St Mark’s, West Frankfort—Matthew 22:1–14, Isaiah 25:1–9
This is, by any stretch, a “hard” parable. It starts out well enough: a king’s son is getting married and the king wants to throw a lavish party for a bunch of A-list guests. But the A-listers all send their regrets, for a variety of reasons, or just don’t show up. So the B-list gets invited, and the only thing you need to do to be on the B-list is be 98.6 and vertical, which means that a bunch of people who would never dream of being invited to a party at the king’s palace get themselves invited to a party at the king’s palace. Everybody is Cinderella for a day. But from there, everything tanks. The king got so angry with the original A-list invitees who had snubbed him that he sends in troops and burns their city down. So … that’s not very appetizing. But it gets worse. The king is working the room during the party and finds a guy who doesn’t have the right outfit on. If your first thought is like mine, it’s like “Give the guy a break, Your Majesty. He only got the invitation right when it was time to come to the party. And at least he was considerate enough to show up, unlike those other losers whose city you burned down, right?” But the king tosses the guy out on his ear, and basically condemns him to hell. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth of any fair-minded person.
Now, the academic community, the critical scholars of the New Testament, do manage to throw us a bone here. Most of them agree that we’re looking at what were originally two completely separate parables—one about the wedding banquet where all the common people get invited to an event they would ordinarily be excluded from, and then another parable about somebody who shows up at a social event inappropriately dressed—when, presumably, he should have known better and had the ability to comply with expectations if had wanted to. Somewhere along to way to Matthew’s gospel getting written down in final form, the two stories got stitched together.
This realization certainly takes a bit of the moral sting out of narrative. There isn’t quite the level of injustice and cruelty that appear to be there at first. But … still. We, after all, have it the way we have it, with the parables being run together into a single narrative, and we just can’t help putting ourselves in the shoes of that unfortunate fellow who showed up in the wrong outfit, and we wonder whether we might find ourselves in a similar situation—not literally, but with respect to God, because, quite clearly, the king in both segments of the parable is meant to symbolize God.
So, in case we have concerns along those lines, here’s the good news: We’re still invited to the banquet. Yes, the whole thing is an allegory. The king is God, and the king’s son, the one whose wedding is the occasion of the banquet—that’s Jesus. It’s a metaphor that we find in other parts of the Bible—thing of the Book of Revelation and the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in the last chapter. The original A-list invitees, the ones who offer flimsy excuses and never show up—these represent Israel in the time of Jesus. Complacent Israel—“We’re God chosen people, don’t you know? Look how righteous we are.” And the last-minute guests, the B-listers? Well, that’s us … us Gentiles. So, we’re still invited to the party, and, if we but ask, Jesus himself—the one in whose honor the party is being given—Jesus himself provides us with the proper attire for the occasion.
Jesus does this—provides us with the proper wedding garment—in two ways. First, he does it by, as it were, “lending” us his own outfit. St Paul teaches us in his letter to the Romans that those “who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” or “clothed themselves with Christ.” The technical theological term for this is “forensic justification,” but you don’t need to remember that! The important thing to know is that, as we approach an all-holy God as “miserable offenders,” using the words of our own Prayer Book, we get to hide behind Jesus. The righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness. We are “covered” by Christ. We get credit for who Jesus is. This is truly a great comfort, if we think about it.
But who wants to live indefinitely in borrowed clothes, right? So, Jesus doesn’t just lend us an appropriate wedding garment; he helps us acquire one of our own. He doesn’t just provide for us forensically; he provides for us actually. By supplying the grace by which we can cultivate such habits as repentance, humility, and amendment of life, Jesus gives us our own, permanent, wedding garment. Possibly the most neglected part of our Prayer Book is something called the Exhortation, which may be used in public worship, but is never mandatory. Still, some of this language might be familiar to some of you: “As the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy sacrament, so is the danger great if we receive it improperly, not recognizing our Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, lest you be judged by the Lord. Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed.” My friends, this—the examined life, the contrite heart, humility before God and others—this is the wedding garment that we need to put on in order to live eternally in God’s nearer presence.
With such a garment, we are able to enter into and rejoice in the marriage supper of the Lamb, the Celestial Banquet. We have a partial description of the banquet in the Isaiah reading this morning:
… a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.
Throughout the scriptures, “banquet” is the principal metaphor for the consummation of God’s redemptive purposes, all that God wants to accomplish in and for the world he created. And that eternal, celestial banquet is prefigured every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Mass, even under the simplest of circumstances, we transcend time and space and are drawn up into that nearer presence of God. Indeed, even now, let us keep the feast, confident that we are properly attired, even if our clothes are, for the time being, borrowed. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.