Friday, 24 August 2012

The wedding garment

Yesterday’s gospel reading was a bit of a puzzler and as I don’t think I ever heard it convincingly explained in a homily or made satisfactory sense of it myself, I started digging a bit into it. The text is from Matthew’s gospel (22:1-14) and presents the parable of the king’s son’s wedding feast where those who are invited refuse and the king’s servants bring in whomever they can find. The parable then ends in one of the guests being expelled for wearing the wrong gear plus there is a bit of killing too. Here is the full text:
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call those who had been invited, but they would not come. Next he sent some more servants. “Tell those who have been invited” he said “that I have my banquet all prepared, my oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, everything is ready. Come to the wedding.” But they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his servants, maltreated them and killed them. The king was furious. He despatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding is ready; but as those who were invited proved to be unworthy, go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” So these servants went out on to the roads and collected together everyone they could find, bad and good alike; and the wedding hall was filled with guests. When the king came in to look at the guests he noticed one man who was not wearing a wedding garment, and said to him, “How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

So, what does all this mean? I had a quick look at homilies over the last 2000 years and found the following:

  1. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century AD) basically considers this parable self-explanatory :|

  2. St. John Chrysostom (4th century AD) gives the parable a historical reading whereby those invited are the people of Israel while the random crowd picked from the cross-roads are the Gentiles. He also focuses on the invitation to the latter being due to no merit of their own but wholly down to grace. The most interesting part if the parable to me is the poor guy who gets kicked out after he was invited at random. Here St. John focuses on the fact that he condemns himself - only after the king personally questions him about his improper attire (representing the corrupted state of his life) and he is unable to bring anything to his own defense, is he condemned. St. John also makes a point about this guest having had a clean garment given to him to begin with: “And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.” This addresses the prima facie peculiarity of the parable: why punish someone who was invited in at random. The answer seems to be that the second cohort of guests were given appropriate attire (grace) but failed to maintain it.

  3. St. Augustine (4th-5th century AD) offers a rather convoluted explanation of this parable, spending an inordinate amount of time on evidencing that the one expelled guest actually represents a whole category (he is to be commended for his rigor though). As regards the expelled guest, St. Augustine equates the wedding garment with charity and quotes St. Paul to warn against its imperfect variants :““though I distribute all my goods for the use of the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” This then is “the wedding garment.””

  4. Martin Luther (14th-15th century AD) reiterates the historical reading of St. John and St. Augustine and, as regards the expelled guest he characterizes them as follows: “These are pious people, much better than the foregoing; for you must consider them the ones who have heard and understood the Gospel, yet they cleaved to certain works and did not creep entirely into Christ; like the foolish virgins, who had no oil, that is, no faith.” That is, Christians, who were given everything, but have squandered it. What is it that God wants instead? Here Martin Luther has the following to say: “Now, what do we bring to him? Nothing but all our heart-aches, all our misfortunes, sins, misery and lamentations.” God wants us to be open with him and give him our all - weaknesses and strengths included.

  5. Finally, Pope Benedict XVI also offers his reading of this parable in a recent sermon: “God is generous to us, He offers us His friendship, His gifts, His joy, but often we do not accept His words, we show more interest in other things, we put our material concerns, our interests first.” As far as the expelled guest, Pope Benedict says: “on entering the hall, the king sees someone who has not wanted to wear the wedding garment, and for this reason he is excluded from the feast.” again echoing St. John’s position that the wedding garment was available to the guest but that it was his choice not to wear/maintain it. Pope Benedict then quotes St. Gregory the Great, who says that “this garment is symbolically interwoven on two pieces of wood, one above and one below: love of God and love of our neighbour.”

This parable has certainly been given a lot of thought since Jesus shared it with his followers and it seems clear that it is squarely directed at those who have heard the call of God to follow him. It is a warning both to those who hear it and ignore it and to those who follow it on the surface, but don't back it up with faith and charity. In no way is this any criticism of sincere atheists/agnostics. Instead it is a rather harsh warning to those of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers, and, as St. John says “indicates [...] the strictness of the life required, and how great the punishment appointed for the careless.” So, instead of a “oh, isn’t this a bit unfair to the poor, random fella” the message is clearly: take your relationship with God seriously - it is no game.