This Friday, Bishop Cameron Venables spoke at our city Peace Forum on the subject of ‘Building Bridges – Sharing Humanity - Everyone Matters’. As a visual illustration he brought a teapot. Why a teapot? Well, what do we do we with a teapot? We make a cup of tea, don't we? Making a cup of tea, sharing hospitality, even with those very different from us – isn’t this a very simple but powerful way to build bridges, share our common humanity, and ensure that everyone matters? That is certainly my experience, not least recently. The Islamic Society literally offered a cup of tea in friendship recently to myself and other community leaders. A week yesterday, on St Francis’ day, Dawn and Phil helped reciprocate,, by offering afternoon tea to our Muslim friends, as we recalled Francis’ prophetic meeting of peace with the Sultan in the midst of the Crusades. This week, it was a wonderful delight for some of us to share a table together with our Palestinian Christian visitor, with Jews, Muslims and many others, in a Buddhist monastery of all places. This is part of what it is to be a city of peace and harmony in our troubled contemporary world. So who will each of us share a cup of tea with this week? Who will be at our table? For sharing the infinite hospitality of God: this is the heart of the good news of Jesus, even if today’s Gospel story seems (Matthew 22.1-15) to sit a little oddly with it….
Now, is the king in the story like the God of Jesus? What do you think? Many scholars over the centuries have tried to reconcile the two. They have thought that Jesus was using the story to show what happens when we ignore God’s invitation, or do not treat it seriously. So they have gone to great lengths – often highly creative lengths - to try to find God in all the violence and bullying, exclusion and self-centredness of the king. Sometimes, along the way, they have even come up with some helpful suggestions and insights for us. Certainly the Church, from fairly early on, often came to view this story as a kind of allegory of what Christians saw happening in the story of God and God’s people. The first party invitees, for example, began to be viewed as the Jews, the first people whom God invited to his party, who didn’t respond to the message properly. Then everyone, Jews and Gentiles of all kinds and backgrounds were invited. Yet they too didn’t always step up to the mark. So God, according to this reading, became angry with them too.
What do you think? As I say, there are nuggets of truth and value to be found among such creative interpretations. However my feeling is that it doesn’t work terribly well. For is the God of Jesus really like the intensely self-regarding and violent and king in Jesus’ story? Is this the God of Love who serves others, washes their feet, and heals their faults and ills rather than punishing them for them? Such a picture of God is hard to reconcile with the king in our story, isn’t it? Perhaps we therefore need to start again. Certainly scholars are increasingly suggesting to us that we should look again at this story with fresh eyes. Instead of thinking primarily about what the Church has made of the story, maybe we should ask what Jesus was intending when he first told it. For could it be that Jesus was not telling a story about God at all but simply a story about a worldly king? If so, the story makes a great deal more sense and truly does lead us to the good news of Jesus.
Forget therefore for a moment about trying to see God as the king in today’s Gospel story. Just ponder the story again and think about what you feel about the king. He is not very impressive, is he? He is a tyrant, a bully, selfish, vindictive and violent. This, Jesus says, is how human leaders often are. God however is different. Arda, our Palestinian visitor this week, put it this way. We must replace, she said, the love of power with the power of love. Think about it. Isn’t that what we see in Jesus? We don’t see someone in love with power, like the king in today’s Gospel story. We see someone full of the power of love, like God in Godself. And that is wonderful good news.
When we find a difficult text in the Bible, or in the Qu’ran, or other books regarded as holy, it is always good for us to look at them in context: in the wider context of other texts around them; in the wider context of the holy book as a whole; and, above all, in the full context of what we know and have experienced of God as a whole. Then, even the most difficult texts, can begin to make a great deal more sense. Take today’s Gospel story. It sits in the context of the final confrontation of Jesus with his enemies. The previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey, as a very different kind of king from that of today’s story. For just before today’s story, and immediately after it, Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with what constitutes true authority. So perhaps what we see in today’s Gospel story is therefore a deliberate contrast to the picture of Jesus on a donkey. Jesus is saying that kings and politicians may behave like that: for he is anticipating, rightly, that they will act that way to him. That is what the love of power brings human beings to. Yet the power of love offers us another way.
So let us indeed make a cup of tea, not just for ourselves and those like us, but for everyone. Let’s share God’s spirit of hospitality: that spirit we see in Jesus, who shared meals and fellowship with people of all kinds of backgrounds, religious outlooks, races and reputations. Let’s join in God’s party, which is for everyone, however we look and whatever we are wearing. And let’s go out into the streets and invite others in too.
One of the most beautiful contemporary worship expressions of this spirit of Jesus is that by the New Zealand writer Shirley Erena Murray in her hymn ‘For everyone born a place at the table’. (You’ll find the full words here). Shirley wrote it, she says, inspired by the UN Declaration of Human Rights and by involvement in Amnesty International. It was suggested to me by Bishop Cameron as a possible hymn to add to our own repertoire as we seek to put the kettle on and share hospitality with others. So let us rejoice in her words which point us to the love of God in Jesus, a king like none other:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
For woman and man… for young and for old, a place at the table:
all with 'voices to be heard and with parts in God’s song',
For God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
though Jesus Christ, present among us at all our feasts at the table of true life, Amen.