Go to the street corners,” says the king, “and call anyone you find.” The street corners (NIV) is not talking about the sidewalks (or street corners where you find a Starbucks, and the such) but actually describes “busy road”, that is, the roads the lead out of the city, where they turn into highways. The image then, is of these servants, going out as far as they can to the very edge of the kingdom to invite everyone and anyone they meet. Hence, by the end of the exercise, the entire wedding party is filled with every kind of person, verse 10 says, “both good and bad”.

This isn’t talking about heaven. I mean, it is talking about heaven, but it's not just heaven; it is describing God’s open, free and gracious invitation to enter his kingdom through Jesus Christ (the wedding banquet is for his Son, after all) and yet the action of the servants in “calling” is now coupled with “gathering” (sunagogon) all they could find. And that is a description of the church. The church is a gathering of God’s people in response to God’s word. God sends his word of invitation out and those who respond to his good news - his gospel - are gathered into his presence. Earlier, I mentioned that ekklesia was the New Testament word for the church, which literally meant those who were “called out”. In the Old Testament, however, the Hebrew Qahal refers to a “gathering”. And the two terms come together here in Jesus’ parable to describe, on one hand, God’s initiative in calling his church through the gospel (1 Peter 2:9, “God... who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”), and on the other, our response as the church of gathering around his word and around his Son (Acts 7:38, “The church/gathering in the desert... living words passed down to us”).

The question is: How do you know you have been called and have answered that call? The picture that Jesus gives us in this parable is the gathering of the called. It’s the church, which isn’t a building, but people. The church, which isn’t a gathering of good people, but both bad and good (The word “bad” actually occurs first - bad and good - as if to give it extra emphasis), meaning, it’s not because we have done anything to deserve God’s call. The church, which isn’t a gathering to do good things, but a gathering in response to the good news, did you notice that? What did they do there? It doesn’t tell us. What it does tell us, three times, is that God’s word goes out, and it is his word which brings his people in. What this teaches us is: God’s word gives birth to the church, not the other way around. The purpose of the church is not so much to preach God’s word, as much as the church is the product of the preaching of God’s word. This is important for church planting - you don’t plant a church by getting a bunch of people in order to preach to them. You preach God’s word and it calls people to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ. It means at times people will ignore, that’s what we see in the parable. It means there will be seasons of persecution, we also see that in the parable. But God keeps sending out his word, such that when people do respond to his word, he gathers them around Jesus and they are his church. They are the called ones.

This is counter-intuitive for many of us. We want to set up committees. We want to plan for budgets and search for the right building. And of course, in doing so we wouldn’t dream of leaving out bible study and preaching; we wouldn’t do that. And yet, Jesus teaches us through this parable that God’s word is primarily responsible for gathering his people as the church - not our programs, not our planning. Preaching isn’t simply the feeding of the flock. It’s not something you do as part of your Sunday program (“We have singing, then the offering, then the preaching”). This is something much more fundamental. God’s word produces God’s church, that’s what Jesus is saying. Meaning, when God’s word is absent from our gatherings or when the gospel takes a backseat in our meetings, you really have to start wondering if those who are gathered here in God’s name are truly God’s people.

I understand that we need to find the right people. I know that many of us pray for God to send us the right guy. But hasn’t God given us his word? The ones who carry them are douloi - slaves. Their job is simply to repeat that word and to deliver the message. It is not the messenger, but the message that gathers the guests into the banquet. The messenger is often ignored, he might be rejected, he might even be killed. God sends more servants, carrying that same message, “Come in. Rejoice in Jesus, his Son. Trust in his offer of forgiveness, grace and glory. Everything has been prepared.”

The result is a full house. “The wedding hall was filled with guests” (verse 10). Full of Chinese? No. Full of Cambridge students? No. Full of the bad and the good. Full of those from near and far. Full of people who weren’t part of the initial guest list. Full of people you would never expect to be at such a fancy affair. That is the church. The question is: Is it ours? If we keep on preaching the gospel, it will be. “Go to the street corners and call anyone and everyone.” That’s a very risky thing to do. It is a scary thing to do. And yet it is precisely what God calls us to do. Why? So that we can have a great big church and lots of people will hear about the English congregation which meets in the middle of nowhere? No, because God has done all the preparations to bring all glory to his Son. The king says again and again, “I have prepared my dinner. I have slaughtered my cattle. The banquet is ready.” He has done everything. He has paid for everything. He has done all this for the sake of his Son, and the message is sent out to all who will respond to join him in rejoicing over his Son.

We speak the gospel to the end-roads, to anyone we can find, to the good and bad, to bring glory to Jesus Christ. That’s the last lesson we see in the parable, and it might be the hardest one yet. It would be great if the story ended here: the guests having a good time, the king satisfied that his event is a success, everyone living happily ever after. Instead, we read about one guy who gets thrown out. Instead, we read about final judgement.

Wedding clothes

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. “Friend,” he said, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless.

Then the king told his attendants, “Tie him hand and food, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 22:11-13

What are we to make of this? The king notices a guy who doesn’t have his tux on and decides to throw him out of the party. How can that be fair? Weren’t the servant given instructions to invite anyone and everyone to the party - irrespective of whether they were bad or good? Perhaps this was a poor homeless man, it would have been unfair to expect him to turn up in a dinner jacket and black tie, wouldn’t it?

Yet, that’s not even the half of it. The king orders the attendants to tie the poor guy up and throw him outside, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This phrase occurs several times in Matthew’s gospel, always as an allusion to Hell and eternal punishment. It is a picture of extreme sorrow (weeping) together with extreme anger and resentment (gnashing of teeth, see Matthew 13:42 [The parable of the weeds], 13:50 [The parable of the net], 24:51 [The parable of the wicked servant], 25:30 [The parable of the talents]).

First of all, notice that the king comes specifically to meet with his guests (verse 11). They aren’t just a faceless crowd there to fill the empty seats. This king is actually interested in who they are and wants to see each guest face to face. But as he does so he comes across one individual who isn’t dressed in the proper attire: he doesn’t have “wedding clothes” - which isn’t a reference to expensive clothes, but rather, clean clothes. Notice how when asked, this man didn’t have a proper excuse - verse 12 says, “He was speechless”. He didn’t say, “I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have it. I didn’t know.” But rather, by his speechlessness, it implies that he didn’t bother, he wasn’t bothered, and he didn’t care, not even to put on a clean t-shirt. He turned up presuming on graciousness of the king. He thought he could hide in the crowd.

On the surface, it seems superficial. It implies that God is looking for decorum, that the king was looking for an external quality - wedding clothes - that made his guests suitable and acceptable. Yet, the bible repeatedly uses the change of clothing as a picture of what happens when God covers us with the external, outer righteousness of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel describes how God clothes his bride with fine linen and costly garments (Ezekiel 16:10). Paul calls on believers to put off the old sinful nature and to put on the new, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). Elsewhere, he tells us to clothe ourselves with Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14). In each and every one of these references, God clothes the Christian believer with an external beauty and righteousness, something we did not earn or deserve, rather it is because of everything Jesus did for us on the cross, that makes us acceptable before the King of the universe, and God our heavenly Father. In fact, when God looks at the believer clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, it means he looks upon this former rebel and sinner, as he does his own Son. In Jesus, we are truly and wholly loved by the Father.

Friend of sinners

One last thing. I find it is interesting how the King addresses the man as, “Friend.” At first glance, it may appear that the king is simply playing the gracious host. He doesn’t say, “Hey you!” He calls this man, who has presumed upon the king’s invitation, his friend. And though the man was inappropriately dressed, the king still gives him the opportunity to respond to the charge.

The particular word used here in the king’s address of “Friend” (hetaire), occurs only three times in the New Testament, and all three are found here in Matthew’s gospel. In the first two instances, here and back in Chapter 20 (as part of the parable of the workers), spoken by a ruler addressing his servants with gentleness, in a moment of tension addressing an audience that is antagonistic towards the speaker. So, in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20, the workers confront their boss. The grumble against him and gang up against him. The landowner says to one of them, "Friend."

Interestingly, in the third and last instance in Matthew's gospel, we find this address of "Friend," used by Jesus Christ himself. It occurs a few pages on in Chapter 26. There in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is betrayed by his disciple, Judas Iscariot. He is betrayed by his friend.

Judas arrived with a mob, armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and elders. Perhaps thinking he could catch Jesus off-guard, Judas devised a plan.

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him. Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”
Matthew 26:48-50

Jesus addresses his betrayer as, “Friend.” You see, Jesus knows precisely what this friend of his has in store for him. Yet unlike the parable of the wedding banquet, it isn’t the “friend” who is bound and thrown out in the darkness. Instead, Jesus would be the one who was arrested, it would be his hands and feet that was bound, it was Jesus would was interrogated and put on trial. Jesus would be stripped of his clothes, stripped of all his dignity and hung on the cross. And it would be Jesus, near the end of his life, who would be alone in dark, as he cried out on the cross to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)

On the cross, Jesus bore our punishment for sin and rebellion. He was thrown into the darkness. He bore our nakedness and shame. And it is this act of sacrifice and friendship shown by Jesus Christ on the cross, from which we receive our righteousness, from which we are clothed in holiness, through which we are loved as sons and daughters of God.

Many are called

Jesus ends his parable with these words:

For many are invited (or called), but few are chosen.
Matthew 22:14

It is an unexpected conclusion. I would have expected him to have said, “For many are called, but few answer the call.” Isn’t that the consistent picture we get from the parable? The king sends out invite after invite, but not everyone responds? Not everyone takes it seriously?

Or, some of us would have expected Jesus to say, “For many are called, but few are live up to the call”, thinking of the guy without the wedding clothes, as a parable of those who presume on God’s call and don’t take it seriously.

But no, Jesus says, “Few are chosen.” Meaning, salvation is God’s prerogative from start to finish. Salvation is God’s grace in calling as well as in choosing. The word “chosen” is the same word elsewhere translated as “elected”. it is saying that God is the one who calls us into his presence and God is the one who enables us by his Spirit to answer that call. It is a totally unexpected conclusion to the parable!

What does this mean for us as Christians today?

1. God has prepared everything for our salvation
Salvation is entirely at God’s initiative and expense. The king repeatedly says, “The wedding banquet is ready. I have prepared my dinner. My oxen and cattle have been slaughtered.” And for us as Christians, God even clothes us with his righteousness in Jesus Christ, to make us acceptable in his presence. God has prepared all, done all, sacrificed all to ensure our entrance into his kingdom and our continued faithfulness to him as our King.

2. God’s call is the good news of his Son
“The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus tells us, “is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.” It isn’t simply about the food, in fact, it isn’t at all about the blessings or the food. It is all about the king’s son. God plan of salvation is for all creation to recognise the glory of his one and only Son. He sends out messenger after messenger with the same good news, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

3. Rejection of Jesus is at the heart of our sinful rebellion against God
Jesus spoke this parable against the Pharisees and religious leaders, not simply to expose their double-standards, but to reveal how their rejection of him was indicative of their rejection of God. Through idolatry, the leaders had chosen to make God’s salvation about themselves; trusting in their privilege, their heritage, their traditions and their own status. Through pride and rebellion, they would initiate the murder of Jesus by condemning him to death on the cross, because they rejected Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah.

4. God's call is sovereign and gracious
It doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for our actions. But it does mean that salvation is by grace from start to finish. For you to have heard the gospel, and for it to have made sense in your hearts and minds that, “Jesus Christ really did die for me on the cross,” - that is God’s gracious call to you and me. And for you to respond, “God, please forgive and change me through the cross,” - that, too is God’s grace working in you. It means, we should never take the gospel for granted, but always seek to hear and be changed by the message of forgiveness and reconciliation offered to us by God in his Son.

As Christians today, we sometimes obsess over the question, “Have I been called?” thinking that it is our calling that sets us apart as special or unique in God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus brings our attention back to the God who calls and the God who enables us to answer that call, first and foremost, as a call to respond to his salvation in Jesus Christ. He sends out his word - the gospel - calling everyone and anyone to turn to him in repentance and to rejoice in his Son. He sends out his servants to speak the gospel clearly and faithfully, calling his people to give their lives in obedience and love to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. This is the God who calls us out of darkness into his wonderful light, who calls his enemies his friends, who calls sinful rebels his sons and daughters making them holy and clothing them with righteousness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, his Son, on the cross.

Hear the call of the kingdom
Lift your eyes to the King
Let His song rise within you
As a fragrant offering
Of how God rich in mercy
Came in Christ to redeem
All who trust in His unfailing grace

King of Heaven we will answer the call

We will follow bringing hope to the world
Filled with passion, filled with power to proclaim
Salvation in Jesus' name

“Hear the call of the kingdom”, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

No comments: