The parable of the wedding banquet (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Matthew 22:1-14) has delightful and confounding elements. Maybe most disturbing is that someone who responded to the invitation was thrown out because they were not dressed appropriately! What might this mean?
Weddings have always been popular in stories and films – usually as the object of the relationship and the moment we get to the wedding scene the credits come up. But in recent years there have been a few films which begin with a wedding and the story continues on from this point. Some of you may remember the romantic comedy “Cousins” (1989) a Hollywood remake of an older more satirical French film. In “Cousins” the film begins with the gathered extended family and is a glorious, lavish, warm hearted event. At the family gathering upon the couples return from their honeymoon a video of the event is shown. One of the young nephews is the photographer. It begins with footage that we the audience recognise which shows the happy event. After a few minutes the happy footage begins to be interspersed with the “other” story of what went on: overweight relatives stuffing their faces; drunk guests vomiting into flower beds; aunts and uncles not married to each other sneaking off into what they had thought were quiet corners of the reception lounge. Slowly the delight of the couple and the gathered family becomes shame and outrage and we see a close up of the face of the triumphant young photographer! In some way this is what the gospel of Matthew has done with the story of the wedding. He has told us two stories – one more heart warming than the other. Both are “true” and need to be heard.
There are a few background points which are good to remind ourselves of in considering what this story might mean for us today. Firstly as the reading from Isaiah tells us, the image of the kingdom of God as a banquet was familiar. It was an image particularly related to the notion of Israel as the chosen people. Whilst early Judaism did not have highly developed notions of resurrection or eternal life there was a common belief that when the Messiah came there would be a heavenly banquet and the patriarchs and all who trusted God would join in a feast in which God supplied all the needed ingredients. Also Israel is at times referred to as the bride, and Yahweh as bridegroom. So this parable strikes at the heart of Jewish self understanding and the suggestion that they were not worthy guests and that others would instead be invited to this banquet were very harsh words indeed.
Secondly, it was first century practice to invite people of the village to events twice. Once, well ahead of time and then again when the fatted calf was already on the bar-b-que. Having been forewarned it would have been very rude not to come at the second invitation! Hence the angry tone of the parable when the guests make last minute excuses.
Thirdly it is always interesting to see what Matthew does when he digresses from or embellishes the material he inherited from Mark’s gospel, which is commonly thought to have been the first gospel written down. Mark does not have this parable. Luke has a banquet but it is not specifically a wedding and whilst the first part is similar – the going into the highways and byways to find guests – it does not have the equivalent to Matthew’s concern with the inappropriately attired guest. It would seem that Matthew has remembered a story that others gospel writers didn’t or that he has remembered it differently, probably because of whatever issues were current in the community that gathered around this particular gospel.
So what might the gospel according to Matthew be trying to communicate? Firstly, like the account in Luke, this parable surely conveys the desire that all come to the banquet, that all join in the celebration, and that the host will go to considerable lengths to make sure all are invited.
However the second and rather dark twist to the story is a little more difficult. Why, having gone to all the effort and generosity of inviting just about anyone to the wedding, would there then be this awful scene about what the guest was wearing? One explanation suggests that this was a cautionary or counter-balancing story. Matthew’s community was made up of Jewish and Gentile Christians who had responded to the gospel of God’s free grace. There was a concern that the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins through baptism should not excuse the members of the faith community from their moral responsibilities and so this second part of the parable reminded everyone that although they were indeed invited there was an expectation that they would behave with the same appropriateness as though they were the formally invited guests. (Remember that in the early church there was an ongoing debate as to whether new Gentile followers of Christ needed to convert to Judaism and all its requirements or whether belief and following of the tenants of Jesus were sufficient).
The imagery of clothing also has resonances in the Hebrew Bible and in the early writings of Paul and in general the image of clothing refers to an outer reflection of an inner state. Therefore in the parable when the inappropriately dressed person is thrown out of the banquet it is not a commentary on being poorly or alternatively dressed in a social or material sense but on having an inappropriate or inadequate inner state. In Isaiah (61:10) “He has clothed me with garments of salvation ... the robe of righteousness.” In Paul’s epistles he often speaks in the imagery of clothing. In Galatians (3:26-27) Paul says that having been baptised we are to be “clothed in Christ” as a description of our union with Christ. In Romans (13:14) Paul says we are to “put on Christ”. In Ephesians (4:22-23) Paul says that we are to put away our old self and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds “and to clothe [y]ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” And in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (3:5-14) he is quite detailed about the attitudes in which we are to be clothed: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ...above all, clothe yourselves with love ...”
When Jesus tells the gathered followers and Pharisees that “Many are called, but few are chosen” we might hear “all are called, but few respond appropriately.” For God can call and call us and yet our presence at the banquet is dependent upon us responding: hearing, making our way to the place of celebration and then participating in the event in a right spirit of mind. God provides all that we need and yet we still must at least respond, at least accept the invitation, at least participate in the feast and grow in the mind of Christ. And clearly not all are willing or able to do this at this time.
And so we have a responsibility to firstly grow in the right spirit in our minds, to take off our old selves and put on a new self: to be a people of continual growth and development growing into the mind and heart of Christ. And secondly, part of that being of the right spirit of mind, we are to be a people of invitation – to go into the highways and byways and extend an invitation to the banquet to all we meet, not just those like ourselves. This has always been the gospel commandment, to take the good news to the poor and marginalised. It is utterly urgent, radical and disturbing at this moment in history.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be clothed in your own good self.