Proper: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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I sometimes wonder, when I’m going out somewhere, whether I’m dressed properly for the thing I’m going to. I’ve shown up at casual functions in jacket and tie; and I’ve shown up at more formal do’s in jeans and a casual shirt. And I’d bet that I’m not the only here, am I? It can be embarrassing. And I imagine you all can see the connection between that kind of situation and the parable in today’s gospel.
Jesus used parables because they’re such great teaching tools. Quite often you can pack a pretty substantial lesson into a short story, and make the connection between the story and the subject of your teaching quite clear in a very few words. Parable comes from a Greek word meaning comparison. And Jesus most often began his parables by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like…,” or, “… may be compared with…” The comparison is usually so obvious that it doesn’t need much explanation. So I’m sure the Pharisees and others who were listening to Jesus that day had a pretty good idea what message he was trying to get across. But being two thousand years removed from that day, most of us need a little help. So here we go.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” The characters are all thinly veiled. Bishop Hugh Latimer (16th c.) says that “this marriage-maker, or feast-maker, is Almighty God.” Then he asks who the bridegroom was, “Who was he now that was married? … that was our Saviour Jesus Christ, the second person in the Deity; the eternal Son of God” (from Sermons on the Card and Other Discourses). We know from the imagery used by several of the Old Testament prophets that the invited guests are the people of God– Israel. So Jesus was criticizing the failure of his people generally, not universally, to respond to the invitation to his wedding feast. That invitation was delivered first by the prophets. From Isaiah to John the Baptist the call was to “prepare the way of the Lord” by repentance, for the Lord/ Bridegroom is coming to reconcile God’s people to their Maker. “But they would not come.”
So the message went out again, this time from Jesus and the Apostles: “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” Some ignored the call, others attacked and killed the messengers. “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” This is actually a bit of prophecy, which was fulfilled when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem several decades later (AD 70). Then the king sent the servants into the streets to bring in any who would come. These would be the Gentiles, all the non-Jewish people of the world. This too was prophesied in the Old Testament as, for instance, in a beautiful passage in Zechariah who said,“Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (8.23). This is what Jesus was saying to God’s people in the first century: Come join us; God is with us.
And the message to God’s people in the 21st century is similar. And with that in mind we need to pay particular attention to the reaction of the invited guests. Canon Frank Colquhoun points out four different reactions. The first is one of casual indifference. Other things were given a higher priority: one had a farm, another had a business to attend to. The message is that so many people who have heard the Gospel at one time or another in their lives fail to see its relevance to them. It hasn’t made the desired impression on them. We’ve got everything we need; what more can the Church give us? Moses’ warning several thousand years ago still applies: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God… lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,” you begin to think you’ve done it all on your own (Deut 8.11-20).
The second reaction in the parable is one of open and active hostility. The Word of the Lord always has enemies. Some ignored the invite. They couldn’t be bothered even to find out whether or not it’s true. But others are not content until they’ve done all they can silence the Church once and for all– everybody from ISIS to our neighbors here at home who are committed to silencing the Gospel and pushing the Church completely out of the public eye and ear.
The third reaction to the invitation as it applies to our time is one of grateful acceptance. The king sent his servants into the streets to round up everybody they could find, both bad and good, and bring them to the feast. This illustrates the essential nature of the Gospel, that it offers something good, something free, something undeserved. It’s an extravagant gesture by the king. If we were talking about an earthly king, we’d use words like generosity and altruism. But with God, the King of all creation, the word is grace. None of the guests who accepted the invitation had any claims on the king. They did nothing to deserve his generosity– Jesus says they brought in everybody, both bad and good– yet the gift was theirs for the taking. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” St Paul says, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9). The grace of God is completely undeserved, unearned. We have no right to it, but he gives it anyway, because we’re all his creatures and he loves us.
The last reaction we have to consider is from the one guest who was not appropriately dressed for a wedding. This is the religious hypocrite, says Canon Colquhoun. He calls this one a parable within the parable, the message being that there are some who falsely profess the Gospel. Two questions come up here: 1. What is the wedding garment that Jesus is talking about? And 2. How is it that this one person isn’t wearing one? The best way to answer is to ask how all the other guests came to be wearing theirs. A careful reading between the lines shows that since they were all pulled in off the street unprepared, the king himself must have given them the proper clothing, which is the robe of righteousness that’s worn by all who respond to God’s grace. We get it through pleading the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins and receiving God’s pardon through the cross of Jesus. He doesn’t withhold it from any who ask for it. So obviously this one man refused to accept it. What had been freely offered to everyone was turned down by this particular person, which is why he was speechless when the king asked him about it. He figured he had dressed himself well enough. After all, his own clothes may have been good enough to get him into other parties, so why not this one? I know some of you this past week saw Bishop Daniel’s facebook comment about his spellchecker trying to change Pelagianism to plagiarism. Plagiarism is stealing somebody else’s work. Pelagianism is a major heresy. This improperly dressed wedding guest was a Pelagian– he thought he could get into the kingdom of heaven by his own efforts rather than by relying completely on the grace of God.
The demand of the kingdom of heaven is extremely high, but it’s not unattainable for anybody. In fact it’s a much easier demand to meet than an outsider might think– than many both inside and outside the Church actually do think. There are a lot of people out there who think they’re not welcome in here unless they can somehow make themselves better people. Too often when I’ve asked this or that person why they don’t receive Holy Communion, or even come to church, the reply has been, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t live up to it.” And they’re exactly right– none of us is good enough, none of us can “live up to it.” It’s exactly the wrong answer to why some don’t go to church or receive Holy Communion. But it’s the right answer to the question of how to get our hands on the proper wedding garment. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
This is all beautifully illustrated every time the Church baptizes a baby or a small child. Critics of infant baptism will say, “How can babies be baptized? They’ve got to come to the age of understanding, and then decide for themselves.” But what’s happening in that moment is that the Church is enacting the biblical theology of grace. The Church is saying with St Paul, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” because other than obeying the command of Jesus to baptize and make disciples, we’re not doing anything. It’s all God’s doing. An old friend, Archbishop Harold Nutter, who died recently, used to stand at the baptismal font and say to parents and godparents, “You didn’t bring yourselves and your baby here. You wouldn’t have come under your own steam. God drew you here by the gift of his grace.” God invites us, and he also puts it in our hearts to accept the invitation.
Part of this beautiful illustration of grace is that parents will usually dress the baby for the event. They know it’s a big deal, even though they may not get how really big a deal it is. So they buy the baby a special outfit, or they may have access to a traditional family christening gown. I wore the same gown at my baptism in 1962 that my grandmother wore in 1890, and my father wore in 1927. I didn’t pick it out, and neither did my parents. It was handed to them and they put on me. That symbolizes the garment that God offers to each person he invites to the wedding feast. Put this on, he says, it’s the garment of salvation, washed in the blood of my Son on the cross. All that’s required of you to wear it is a humble and obedient heart. Just repent and believe the Gospel. The prophet Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (61:10). I’m sure Jesus had that in mind as he told this parable.
Austin Farrer says that “The parable of the wedding garment has a cruel sound. How could the poor man, dragged in from the highway or the hedge to fill a place at the king’s table, provide himself a wedding garment?” That’s how we tend to see it at first because, the way Jesus tells the story, that man appears to have been singled out by the king for not a very good reason. And maybe we feel sorry for him because we’ve turned up at something underdressed before. But, Farrer says, “The cruelty disappears if we turn from the parable to the thing signified in it. We are the men whom God’s mercy has brought to his table, and the garment of glory is bestowed on us by his royal hand…” (The Crown of the Year, Trinity XX). We come to the altar, the Lord’s banquet table, week after week as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, to feast on his Body in the sacrament. “In making us his members,” Farrer says, “Christ spreads the garment of his own sanctity upon us.” And if we confess our sins on the way to the altar, which is the condition for being able to put on that garment, then “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to receive us as though we were Christ himself.” So it doesn’t matter what kind of clothes we wear to church. What really matters is whether we’ve humbled ourselves enough by the help of God’s grace to fit into the garment that he wants to put on us. And now that we’re all just about ready, y’all come to the wedding feast. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+