Abbey 2011 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – A
Matthew 22:1–14 (10)
For the past few weeks the image of the vineyard has dominated our Sunday word. But the theme has been the announcement of the Kingdom and the response to that. Today the theme of Kingdom and its acceptance or rejection remains, but the image has changed. Today we are asked to recall one of Israel’s favorite images of the Kingdom to come, namely a banquet. The feast where God is the host and all are invited not to a simple meal but to a table filled with richest and the best of food and drink.
Isaiah places this meal of the future on God’ s mountain and adds to it the theme that tears and pain and death will also be swept away. It is truly the meal that awaits us after death; it is the picture of heaven, of paradise restored. Jesus’ parable features a banquet also, but we have to admit that it is a bit more complex than Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah’s vision is on the grand scale: everyone is invited and apparently will enjoy God’s hospitality in a world transformed. Jesus’ story is not so simple. That banquet has now become a wedding feast and those invited, well that is where the image gets very interesting.
Isaiah’s vision may be other worldly, situated clearly in a time that is yet to come, a vision of hope. And yet it is believable. Jesus parable is a of a different kind than we are used to. As Matthew recounts it, it has lost some of the background of everyday life. The story has become what we call an allegory. Each element of the story signifies something else. It may be possible for us accept that someone would actually turn down an invitation from a king. Highly unlikely but still possible. What is a bit farfetched is that we would beat up and kill those who came with the invitation. We could appreciate that the host would be rather upset that people would refuse an invitation for what they thought was more important business. But I think we would find it too much to believe that soldiers would be sent in to kill the murderers and destroy their city; hard to believe that a king is waging war against those who refused and then killed his messengers and all the while the food is on the table waiting for guests to come! Then there is that odd ending about the king finding someone in the hall without a wedding garment when these guests were invited in off the street in the first place. It is all a clue that there is another story being told here, and indeed there is.
Similar to last Sunday’s parable about tenants of the vineyard, we are listening in on the story of God’s dealing with his people; a history of salvation. The event is the wedding, the wedding of God’s son with his people. This wedding is to be the climax of God’s covenant with his people. Hearing the parable we are not wrong to conclude that Jesus must be the God-King’s son and that throughout history messengers have come to say the Kingdom and the wedding is at hand. These messengers we can take to be the prophets. But people were busy about their own lives. They no longer cared about God and his banquet; they enough food of their own; they were self reliant now, no need for God. Business came first, never mind other priorities. So another group of messengers is sent. These are the Christians of Matthew’s time. And they experience persecution. Read the Beatitudes again and it is clear that persecution was an experience of the early followers of Christ. The destruction of the city is an allegory for the destruction of the Holy city Jerusalem in 70AD. Some Christians at the time saw it as a punishment from God, much as at the time of the great exile in 587 BC when it was understood as a punishment for breaking the covenant. The leaders, the Jewish Christians said, have rejected the great prophet whom God sent, namely Jesus from Nazareth.
Now comes the second list of guests: this time anyone out in the streets can come in. And notice that the group is a mixed group, the servants are bringing in “the bad and the good.” In the framework of the allegory, the invitation to join the marriage of the Son has been extended to the Gentiles, and a mixed lot at that. Now the King comes in to judge.. One is found “without a wedding garment.” On a realistic note this is an impossible expectation. How can people from the street have a wedding garment? But when we switch to an allegory mode, we can discover what is meant here. Clothing is often a metaphor for good works and faithful discipleship. St. Paul speaks of the baptized as “putting on the Lord Jesus” and that they “have clothed themselves with Christ.” Perhaps the key to the wedding garment lies in Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians on their community life, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” And then he continues, “and over these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3.12-14)
It is not too farfetched to understand our wedding garment as this clothing of love. This is the good work that we bring with us into the final banquet of the lamb. The invitation is generous enough and Jesus says, many respond. But he goes on to point out that “not all” or “only a few” will actually make it to the great table. In other words, baptism may be the initial response to the invitation, the call. But it doesn’t stop there. It is a matter of a lifetime of getting on the clothing that is the way of the Lord’s discipleship, his way of service. It is easy to step into the waters of baptism but it takes a life time to strip off an old self focused only on my self-sufficiency. Jesus calls it denying oneself and following him instead. Baptism is only the beginning. The banquet is at the end. And what we are wearing matters.
The allegory puts a challenge to us. We are invited guests. How do we respond to the call to the marriage feast? Too busy to come, other priorities, too self-satisfied? And if we do come, what are we wearing? It seems it is not enough just to show up at the wedding banquet. We have to come with something. We are to come with a garment of a life time of loving, selflessness, of putting others ahead of us.
This parable calls us to an honesty about our lives. It asks us the question: “How are you living out your baptismal call? What have you done with the white garment you were given then?” It was to remind you of your dignity. You were told to bring it with you for the final judgment. The judge will look to see if you have lived up to your dignity. In all honesty, we may have let the garment slip off or even exchanged it for another, less demanding perhaps, maybe even more comfortable (wedding clothes are not known for being comfortable). Isaiah offers us the vision of the final banquet where death no longer threatens. It holds out the hope that God will nourish us and satisfy our longings. Jesus reminds us that while we may be fascinated by the vision, we are not there yet. There is a journey ahead of us. We have the markings that we are one of those to sit on God’s holy mountain, but those markings must be exercised.
At every Eucharist we have a glimpse of the final banquet and the love of the wedding garment. Each Eucharist we hear of “my body given up for you,” “the cup of my blood poured out for you for forgiveness.” When those words have become the clothing of our lives, the source of our good works; when they have penetrated our hearts, then at the great banquet when the King comes in to judge the guests, our wedding garment will mark us as “chosen, as beloved.”