Benediction Online

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Wedding Robe

Matthew 22:1-14

Did any of you hear Prairie Home Companion yesterday?

If you did you will know that in the News from Lake Woebegone, Pastor Liz was worrying about her sermon for today because the gospel reading was, in Garrison Keillor’s words, such a “cranky bit of Scripture”.

It certainly is. And it highlights one of the difficulties of reading Scripture on your own without the benefit of a faith community. If we take this on face value we end up with a judgmental and vindictive God who picks on people for not wearing the right clothes. Since that’s not the God we know, we need to put this in a context which can help us understand it differently.

It seems that both Matthew and Luke drew from a written source which is not longer in existence. Scholars think this because they both include parables and sayings of Jesus which are remarkably similar but do not appear in Mark or John. But in this case there’s quite a difference in the way Matthew tells the story from Luke’s version. It seems that Matthew rewrote it to make it into an allegory of salvation history – a way of telling what he sees as the central movements of God’s actions and plans for all of human history.

Since it’s an allegory and not a parable, we don’t need to bother too much about whether the details of the thing make sense the way they do with regular parables. So, for example, we don’t need to worry about how the king keeps dinner warm while he makes war against the first set of invited guests, destroys their city, and then has the banquet in that same city on pretty much the same day. That sort of thing is no problem in an allegory.

In this allegory, the first guests stand for
Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem. If you detect some similarities between this story and last week’s story about the vineyard workers who killed the messengers sent by the owner, you are on the right track.

In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of

Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. Remember, the apostles are represented in this allegory by the slaves who are sent to everybody else, to the lower classes, to women, to the gentiles, to the ones who had been ignored. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite.

Not to judge but to invite. I’m going to linger here for a moment because in Luke’s version this is pretty much where the story ends (Lk. 14:16-24). Jesus adds that none of those originally invited will have a taste of the banquet – why? Not because they are bad but because they refused the invitation.

The image of a heavenly banquet is an important image in the Old Testament when the Lady Wisdom invites all who wish to come to her house to eat and drink wisdom. It is also important in our liturgy. We think of our Eucharistic meal as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, a foretaste of the time when we will gather with all the saints and feast together in God’s house.

Our task is like that of the apostles – to invite, not to judge. I know I often judge whether it’s the “right time” to mention God or St. Benedict’s in my conversation. Sometimes people are receptive and sometimes they are not. It is not my place to judge whether they are someone who would fit in here or someone who seems receptive to God. It is my place to invite. Having said that, there can be risks involved, as these poor servants found when they gave the invitations to the original guests and had their throats slit in thanks. So it is I think, important that we are prayerful in our interactions with friends, neighbors and strangers. Prayerful so that we can hear when it is the best time to speak and the best time to refrain from speaking.

But make no doubt about it, it is our job to invite and not to judge the person or the outcome.

Ok, so what about the poor guy who isn’t dressed properly? Pastor Liz of the Lutheran church in Lake Woebegone concludes “Well sometimes life’s a bitch.” That’s certainly true and I imagine most of us have had experiences where we feel like we stick out like a sore thumb, because we misread the situation in some way.

But that’s not where Matthew is going.

Ever since being a child I’ve wondered where all these people kept their wedding garments. I have tried to imagine the beggar getting up from the dusty roadside, saying “Wow, a wedding” and rushing to some shower and locker room where all the poor of the city keep their wedding garments.

Better minds than mine have struggled with similar questions. Scholars have spent a lot of time guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.

Some interpreters even say the problem is the man’s silence, not his clothes. Still others like to talk about an inner state or condition. Some say the wedding robe is a metaphor for a “garment of good works.”
Saint Augustine said that the wedding robe was “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.”

Another theory is that the wedding garment was a robe that the host gave to the guests as they arrived that the guests put on over whatever else they were wearing.

But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!

Perhaps what Matthew is saying is that the church is full of people at different stages of spiritual growth, and that we can’t impose our own ideas of what is true and good on anyone else. Just like God does not impose on us. We still have free will. Here at St Benedict’s we have name tags to help those of us (like me) who have sudden senior moments not to embarrass ourselves, and also to help us learn each others names quickly. But we don’t insist that everyone wear them.

You don’t have to conform. You don’t have to wear the wedding robe. God invites everyone and it is up to each one of us how far to accept the invitation. There may be people sitting here this morning who are really here because they like the company and the coffee is so good. That’s just as OK as the people who are sitting here because they hear God’s calling and are saying yes to growing more and more Christ-like despite the cost. We do not get to judge one another.

I know there are people sitting here this morning who wonder why they’re really here. Who feel a bit like the guy without the wedding robe. So perhaps the message of this parable to them is that’s ok. You are a free being just as God is Free Being and you can decide. However there are consequences to your life decision.

Just as there are consequences for all of us. Have you accepted the invitation but neglected to take on the “garment of good works” or the “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith”? In every moment there is an opportunity to change your mind and get a clean, new, shiny wedding robe.

Let’s do that today.

With thanks to the Rev. James Liggett and Sermons that Work:


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