Fierce Conversations  is the title of a book I keep on my bookshelf and dip into quite often. My family tell me I shouldn’t read this book, they think my conversations are fierce enough. But the book is not about scary conversations but about real, honest, straight conversations. Conversations where people speak their mind, tell the truth, listen carefully, and reflect on what they hear. These kinds of conversations are harder than they look.
Jesus’ parable this morning is a conversation with the Pharisees and the first Christians. And it is more than a fierce conversation; it s a pretty scary conversation. It paints a scary picture of the judgment and wrath of God. Jesus tells this parable in the days before his death. He has arrived in Jerusalem, thrown the money changers out of the Temple, and goes to the Temple each day to teach. The Pharisees and Temple officials are getting more hostile and Jesus does not shy away from winding them up either. Today’s parable is the third for the day and each one gets stronger in its condemnation. He is on a collision course with the authorities.
The parable has layers of meaning which would have resonated when heard by the community for whom Matthew was writing. In this parable there is not only the clash with the Pharisees but a warning for the first Christians as well. The parable starts off like many of Jesus’ parables: there was a king who invited people to the wedding of his son. Like the parable of the wedding with ten bridesmaids; or the parable of the father who had two sons; or the landowner working his vineyard; parables of everyday life and happenings.
The king sends out the slaves to call the guests to the feast (that was how it was done, no texts or email); the guests would have had warning of the invitation a few weeks earlier; and now they are called – come all is ready. But some do not wish to come, they are not interested; and others kill the messengers. Suddenly the parable has turned nasty, it is no longer an ordinary story. This is the first refusal; the listeners understand that Jesus is talking about the people of Israel who did not listen to the prophets who were sent to tell them about God. They were disinterested and even hostile to the word of God. (We need to note here that this parable has been used in the past by the church to form a negative view of those who follow the Jewish faith which of course we would avoid doing. In Matthew’s day he is writing in a context of increasing hostility and danger for the early Christians and so he marks out rather starkly their choices and identity.)
Back to the parable: And then the city of the people who have refused the invitation is destroyed by the king’s troops – quite an escalation; like the people of Israel being sent into exile and the first destruction of the Temple in 587 BC; or for Matthew the destruction of the second Temple in 70AD by the Romans. These events pivotal to the history of the people would have been obvious to Matthew’s audience.
Then the king sends the slaves to invite other guests; no longer the chosen ones, but any one who will come, passers by, tourists, the poor, all those who didn’t make the first list. And they came; for sure they were thrilled to be invited by the king; fancy that being invited to the king’s son’s wedding; how cool is that.
Matthew’s listeners would have seen themselves in this part of the parable. They are guests invited in by Jesus; many of the people of Israel have not responded to the invitation and the first Christians have responded. They are in; they are at the wedding feast.
But ... the king comes into the party and there is a man who is not wearing a wedding robe and he is thrown out. This is the second refusal to respond to the invitation. Seems pretty unfair, the guests have been invited in off the street, they haven’t had time to put their best clothes on, they have come as they are.
Commentators over the years have puzzled over this part of the parable because the fact that someone is thrown out of the kingdom seems incongruous with the rest of the inclusive teaching of Jesus. St Augustine said that in Jesus’ time guests were given robes at the door to put on and refusing the robe was an offence to the host; but there is no evidence that this was in fact part of the culture of the time. 
There is though a parable from a rabbi teaching in the year 80 (about the time Matthew might have been writing) that goes like this: “A king issued invitations to a banquet without saying what time the banquet would be.
The wise attired themselves, while the foolish went on with their work. Suddenly the summons came, and those and those who were not dressed in clean clothes were not admitted to the banquet.”  The wedding clothes are said by the rabbi to be the clothes of repentance, to be worn before the summons comes for the day of judgment.
Think too of the images from scripture of being clothed in the garments of the kingdom: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:2)
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (Gal 3:27)
“As God’s chose ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” (Col 3:12) And what happens to the wayward son, the prodigal son who returns to his father after squandering his inheritance? his father says “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24) These images inspire the words of the hymn Come down O love divine: “Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, and lowliness became mine inner clothing”.
The wedding robe the guest had refused to wear is the call of Christ to clothe ourselves in humility, grace, forgiveness. To clothe ourselves in the grace of God, to accept God’s forgiveness, and to do so before the call comes to present ourselves at the wedding banquet.
There is in this parable a time of decision, a time when we are called to be in or out; to accept the robe of grace, or not. The images of this parable are violent – the kings sends his troops to war; and the guest is thrown onto outer darkness. We find these images to be pretty distasteful, we like Jesus’ parables to be images of peace and light. But the violence and the hostility were part of the reality of his world.
Matthew’s community are yearning back to the time when some of them had sat at table with Jesus “Remember how it felt at the table, he seems to say, even as the threat of violence and the vagaries of community continue to swirl around them. We will feast again.” 
We yearn in our world too for a peaceful table where all are welcome: If you are a Palestinian father today wanting to throw a wedding banquet for your son’s wedding and you live in the West Bank and the rest of your family live in the Gaza strip no matter how many invitations you sent to your family, they would not be able to come to the wedding because of the travel restrictions and the wall dividing the communities in Israel/Palestine today.
If you are a mother bringing up children on your own in one of Auckland’s poorer neighbourhoods and you want to throw a simple birthday party for your daughter; you might find that none of her friends can come because they are embarrassed they cannot afford a present or something pretty to wear.
What are the things that stop people from coming to the party today – the same things – violence and poverty.
And how do we ensure all can be invited to the party – first of all by knowing that all are invited to God’s feast – people can refuse the invitation, we can refuse it. We who are churchgoers and who gather at the table of Jesus each week can fool ourselves into thinking we are amongst the righteous because of our good deeds, our right beliefs, our recycling and our support of charities. Think about what we might clothe ourselves in – mercy and humility, grace and love. Not the arrogance of the one who thinks they have no need of changing; that there is nothing in our lives which needs addressing or improving.
And then we pay attention to the people around us and those who can be invited to the party here and now – to our eucharist on a Sunday or to a time of hospitality and care which we might offer.
God’s kingdom, God’s way is not something that happens at the end of time, it happens here and now.
And we and all those we know are invited. Jesus’ parable is a fierce parable, even a scary one.
There is a possibility we might get thrown out of the party. But what we need to do to be included is not a long list of good deeds and good works, but to put on the robe of grace. To accept the robe of grace, the best robe, offered to us freely by Christ himself. Then we are welcome to stay at the party which lasts through eternity.
 Susan Scott, 2002, Berkley, New York
 p 418, NIB Matthew commentary
 The Parables of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias, 1989, SCM Press, p. 188
 Richard Spalding, p. 168, Feasting on the Word, vol 4, year A