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The Wedding Garment

October 16, 2014

“The Wedding Garment” Matthew 22:1-14 © 10.12.14 Ordinary 28A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I ran across a startling statistic recently. The average cost of a wedding these days is $29,858, skewed upward no doubt by celebrity weddings. The median cost is lower, at $20,000. That means half of couples spent less, and the other half paid more (http://www.attn.com/stories/147/scary-financial-reality-your-wedding). The vast majority of the money is spent on the party, which is the contemporary emphasis, rather than the ceremony.

Now imagine if you spent all that money on invitations, flowers, fees, catering, professional photos and videos, the band or DJ, and of course The Dress, and at the last minute nobody came. Not because they couldn’t get away from pressing engagements or all 500 of them suddenly had family crises, but because they weren’t interested. They simply didn’t want to come, despite your gracious invitation to share your joy on a special day. How disappointed, hurt, even angry would you be?

If you can go to that place emotionally, then you know the state of mind of the king in the story from today’s gospel. And not only did the king and queen along with the prince and his bride suffer personal affronts, the dignity and authority of the throne as an institution were not respected. Maybe those on the guest list didn’t care for the monarch’s politics or policies or personally disliked him or the prince. It’s possible they didn’t want to be expected to reciprocate, which would almost bankrupt even a wealthy landowner. But surely such animosity and concern could be set aside for just one night of partying to celebrate a momentous day in the life of the realm.

You or I would blacklist those who so offended us. Their names would be deleted from our phones, and we would unfriend them on Facebook. The king had considerably more serious sanctions to impose on those who not only ignored his invitation but went so far as to shoot the messengers, as we would say. While the steaks are on the grill, the salad is being tossed with the house balsamic vinaigrette, and the butler is selecting the appropriate premium wine for each course, the king sends troops to exact justice by executing the murderers of the slaves and burning down their city, which is by the way, also the king’s city.

We need not be put off by such unrealistic elements. In Matthew’s hands, the story has gone beyond parable to allegory. You recall that an allegory is a literary form in which one thing stands for another, and there are hidden, deeper meanings. Characters and events represent ideas or principles. To listen to or read an allegory, we have to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief in order to get the point and not be put off by details that make no sense.

This tale started out simply enough and circulated in the early church also in that less complex, more straightforward form. Luke and the apocryphal gospel of Thomas have that version, with their own variations. The original had a householder who sent a slave with a last-minute reminder to those who had been invited to a great dinner. It was the custom in the ancient world to send out invitations far in advance, then the day of, slaves would be dispatched to deliver courtesy reminders to the guests that supper was to be put on the table at a certain time. I don’t know, but I imagine those invited were expected to arrange their affairs so they were ready to go on a moment’s notice. In Luke and Thomas, the invitees are full of excuses. So, confronted with an empty hall, lots of food getting cold, and most of all, a heart genuinely full of the desire to show hospitality, the host brings in ordinary people who never before had a chance to run in such social circles or taste such a sumptuous feast. As for those who snubbed the householder, it’s likely they wouldn’t get any more invitations to dinner.

Matthew, around the same time as Luke, transformed the simple parable into a narrative of salvation history. It serves as the third part of a trilogy in which he has Jesus first talk about the rejection of John the Baptist. That’s the parable of the two sons asked to work for their father. Then there is the story of the tenants who owe the produce of a vineyard to the landowner. They beat up and kill the slaves sent to collect, and when the landowner finally sends his son to get the renters to pay up, they kill him, too. The result is that the vineyard is taken away from the original workers and given to others who will render to the landowner his due. This is a story about the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews, his own people, especially the religious leaders.

The parable or allegory of the wedding banquet brings history to Matthew’s own day around the end of the first century. The message had been proclaimed by prophets in what we call the Old Testament, men like the author of the text we heard from Isaiah, written after a difficult experience of exile and restoration. They are the first group of slaves sent out with an invitation. Then the gospel had been preached by apostles and deacons and others like Peter and Paul and Stephen and James. All these were largely ignored, some even killed. They’re the second group in the story. Matthew and his community saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD as God’s retribution on the largely unbelieving Jews for their lack of attention to the invitation of God given in Christ, and their complicity in the deaths of the witnesses to Jesus. Finally, another generation of Christian missionaries followed those who were more contemporary with our Lord. These are the ones who go out on highways and bring in the bad and the good so the hall may be filled, making the church more and more Gentile than Jewish in composition. The Gentiles had no claim on God’s promises, no historic connection, no covenant, and so on. They are in the feasting hall completely out of grace.

Let’s stop here to unpack this part of the parable. Two things particularly caught my attention. For one, life in God’s realm is a party, specifically, a banquet. And I don’t mean those sad business, university, and community affairs we have all been to, the kind with a four ounce rubber chicken, bag o’ salad with Thousand Island that’s been sitting out for two hours, tea so diluted you can see through it, and painfully slow, disinterested service. I’m talking about a feast that nearly overwhelms our senses with its sights, sounds, smells, and most of all, the abundance of food, drink, and great conversation. Tables groaning with mouth-watering seafood, beef, and pork, with great bowls of baby greens, creative breads, and sumptuous desserts. Free and free-flowing beverages. Centerpieces and decorations that take our breath away with their beauty and imagination. People in their best dress meeting and laughing and enjoying each other’s company, with no one glancing at a watch or checking their phone or worried about anything. Completely relaxed and secure because they are being taken care of by a gracious host for whom hospitality is the highest value and the best practice.

That, says not only Matthew, but also other biblical writers, is what the kingdom of God is like. Abundant. Joyful. Amazing. Welcoming. As the scripture says: “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God” (cf. Luke 13:29). And it was our Lord who embodied and offered God’s hospitality and love of people—his people. No wonder Jesus was branded a glutton and a drunkard; he seemed always to be partying, especially with those the religious leaders didn’t approve of. He lived with delight, as the prophet promised: “…the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5).

And indeed there is no better image for the kingdom of God than a wedding banquet. The marriage feast of the Lamb, as Revelation has it, will be at that time when God brings all things under his rule, and there will be no more tears or crying or pain, but God will be all, in all. We don’t know when that will be, though we’re sure God will bring it to pass. In the meantime, we might say that our life is one long, joyous rehearsal dinner, as we anticipate the big day of the marriage of the Church to her Holy Spouse, Jesus Christ. The Eucharist, every time we celebrate it, reminds us that every day can be God’s rich banquet. And is, as God offers us himself to sustain and enrich and enliven us with joy.

The other thing that’s noteworthy here is how inclusive God’s kingdom is. The servants went out on the highways, gathering bad and good. Matthew typically likes those moral categories, rather than the social ones Luke uses in his version of the same parable. This gospel writer simply reminds us of what we already know from experience: the church has all kinds of people in it, all invited by grace, not out of worthiness. The only intention of the king, of God, is that the hall be filled.

I’ve experienced the church at large and individual congregations, especially this one, as made up of generous, thoughtful, hospitable, caring, Christ-following people. But I also have seen, and this is happening more and more in our day, that some of the worst-behaving people in the world claim to follow Christ. They are mean-spirited, hateful, presumptuous, controlling, greedy, idolatrous, and even violent. When people who want power and money start seeking those things in the name of God, watch out!

But that’s nothing new. Matthew no doubt celebrated the inclusiveness of the church, that it was a mixed bag of good and bad or as he put it elsewhere, a net full of all kinds of fish, a field sown with wheat and tares that was hard to sort out without doing harm. And he was glad that God’s Spirit was hard at work to bring all into conformity with Christ. But he was also concerned that there were people in his community and the church at large that having been invited to the banquet thought they could act any way they pleased, stealing food off plates, getting drunk, running wild through the hall, shall we say. As someone has written: “[J]ust because all are invited does not mean there are no standards, no expectations of guests…. Matthew knew how easily grace can melt into permissiveness; he knew that for those who presume upon grace, forgiveness does not fulfill righteousness but negates it” (Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, and Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year A: 475).

That’s why he added the story of the guest without a wedding garment. Good and bad may mingle for the time being, but before anyone can go into the hall and enjoy the wedding feast, the celebration of God’s reign at the consummation of history, he or she must be properly attired.

Obviously, the metaphor has changed. We’re no longer talking about the church as a bride, but believers as guests at the wedding of the Son of God. No one would think of coming to a dressy event without appropriate clothing, embarrassing oneself and disrespecting those who gave the event. But the guest without a wedding garment does just that. Again, we don’t need to worry about how somebody off the street at the last minute could have even clean clothes. Remember this is an allegory.

The lack of proper clothing stands for the smugness and complacency of Matthew’s church. They were in with God now, Gentiles and believing Jews chosen to replace those who rejected the invitation to share God’s joy. They knew God’s ways, spoke for God, were divine representatives. All they had to do was show up, and God was thrilled. They had their reservations at the wedding banquet confirmed and written in stone.

Well, no. It may be, as Woody Allen said, that showing up is 80% of life (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/06/10/showing-up/). But Christian faith is different. As a scholar summarized Matthew’s point: “…those who find themselves unexpectedly included may not presume on grace, but are warned of the dire consequences of accepting the invitation and doing nothing but showing up” (Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII: 419).

Discipleship is more than just showing up and being a warm body in a pew. It’s more than coming to a meeting, even worship. It’s truly “attending,” in the sense of being present to serve, even if we simply are with someone in silence. And attending in the sense of being focused on, applying our minds. Discipleship is about thinking, imagining, keeping faithful to the call of Christ. And mostly it’s about love. Love for God. Love for your and my neighbor as ourselves. A vitally important way to live in these days when “love” is not the word many would use to describe Christians.

We are invited by grace, but grace that takes hold in our lives leads us to dress appropriately for our kingdom life. The garment stands for righteousness, doing deeds that show we belong to Christ, bearing fruit. When grace is just a ticket to heaven and doesn’t issue in a changed life now, that’s what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” As he described it: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” On the other hand, costly grace is “the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship).

I know. None of us needs one more demand. We are covered up with work, family obligations, church meetings, community volunteering, and on and on. But “to demand” originally, at root, meant to entrust or to charge with doing something. Combined with its usual sense, we might say that the demand of Jesus and the gospel is an urgent task that needs doing in a timely way, entrusted to you and me! We’re enlisted to do work that’s useful, just, proper, and necessary.

The wedding garment stands for both the gift and the demand of the kingdom. We are guests invited to the feast, but we’re expected to follow the dress code. Fortunately, as composer Ralph Carmichael once put it, we have a “master designer” ready to help us be rightly clothed.

Whether we live for Jesus now in the world or, at the last, come to the door of the banquet hall, we make our prayer a hymn by the 15th century author Bianco da Siena: “Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine, and visit it with Thine own ardor glowing. O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing. O let it freely burn, ‘til earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming. Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, and lowliness become mine inner clothing; true lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing. And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far outpass the power of human telling; for none can guess its grace, till he become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling (Bianco da Siena; http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/c/o/comelove.htm).

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