The Parable of the Wedding Garment
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 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.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 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.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:1-14
During my nearly fifty years of priestly ministry I have done my fair share of weddings. In most cultures, weddings tend to be grand affairs. In some the guest list extends beyond family, and even extended family and friends, and can include even members of the wider community.
The summer after I was ordained, I traveled to Tanzania, in East Africa, to visit a classmate who had been assigned there. During my stay, Father Bill had a wedding scheduled. On the wedding day, we traveled to a mission outstation to get ready for the nuptial mass.
We were standing outside the mud and thatched chapel, when from a distance we could hear the drumming and singing of the families, friends and members of their respective villages, escorting the bride and the groom to the chapel from opposite directions.
As they got closer, a cloud of dust could be seen accompanying each advancing procession, as everyone danced as they made their way.
The little chapel was filled to overflowing and so most of the guests participated while standing or sitting outside the tiny structure.
After the ceremony we went to the farm compound of the parents of the bride. Several cows had been slaughtered and the meat was being cooked in large steel oil drums. All the guests were dressed in a rainbow of colorful garments. As far as I was aware no one needed to be thrown out for being improperly attired, except perhaps for the bride, who while wearing a beautiful white western wedding dress with a chin strap to secure the veil, was sporting a pair of ankle-high Ked’s black sneakers on her feet.
I noticed the high-laced sneakers, when out of compassion for me, who was sitting next to her, and who had been handed a bottle of Fanta to drink, but no bottle opener, put her foot on the knee high table around which we were sitting, took the bottle of soda from my hand and pried the lid off with her teeth. I don’t think that I will ever forget that precious visual moment.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus tells a parable about another wedding celebration and festive banquet hosted by a King for his Son. However, in this story recounted by Jesus those who had been invited to that wedding feast declined the invitation for one flimsy reason or excuse after another.
Undaunted by the less than gracious and even hostile response on the part of some, who even went so far as to murder the messengers sent out to invite them, the king sends other messengers out to highways and byways to bring in all whom they could find without exception.
The referents in the parable are obvious. The King is God. The King’s Son is Jesus. The messengers are the prophets. The people of Israel are the first string of guests. The burned city is the Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in 64AD – an event that the gospel writer, in his primitive and time and culture bound theology, understands as fitting divine retribution for the first string’s rejection of the Christ. The second string of guests is the great mass of the unwashed, among which we and every other manner of men and women are numbered.
The wedding banquet is a recurring theme in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The wedding feast metaphor was undoubtedly chosen as a vehicle for a significant and profound revelation, because wedding celebrations are a universal phenomenon with which all human beings have familiarity and to which all easily relate.
The biblical revelation is that awesomely and gracefully God understands and intends His relationship with us to be a nuptial affair. The metaphor of the wedding feast, in which Christ is the Bridegroom and we, the Church in its broadest and most inclusive sense, are His bride, provides a treasure trove of material for soul-nourishing, prayerful reflection.
Later today and during the week I hope that we would all spend some time appreciating that what every married couple want and seek with each other, a relationship of faithful enduring love, in which promises made are, in fact, lived each day as promises kept, is the very same relationship that God wants and seeks with us both as a community and as individuals.
That mystery of a passionately-invited intimacy with God touches my soul very deeply and has long provided a wonderfully safe container in which to live with an abiding joy and an experience of peace and freedom, that the world simply cannot give.
As remembered in the this morning’s first lesson, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and entered into the divine presence, the One whose name could not be spoken, declared that He willed this people, whom Moses had led out of slavery, to be bound to Him in a covenant of faithful love and to be His own forever.
But even as the table was being set for the wedding banquet, the intended bride, encamped at the base of the mountain, fashioned a love object of its own and whored with an idol that it had crafted, spurning and forsaking the only Lover who could make the difference that mattered.
Whoring with idols is another way of speaking about the sin with which we often seek to satisfy our needs, desires and hungry hearts. These idols are the illusions we exchange for what is most real. We whore each time we turn from God and chose something else in which to put our faith and hope and trust.
For example, how often have we, as a people, made a choice for death rather than life? Our major export to a hurting world is not humanitarian aid but rather arms, ammunitions and bombs. We have a history of engaging one military conflict after another. We have come to live in a state of endless war. With some consistency and predictability, we place our faith, hope and trust in violence rather than in love. We bed down with weapons and wonder why our fears only grow.
Or, by way of another example, are we not presently confronting, just how wedded we have been to a culture of white supremacy, privilege and power. We use these to leverage a greater measure of that wealth in which we place more trust than we do in the providence of God, who has always willed that our first response be a generous sharing of His abundance rather than a surrender to the primitive impulse to take for ourselves, as much as we can. The economy of the gospel is, in fact, socialism and not capitalism. We are reminded in the Book of Acts that in the fledgling Christian community, “no one was in need because they shared all that they had”.
In the parable told by Jesus special attention is paid to the garment those invited put on and wear to the wedding feast. Again, here clothing is not about the robes people wore in those days or dresses or suits we wear today. In sacred scripture clothing is another metaphor. It is a metaphor for something much more significant than the rags we don to adorn our bodies.
In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul puts it in this way: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment”.
Again, in his letter to the Romans, Paul advises the members of the church in Rome to: “Put on the Lord, Jesus Christ”.
In his Letter to the Philippians he begins to flesh out what this means: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied Himself, humbled Himself and became obedient to the will of God in all things.”
Finally, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, “Take up and put on the whole armor of God. Fasten the belt of truth around your waist and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes on your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Take the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”
Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the Spirit and the Word of God – such is the garment of the one who soldiers on and fights the good fight for God.
Paradoxically the armor of God is sheer and utter vulnerability. To love is to surrender our defenses. It is to let go of our impulse to protect ourselves. To be clad in this way is to be dressed in a garment fit for the wedding feast.
To put on Christ is to be naked. We encounter God in a carefree nakedness of spirit. In doing so we make our return to the garden and once again, in our nakedness, we walk with the Lord in the cool of the evening, as did Adam and Eve before the mythical fall.
In the parable, that guest who showed up without the proper wedding garment – well, we are not given his name. The obvious unspoken invitation is for us to ask ourselves, “Am I that guest?”. What do you think? Have I, have you, put on Christ today?
Again, in the words of Paul in today’s passage from Philippians, have I “clothed myself with whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, and whatever is commendable?” Or have I clothed myself with anger, bitterness, resentment, a mean and vengeful spirit and an unforgiving heart? Do I seek company with those who do peace or with those who do war? Do I live in a defended or from a defensive place or do I strive to live as exposed and naked as my crucified Lord?
When our bodies are brought to the church in anticipation of burial, a white pall will be draped over the casket and the priest will speak our name and say, “See in this white pall the dignity given to you in holy baptism. You put on Christ in your baptism, may you be clothed with Him in glory forever.”
If that final sign is to be real and not a lie, in that moment in which life gives way to eternal life, we will be ready and clothed for the heavenly wedding feast, if we strive each and every day to put on Christ and live our lives adorned in the beauty of that nakedness.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
October 11, 2020