11 October 2020

There are places for ‘oips’
and ‘oiks’ at the banquet,
and not just for the few

Banqueting at the end-of-term dinner with the Durrell School of Corfu … we are all invited to the heavenly banquet, but are we ready to accept the invitation? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 11 October 2020 (Trinity XVIII)

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church, Kilcornan

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer (Morning Prayer 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale

Readings: Exodus 32: 1-14; Psalm 106; Matthew 22: 1-14

‘Go therefore into the … streets, and invite everyone you find to the … banquet’ (Matthew 22: 9) … empty tables at restaurants in the side streets in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Sometimes, the ways I can behave as a snob can catch me off-guard and unexpectedly, and I shame myself.

When I was growing up, the snobberies and class distinctions of previous generations were challenged in an old-fashioned way, in the movie My Fair Lady (1964), based on George Bernard Shaw’s earlier play, Pygmalion (1913).

But Pygmalion also inspired what I think is a much funnier movie, Hoi Polloi (1935), with the Three Stooges, Larry, Curly and Moe.

Two professors are arguing about whether our social behaviour is caused by environment or heredity. It is a very funny take on the old Nature v Nurture argument.

To settle a bet, the two professors take three binmen – Larry, Curly and Moe – train and coach them for three months, dress them up, and send them off to a posh, society dinner.

Their behaviour descends into farce, and it looks as if one professor has won his bet: our social behaviour is dictated by inherited class.

But then the tables are turned – literally. Everyone else at the party descends to the same riotous behaviour. At a base level, we are all the same, even if some refuse to accept it.

Nature or nurture? It was an important statement that we all share the same humanity, coming as racism and the Nazis were on the rise in the 1930s.

The title of the movie, Hoi Polloi, is a way of expressing class-based social prejudice. It is a Greek phrase, meaning ‘the many’ and it was used in Victorian England by people who had the benefit of a classical education in English public schools and the universities, to describe the masses, who they presumed did not understand the phrase.

Gilbert and Sullivan use the phrase to mock those who used it in their comic opera Iolanthe. Later, it was used by English public schoolboys in the 1950s and the 1960s, when they referred to ‘oips’ and ‘oiks.’

The term hoi polloi also appears in a scene in the film Dead Poets Society (1989). Professor John Keating, played by Robin Williams, speaks negatively about the use of the definite article ‘the’ in front of the phrase.

Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) raises his hands and speaks: ‘The hoi polloi. Doesn’t it mean the herd?’

Keating replies: ‘Precisely, Meeks. Greek for the herd. However, be warned that, when you say “the hoi polloi” you are actually saying “the the herd.” Indicating that you too are “hoi polloi”.’

This morning’s Gospel reading begins with a very joyful occasion – a posh nosh, a planned wedding, and generous invitations to a lavish banquet. But, instead of the farce in that movie with the Three Stooges, it quickly descends into very difficult images: slaves who are kidnapped, mistreated and killed; cities that are burned down; a man who is bound hand and feet and thrown into outer darkness.

The images of the wedding banquet and the wedding covenant are important ways of describing our relationship with God.

But the parable in this morning’s Gospel reading is particularly difficult.

The king has invited a long list of guests, but even after being repeatedly sought out, none of these guests comes to the banquet.

To refuse to come, to refuse a king’s command, is treason; to kill his slaves amounts to insurrection. So the king sends out troops to put down the rebellion.

The king then sends his slaves into the streets to find enough people to sit at the tables at the wedding banquet. The phrase translated as ‘the main streets’ (διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν, verse 9), means not the main fashionable, shopping streets in a chic part of a city centre. It refers to dirty, gritty, street corners and junctions, perhaps the main junctions outside the city gates.

This is the place where those who want to be hired as labour gather, where those who are refused entry wait without hope, this is where those who are on margins are found. Other translations catch these images when they talk about the highways and the byways.

And the king’s invitation, in verse 10, goes out to all people, ‘both good and bad.’

Yet, when the king sees that a man is not dressed appropriately for the event, the king throws him into the outer darkness. In this case, the robe probably symbolises the white robe worn for baptism.

Do we wear that robe all the time? In other words, do we live up to our promises of discipleship made at Baptism – summarised in the call to love God and to love others?

If you were to imagine yourself as one of the characters in this parable, who would you be?

And would you behave that way?

Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet?

Are you a wedding guest who has denied the generosity of the king?

Are you one of the people brought in from the streets, but not prepared for the celebration about to take place?

Where do you find Good News in this parable?

What is meant by the many and the few here?

In our western way of thinking, the word many is a quantity much more than the majority, while few is many less than the majority. But in eastern thought, one less than 100% would be considered few.

We could put the Greek use of ‘few’ and ‘many’ by Christ in this parable in its cultural context. Pericles, in his ‘Funeral Oration’ in Athens, according to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, uses ‘the many,’ οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), in a positive way when he extols democracy in Athens.

He contrasts ‘the many’ with ‘the few’ (οἱ ὀλίγοι, hoi oligoi), the few who abuse power and create an oligarchy, rule by the few. Pericles demands equal justice for ‘the many’, ‘the all’, before the law, against the selfish interests of the few.

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that Christ is the victim, and that he said his blood is shed ‘for you and for many.’ The word ‘you’ here means us, the Church, the few in this parable. But the phrase ‘the many’ here, οἱ πολλοί (hoi polloi), refers to the masses, the multitude, the great unwashed, who are called to the banquet too.

Christ’s invitation is not just to you and me, who know we are invited to the banquet. It is also for the many, the lumpen masses, all people, the ones who are not usually invited to the posh nosh, the Larry, Curly and Moe in our midst.

The invitation to come in, to celebrate at the banquet, symbolised in the Eucharist this morning, is not just for the few, the oligarchs. The many are invited to this banquet this morning.

Who are we to behave like a tyrannical despot and exclude them? For if we exclude them, we are in danger of excluding Christ himself.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘A Peasant Wedding’ (1620), Peter Brueghel the Younger, the National Gallery of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 22: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.’

‘Look, I have prepared my dinner … and everything is ready’ (Matthew 22: 3) … preparing for a banquet (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green (Ordinary Time, Year A)

The Collect of the Day (Trinity XVIII):

Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Day (Saint Philip the Deacon):

Lord God,
your Spirit guided Philip the deacon
to show how ancient prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
Open our minds to understand the Scriptures,
and deepen our faith in him;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Post Communion Prayer (Trinity XVIII):

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Post Communion Prayer (Saint Philip the Deacon):

We thank you, Lord, for calling and using
people with different gifts to build your kingdom.
May we, who are strengthened by this sacrament,
like Philip and his family rejoice to serve you
by the witness of our lives and homes;
though Jesus Christ our Lord.


529, Thy hand, O God, has guided (CD 30)
418, Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face (CD 25)

‘Those who had been invited to the wedding banquet … would not come’ (Matthew 22: 3) … empty tables at a wedding reception in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This sermon was prepared for the Parish Eucharist and Morning Prayer on Sunday 11 October 2020. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was used instead at a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

A grave in Kerameikós, Athens, where Pericles delivered his funeral oration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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