Why do people reject the invitation to the best party in town?
Are good manners in decline in Britain today? If you were an opinion pollster I think you would find a large majority answering yes. But if good manners are so broadly in decline, some of the people who say they are in decline must be guilty of contributing to it. This is human nature in a nutshell. We are highly attuned to the failings of others but largely ignorant of our own.
The new technologies have made their own contribution to the loss of decorum. There are no pre-existing customs surrounding them and in a less courteous era few are being created.
Take for example the mobile phone. At the risk of sounding like Jeremy Clarkson with a hangover the way this wonderful invention is used has the capacity to annoy. People who talk loudly and without any self-awareness into their phones in public places about the most mundane and sometimes the most embarrassing of issues; people who interrupt a conversation to answer a ring-tone without an apology; people who write text messages in company without any explanation to the people they are with. Many of us – me included – are implicated here. In this way technology which allows us to reach people far away may have helped to cut us off from those who are nearby.
The decline in manners has affected older social customs as well. Take the RSVP invitation. Many party hosts find that the RSVP card is simply ignored, leaving them guessing at how many people to cater for. Some don’t respond but unashamedly turn up at the door anyway. Others say they are going to come but don’t turn up. Still others ring you up on the day – after you’ve been shopping – to say they’ll be there after all. So much planning goes into the hosting of a big function that the host cannot afford the RSVP to become an unreliable tool. And yet many of us - me included again - have contributed to this outcome.
There is therefore a contemporary ring to the parable Jesus taught in Matthew 22: 1-14 about the invitation to a wedding banquet. The spurning of the invitation by a wide range of people would have been a ruder affront than even we suspect because theirs was a culture governed by strict rules of honour. The suggestion that some returned to their farms and businesses instead of attending the banquet was insulting. In today’s culture the individual comes before the community and so we are used to people putting their own preferences before the community’s. In first century Palestine it was the other way round and so it was deeply discourteous to put personal interests before a community celebration.
In the person of Jesus, God has issued an open invitation to his heavenly party and yet all around you can see discarded invitations. Some go straight in the bin. Some are buried so deeply in the in-tray that they’re not seen again until it’s too late. Other people pin the invitation on the notice board and stare at it over breakfast every day until, gripped by inertia, the deadline which seemed so far away comes and goes. Why do so many people miss out this way?
To adopt the party metaphor, there appear to be four categories of rejection. Firstly, there are those who think the party is going to be – how shall I put this? - boring. We’ve all made that calculation in life. And there are so many mind-numbingly dreary perceptions of heaven in the popular imagination that it is no wonder people are deterred. One of the few hymns the average person knows contains the line ‘where like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around’. This may be good imagery but it also sounds like a lonely fielder despatched to the square leg boundary for an afternoon of inactivity in the cold wind. The Church, in its worship, is called by God to be a foretaste of this heavenly party and the degree to which we are – or are not – may influence many others in their choice. Worship is mission also.
Secondly, some reject the invitation because they have a good idea who else is going to be there. It is mistaken to think that being a churchgoer puts any of us automatically on the guest list. Being inside a church regularly does not save us like the ark saved Noah because only the grace of God expressed through personal faith in Jesus Christ can do this. Nevertheless, other people will look at churchgoers and think whether they are the kind of guests they wish to spend time with. Although some people make a lazy excuse that they don’t like churchgoers as a reason for not following Christ, the quality of our relationships in church now must be some kind of indication of what is to come. The Church grew in the first century because outsiders could see something in those relationships they couldn’t see elsewhere. ‘See how these Christians love one another’. Fellowship is mission also.
Thirdly, some people reject the invitation because they are distracted. This is something Jesus hinted at in his parable. Many people find ways of subduing the unsettling feeling inside them that there must be something more to life by burying themselves ever more deeply into what they already have: a career to climb; a house to improve; a family to nurture. There are many apparently legitimate excuses people resort to but which sound hollow against the resonant claims of the Gospel. I expect you’ve learned from embarrassing experience that if you have to make an excuse in life for not attending something, one excuse is far more convincing than two or three strung tenuously together. And yet many people join several threadbare reasons for why they don’t respond to the heavenly invitation.
The fourth kind of response is that it is simply too much effort. We can all identify with this. You’re tired after a hard day, the night is drawing in, you feel sleepy, there’s something good on television and suddenly the willpower to go out and socialise evaporates. In spiritual terms this is one of the greatest dangers because the line of least resistance is simply not to respond to the offer Jesus makes. There are many people who feel very comfortable with their lives and see little need to make any changes.
In the parable Jesus told, others were invited to the wedding banquet in place of the refuseniks, but when one of them got there he was turned away because he wasn’t wearing a wedding robe. I said earlier that manners have changed today and the same is true for dress code. With the growth in cheap but fashionable clothes stores, dress has been democratised. You can venture into most restaurants and parties without fear that you will be turned away at the door because of what you are wearing. It’s still a worry though, when you’re not sure of the setting you’re going into. At the back of your mind is the fear you will arrive at a party overdressed and spend the rest of the evening paranoid that everyone has marked you down as either pretentious or fogeyish. Which indeed they will. But if there’s one thing worse than arriving at a function overdressed, it’s arriving at one underdressed because this will condemn you to acute self-consciousness for the rest of the evening.
The implacable anti-fashion lobby might suggest otherwise but clothes matter because they give off many unconscious signals. And so the end to this parable, where someone gets in without the ancient world’s answer to the black tie, is a dilemma we can identify with. To be accepted into the heavenly banquet requires a special kind of dress. To enter simply as we are is to invite rejection because this is a holy gathering and sinful human beings are out of place in it. To gain access to God’s presence we must put on the perfection of the Lord Jesus Christ, rather like a dinner suit or a wedding outfit. And we do this by embracing the truth that he died for us so that this perfection can become ours by faith. This is how we are accepted by God.
Studies have shown that among those who come to faith as adults, there is sometimes a period of around eight years from the initial point of enquiry about Christianity to the expression of a fully formed faith. Thank God that the expiry date for responding to the heavenly RSVP is usually, though not always, longer. The most important piece of mission we can do for some people is to pray for them patiently, as they hover between keeping and throwing away the gold-edged invitation that lies in their hands.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?