The King of heaven calls everyone

* This hymn, a meditation on Jesus’ double parable of the Wedding Feast, challenges the convention that the human freedom to choose is the highest value. All people, everywhere, are called to behave well in all circumstances;  none is free to opt out.


The King of heaven calls everyone.midi


The double parable that is the source for this hymn has from time to time been used to exclude people from church who were considered unsuitable. In some places, perhaps it still is. For, taken at face value, the parable is about sorting out unsuitable people from everyone else. These unworthy souls are promised a future in outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 I take the view that the double parable does not confer authority to decide who is worthy and who isn’t. The emphasis is on the summons to each person to respond gratefully and respectfully to the invitation to the feast. Each person is to prepare thoroughly; a casual approach is not acceptable. But no one may presume to know the truth of another’s soul, and part of right preparation is taking the log out of (one’s) own eye rather than worrying about the speck in your neighbour’s eye (Matthew 7.1-5).

The hymn is a meditation on Matthew’s double parable, and draws on other New Testament material as well. The story of the parable is simply re-told, but with a good deal of comment built into the narrative.

Verse one establishes that there is no one who is not invited to the feast. But, where the parable speaks of the kingdom of heaven being compared to a king, the hymn unequivocally names the king as ‘the king of heaven’. Similarly, instead of the wedding feast given for the king’s son, the hymn names the son as ‘Jesus’; the feast is to mark his marriage. In this first verse, therefore, Matthew’s similitude becomes an openly “ecclesial…deeply christological…sacramental…and profoundly moral”[1] piece of teaching. It is about the church being ordered to wait upon God’s summons, for God’s provision, about believing Jesus of Nazareth to be God’s son, about the life of the baptised and fellowship at the Lord’s table, and about practising maximum respect for grace in all creation.

In verse two the hymn comments on the meaning of Jesus’ marriage feast: ‘Love and life are wed’ (where ‘love’ is God incarnate and ‘life’ is the creaturely necessity of coupling in order to reproduce), and no one may ‘break this sacred bond’. By using the metaphors of ‘love’ and ‘life’, Christian conviction is universalised: everyone is summoned to the feast. Not espousing Christian faith gives licence to no one to abuse this high summons. The hymn thus challenges the convention that the freedom to choose represents human dignity at its highest. A higher calling is to behave well in all circumstances. It is to appear ‘with heart well dressed’[2] before the bar of truth.

Verse three draws on St Paul’s proclamation that in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2.13). It also uses a dramatic theme from the Song of Mary in Luke 1.51b-52: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Thus the hymn makes plain what is only implicit in Matthew’s double parable: that “the cross” is integral to the forging of the union between love and life.

What makes the parable hard to hear are the last two verses, for they teach that there is no mercy for those who fail to take the king’s invitation with full seriousness. The hymn therefore underlines each person’s need not to ‘profane this holy meal, nor slight the grace of heaven’. Without revelling in the colourful imagery of the parable, the hymn asserts that ‘God’s truth admits of no appeal’, no excuse. Having no reason to doubt the assertion that many are called, but few are chosen (22.14), the writer takes no view of who is meant by the few. The hymn instead simply exhorts each person to ‘be Christ’s welcome’, an intentionally ambiguous phrase that calls on each of us together both to welcome God in Christ and to flesh forth the welcome extended to every creature by their Creator and Saviour.

[1] Leonard R.Klein in The Lectionary Commentary ed.Roger E.Harn. London: Continuum. Vol 3 p 128

[2] The phrase “well dressed” is from the sonnet ‘Prayer’ by George Herbert (1593-1633)