What’s God’s Dress Code
Presented -October 12, 2014
(Isa. 25:1-10a; Phil. 4:4-9; Mt. 22:1-14)
The Old Testament Lesson pictures God’s final presence with people as a sumptuous banquet where everyone will have enough and more than enough to eat. Such an image may have limited appeal in our world where most of us have never been very hungry, but in Jesus’ world where very few of his hearers had ever been anything else, it was very attractive. Later in history than this text that is now in the Book of Isaiah, though it was probably composed as late as the 4th century, this picture became a common enough one of what would happen when God’s Messiah – the anointed one who would usher in the divine “kingship” – comes to the earth. God’s folk were invited to the banquet where everyone would have a superabundance of food in company with the King and the Messiah and would join God in conquering death and the pall death spreads over us.
Our Gospel Lesson is a story set against this background in which the king invites guests to the wedding feast for his son. Both the title son (of God) and Prince were common enough titles for the Messiah in Jesus’ day. We don’t think by necessity of the Messianic banquet when we read Matthew’s story, but Jesus’ first hearers would have. In this parable, the picture of the Messianic banquet is united to images that speak of God’s tremendous new work, inaugurated in Jesus’ preaching, and that grow out of the previous two parables (the Gospel Lessons for the past two weeks). To review, in the first two parables, participation in God’s new work is experienced only by those whose hearts are transformed by God’s vision for the world, and who do God’s will out in the world (not just in church), rather than by those who have such external religious qualifications as the “right” ethnicity or religious background.
This third parable, like the others, is both comforting and disturbing. It is comforting in the same way that the other two stories are: God chooses to do the divine work through those who have been transformed inwardly, not those who simply enjoy political and religious privilege, and who think of the life of faith as an exercise in correct doctrine and purity (especially the purity of others). Matthew 22 contains the same kind of picture. Those who ought to have been thrilled to receive an invitation to the royal wedding banquet because they’ve all the supposed qualifications not only don’t show up and so insult the king tremendously. Further they actually kill the messengers who bring the invitation. So the King comes and destroys these ungrateful churls and sends out new invitations to everyone, anyone, who will come, “both good and bad.” So, those who are really and truly hungry are the ones who will be invited to the meal, not those who hold the correct rank and station in life. As the old Gospel song had it, “Whosoever Will May Come.”
Then comes the disturbing part of the story. At last, the King comes in to see his guests and the only thing the king sees in the room is one who is improperly attired. He inquires how he ever got past the doorman without the proper garb, and had him thrown out, bound hand and foot, “into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:13).
The proverb or saying with which this parable ends is also disturbing – at least to me – “Many are called, but few are chosen.” How did it happen that only this one poor chap didn’t dress for dinner? Does the end of this story not undermine the point of all three? A garment that can be seen is presumably an external qualification – which is as far as possible from the open and inclusive kind of invitations that we have held up for the past two weeks! What is God’s Dress Code? What’s the right “wedding garment?”
Let’s think about this a little. First, let me remark that this last paragraph about the wedding garment is not found in any of the other Gospels, it is Matthew’s own contribution, composed, most practically, because he thought his congregation needed to consider such a matter. Then, he composed it in order to conclude not only, or even primarily, this third parable of the wedding feast, but the combination of all three; one about the two sons, one about the tenants in the vineyard, and one about the guests at a wedding banquet. Second, let me say that our text isn’t intended to be read as a literal story of something that either has happened or will. It is a parable, a story to hook us in and make us think. We can clearly see that both Jesus and Matthew intended it to be an imaginative story by the fact that the king has a meal all prepared, and lets it stand ready while he musters the army, goes off and besieges the city of these wretches who refused his invitation and killed his messengers, burns it to the ground, and dispatches them, all while the roast is on “warm” in the oven. Who does that? No, it’s a story, so it won’t hurt us to say that the wedding garment is as symbolic as the dinner. The question remains, however, in spite of understanding these preliminary matters, “What’s the wedding garment stand for in the story?” “What’s God’s dress code?”
In each of the three parables that we’ve looked at in the past three weeks there is a visible characteristic of those who have “the right stuff” for the kingdom. In the first parable (“The two sons), that visible characteristic is doing rather than just talking. It was the tax collectors and prostitutes who actually did not depend on their heritage and what they’d always been taught and followed, instead John, first, then Jesus. In the second parable (The tenants in the vineyard) is was new tenants that would actually give the landowner (God) the fruit of the vineyard (unlike the current tenants). What might that visible characteristic that Matthew calls a “wedding garment” be in this parable? We’re not looking for something we’ve never heard of before but that fits with the other two parables in the series.
If the other parables are anything to judge by we can see the garment as representing visible behaviour or action. But behaviours and actions, though externally visible, grow out of beliefs and motivations that come from the inside. What Jesus is saying here is that, although, all are welcome to respond to the invitation just as we are, it is not OK for us to remain just where we are. If we want to continue faithful to the people of God, we must buy into the vision of God, or we’ll never truly belong deep down. But then, we must involve ourselves in action to realize God’s vision for the world as a place of love, mercy, justice, and righteousness. It is this that unites the Body of Christ into one. There may be many differences, but there is unity in this action. Jesus is saying just what he has said before, “By their fruits, you will know them.” Or, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and don’t do the things I say?” It’s better to do than to talk about doing. The test of discipleship to Jesus lies in what we do not in what we confess or claim, and surely not in our pedigree, spiritual or otherwise. That is the visible characteristic with which disciples are to clothe themselves. That is the garment appropriate to the great Messianic banquet.
For the third time, Matthew added this part of the story because it was his view that his community of faith needed to hear this. In his culture, the king would have provided appropriate wedding garments for those who didn’t have them. That would not have happened often. In this parable however, it would happen frequently when the servants go and round up everyone they can find good and bad (as the story says). The garment is provided but one actually has to wear it so it shows, otherwise it is an insult to the king in that culture. I would guess that there was a struggle within Matthew’s community (or synagogue) to want to major on externals, traditions, and doctrines, rather than on actions. He is not trying to say that it makes no difference what we say, but it makes a greater one what we do, and that we need to make sure our saying and our doing are consistent with one another. If you want, not only to begin in the vineyard, but end up at the Messianic Banquet, then it’s important to carry through on living consistently by God’s standards of love, inclusion, mercy, justice, and grace. If acting in a Christ-like manner were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
That last little proverb, “Many are called, few are chosen,” needs to be understood along this line, too. It’s not designed to scare us into thinking that very few will make it. In Hebrew thought the words “few” and “many” would not lead to the thought of how many is many, how few is few. They are intended to mean something like, “fewer will finish the race than start it because it’s easier to start running than it is to keep on for a long time.” Not everyone will persevere in the hard work of imitating Jesus in the world.
Garrison Keillor told one of his long stories about an annual church meeting (Lutheran, not Baptist, of course). On the way out to the parking lot, one parishioner says to another, “Well, what did you make of that? The reply came, “Well, I’m not sure what it is we’re supposed to do, but I know that next year we’re supposed to do more of it.” How can we avoid leaving here this morning, unsure what it was that this poor chap did that was wrong, but that whatever it was, we’ve got be less like him in the future? I hope I haven’t been that unclear, but positives are always better than negatives, and here the Epistle to the Philippians gives us positive reinforcement and encouragement.
What Paul said in the early part of the passage, that we didn’t read, is to stand firmly together and help one another through disagreements. Care for one another is crucial. At the very end of the passage, which we did read, Paul encouraged these folk to make things that are true (meaning, straight and real) honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy their focus. These are not exclusively Christian virtues, they are good human virtues. And it’s really OK for Christians to have these, too! Let these good positive things be the focus of your thinking, planning, and valuing, rather than framing what you think about, plan and value with negativity, carping, whining and faultfinding. Be a positive force in our various communities that proposes constructive ways forward, not a negative force that proposes ways that tear people apart and divide them. Paul, then, tells them to follow his example in what they do, growing out of these positive thoughts, plans and values. This thinking is intended to lead to consistent acting. Find constructive, positive role models and follow them in acting out what is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. And, O yes, one more thing: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul. This doesn’t mean walking around with a sickening grin, it means having the quiet joy that comes from knowing the God of wholeness and living gently alongside of God. Paul says, since the Lord is near, don’t worry, but rather pray diligently and thankfully. Since God is near all is well and all will be well.
What happens, when we allow all this, is that God’s own peace, God’s own wonderful sense of wholeness washes over us and keeps us at the table with our sisters and brothers, even when they and we are difficult to sit with, at the great marriage feast of the Messiah, dressed just as we ought to be.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Sermon created by Rev. Dr. Timothy Ashley