What’s the deal with the wedding garment?
I generally try to make the early morning exercise classes at the YMCA downtown. It means getting out of bed at 5 am to hit the 5:45 am class. One of the nice benefits, besides the exercise, is that after class, a core group of us gather around one of the table with a cup of coffee and catch up on each others’ news.
“So, Jeunée, what’s the sermon about this week?” one of my friends asked. I replied, “Oh, we have the parable of the wedding feast. You know, where the king holds a big feast and those invited decide not to come, and he opens the feast up to everyone. Except, in Matthew’s version, which is different than the version in Luke, the feast is a wedding banquet for the Son, and the invitees not only decide not to come, they even mistreat and kill the servants who had come to remind them of the invitation. So the king sends off an army and destroys the murderers and burns their city to the ground. And then he invites everyone else, good and bad. But this one dude shows up without a wedding garment, and so the king has him bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And the parable ends with “For many are called but few are chosen.”
My friends, just stared at me, wide-eyed, with their mouths hanging open in horror. “Good luck with that,” they said.
It’s a hard parable, isn’t it? I mean, we like the idea of the King, or God, sending the invitation out to absolutely everyone, good and bad, right? But what about the dude without the wedding garment. Certainly God doesn’t really care what we wear when we come to him, does he?
Like here at St. Michael’s – it doesn’t matter what you wear to church. Some folk like to dress up in their Sunday best, and others prefer to wear blue jeans or shorts, or come in their sports gear for the game that starts later that morning. We really don’t care. The invitation is to just come! Our church sign says “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” and there is no * by the “you.” The church is not just for just those who have it all together, who are well-dressed with good jobs, and who tithe on their income.
The “You” means everyone… rich or poor, single or married, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, republican or democrat, happy or depressed, good or bad, three-piece suit or flip flops, EVERYONE is welcome to the party.
And what a party! The wedding feast starts as soon as you accept the invitation. God can give you joy and meaning to life now. God’s Spirit gives you power to make a difference in your life. Through the invitation to God’s banquet people have discovered the power to heal relationships, find inner peace, overcome harmful behaviors, and learn more about the gifts God has given them to be the people God intended them to be. At this foretaste of the banquet each Sunday, we meet God in a special way each time we gather for the bread and wine of communion.
And if the wedding feast is for the King’s Son, who would be Jesus, then, who is the bride? That would be us, the church. All over scripture we see the image of God and his bride Israel, or Jesus and his bride, the Church, which speaks of God’s desire to have a loving, intimate relationship with us.
What’s more, this party, this wedding banquet never ends. It gets better as the years go on, and better yet, lasts into eternity in ways so wonderful you cannot even imagine. Who would turn down an invitation like that?
But what about that poor guy in our story today, who was invited into the party but doesn’t have a wedding garment on…ffft. (thumbs out) Out he went. It seems a tad harsh doesn’t it? I mean, who can expect a poor guy off the street to have been able to get the proper clothes?
Obviously, a guy recruited off the streets, a man plowing a field or tending a shop cannot be expected to pack a wedding garment in his lunch box just in case a late-breaking invitation slides down the chute.
So, obviously, we can’t read this story only on its surface level. This parable is told by Jesus in Jerusalem, during the last week of his life. He is in the temple, teaching, and has been challenged by the chief priests and the elders who are questioning his authority. In response, he tells three parables about disobedience. The first was the parable of the two sons in the vineyard, one who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, and the son who refuses at first, but then actually does what the father wishes. The second was the story we heard last week, where a landowner had hired tenants for his vineyard, but they rejected the servant, and killed the son who had some to collect the landowners due. The chief priests and Pharisees recognized Jesus was telling these parables against them.
Then finally, we have today’s story. Like the other two parables, It is basically an allegory spoken against the Jewish religious leaders who didn’t accept God’s invitation. It’s important, also, to remember that Matthew’s gospel was written in about the year 80 or 85 AD, and in addition to preserving and sharing Jesus’ life and teaching, it also tries to help the Matthew’s community of understand their context and place in history. The city of Jerusalem had been destroyed about a decade before in 70 AD, burned by the Romans, which was a cataclysmic event in their history.
So understanding the allegory of this parable and the historical context doesn’t unlock all the richness of this story, but it can be a good starting point. So lets review.
King = God
The banquet or the wedding feast = The kingdom of God, now and in eternity.
The Son = Jesus
The initial invitees = The people of Israel (covenant Abraham & Moses)+
The slaves sent by the king = prophets reminding Israel of its covenant with God
Those who abuse the servants = those who persecute God’s messengers, Israel’srejection of the earlier prophets.
The King’s retaliation = God’s judgment of unfaithful Israel,
The destroyed City, = The fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, perhaps seen by Matthew’s community as God’s judgement on the unfaithfulness of the religious leaders.
Invitation of good and bad = Evangelistic mission of church, to invite all, even Those outside Israel,
Weeping and Gnashing of teeth = Life outside God’s Kingdom
The man = One of those God invited
So what does the garment represent? = ???
That’s the question isn’t it?
The invitation is given so that it sounds like a “come as you are party.” If the banquet really is a “come as you are party” then why is the King so worried about the garment?
The whole idea of the wedding garment seems to imply that there is something expected from each guest at this banquet.
That is the point.
God does expect something.
God invites everyone, you and me, just as we are, but God expects us to put on new clothes to enter the kingdom.
It may be a “Come as you Are” party, but once we arrive, we don’t “Stay As We Are.”
God is in the business of Transformation, and that first transformation happens as we honor and accept the King’s Son, Jesus.
Paul expresses this idea of new spiritual clothes in his letter to the Galatians:
“You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:26-27)
In the early church, and in some churches still today, when new Christians were baptized, they took off their old clothes and went down into the water. When they came up, they were given new white clothes to wear. This symbolized the forgiveness of sins and the new life they were born into through baptism through faith in Jesus.
Once you are clothed in Christ, once you decide to follow Jesus, it doesn’t matter what sort of life you wore before. Once you accept the invitation and clothe yourself in Christ, you are an honored guest at God’s banquet.
The problem with the poor guy in our Gospel story today is that he thought he could have it both ways. He accepted the King’s invitation, but he didn’t think he had to do anything in response. He wanted to enjoy the banquet, but he wasn’t willing to honor the Son, for whom the wedding feast was being celebrated. He was arrogant to think that he didn’t need to change, or that he could come to the king in his own clothes, on his own terms.
In the letter to the Colossians, Paul expounds on this idea of new spiritual clothes.
“You … have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator… As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3: 10-14)
I like the Colossians passage a lot because it shows how clothing ones self with Christ will begin to transform the way we think and act. But it’s important to remember that clothing yourself with compassion, patience, love, and the like come as a result of first Clothing oneself with Christ.
Some people believe they are properly attired because of the more trendy garments they sport: social activism, volunteerism, contemplative meditation, alms-giving. While these may all be good things, in and of themselves they are not garments for the banquet. These are only the accessories. I may wear pearls with my dress to the party, but I wouldn’t just wear the pearls! I’d be seriously underdressed.
Such accessories adorn a life clothed in Jesus Christ, but they cannot substitute for it.
When I visited the Holy Land several years ago, we visited many churches and other Holy Sites that had dress codes. You could not enter unless you had your shoulders and knees covered. Many places would refuse entrance or kick you out if they caught you in a church wearing shorts or a tank top. Some places though, kept a box of simple garments, like robes, that you could put on if you decided, without prior planning, to enter a Holy Site. I believe those places that provided clothing were acting more like the King of the Banquet.
God does not ask you to bring your own wedding garments, neatly laundered and pressed. I know that the clothes of my life are often stained and tattered from wrong choices I’ve made in the past. All God asks is that you put on the garment he gives you: New life through faith in his son, Jesus. That wedding dress is the base over which the garments and jewels of love, compassion, humility and service are draped.
After all, remember, at this wedding banquet, we are the bride. The party is a banquet the King is throwing us to celebrate our life with Jesus for all eternity. Now isn’t that an event worth dressing for?