October 15, 2017, What Wasn’t He Wearing? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000046
We’ve arrived at a part of Matthew’s gospel where things are very tense between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. When he arrived in Jerusalem, there were multitudes of people who came out to cheer and welcome him – the whole city heard the uproar. And they took up this chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Which means “Save us! Rescue us!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when people asked what was going on, the crowds told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth” He came into the city riding on a donkey, and everyone remembered the prophecy that said, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.”
Hopes were at their very highest. The common people were sure that Jesus was about to reveal himself in power and drive out the oppressing Romans. Meantime, the Jewish authorities, who maybe understood what was going on a little more clearly than the commoners did, were terrified that this rabble-rousing peasant was going to bring the fury of the Roman Empire right down on all their heads – and they weren’t wrong about that. But on top of that, they were seriously disturbed that Jesus’ popularity was undermining the respect and authority they felt they deserved as men who had followed the Law of Moses and studied the Scriptures their whole lives. They were jealous of him.
As soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the “honest businessmen” who made a living changing currency and selling pigeons for Temple sacrifices, knocking over their tables and denouncing them, saying, “You have made this house of prayer into a den of robbers.” And then, to make everything a thousand times worse, all kinds of people poured into that holy place, even common beggars, people who were blind and lame, and Jesus welcomed them and healed them as if he had a right to be there.
So that tension, that open hostility, even, is the setting for these parables we’ve been reading over the last few weeks. Jesus told a series of three stories. The first one is the parable of the Two Sons that Helen talked about: the one son who refused to obey but then changed his mind and heart and obeyed after all, and the other son who claimed to be obedient but changed his mind and heart and chose NOT to obey. Then there was the story last week of the vineyard, that story that recalled God’s old love song, but ended up with the tenants being thrown out for their wickedness and new tenants called in to take their place.
And finally, today, the third story is about a king who prepares a huge wedding banquet for his son. Invitations are sent out by messenger to all the appropriate people, but when the time comes those people can’t be bothered. Some of them just carry on with their business as usual, tending their fields and so on, and others, more wicked than those, beat up the messengers or kill them, rather than accept the king’s invitation. Those unworthy guests are obliterated, erased from the face of the earth, and their city burned right down to the ground. And then the king sends his servants out to fill his banquet hall with anyone they can find.
Clearly, Jesus was telling these stories for the Jewish leaders who were so opposed to him. They knew it, too; they weren’t stupid. They recognized that Jesus was comparing them to the son who claimed to be obedient but turned away from God in the end; to the tenants who refused to welcome the son of the Master and bear the fruits he had every right to require of them; to the invited guests who were so busy with their own priorities that they ignored the invitation of the king and brought about their own ruin. Jesus himself said that his mission was to the house of Israel, and these stories were a wake-up call to his Jewish brothers, a call in the strongest possible terms – out of his great love for them, as we said last week.
The question for us, then, is this: do these parables speak only to those Jewish listeners two thousand years ago, or do they have a message for us as well? When we read this story, just as when we read any passage of Scripture, is Jesus speaking to us today? When we read the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, in the year 2017, in Norwood, NY, lo and behold, we find ourselves. We obviously can, and should, examine ourselves carefully to see if we, like the guests in the story, like the Jewish authorities, are so taken up with our own priorities that we have failed to hear the invitation of God. But this parable also has a unique message to us as Christians.
When the king in the story finds himself with a feast and no feasters, he sends his servants out to bring in everyone they can find to fill those empty seats. They go along the main road that cuts through the heart of the city and they bring in the beggars and the craftsmen, the children playing on the street corner and the prostitute selling herself in the alleyway. They bring in the pickpocket preying on his innocent victims in the market and the mother hanging our her laundry. They follow the road out through the city limits and they bring in a foreign businessman who doesn’t even speak their language and a robber lying in wait to cut his throat and snatch his wallet. They bring in a leper living in wretched isolation and an itinerant preacher dressed in rags. The good and the bad alike, rich and poor, local yokel and immigrant, the servants invite them all; they are all welcomed, wonderfully and unexpectedly, to this glorious banquet of the King’s Son.
And that is a very good picture, I think, of us, of the Church. Here we are, a mixed bag of bad and good and everything in between, each and every one of us. We have been invited into this community, not because we are special or particularly deserving of recognition, not because we are of any particular race or social class, not because we have deep understanding or perfect morals, not because we know the secret password and follow the rules, but purely and simply because we have been brought in by order of the king himself. We are the lucky rabble.
One of my favorite Scriptures is in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he wrote: “Think about who you were when you were called, my brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many of you were powerful people, not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…”
But that brings us to the really troubling and bewildering part of this story, when the king comes in to see all of his guests and there among them is one man who has no wedding garment on. The king says to the man, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” Jesus says the man is speechless; he has no excuse to make. And so the king calls security and has this unfortunate man handcuffed and thrown out. In the blink of an eye, this story seems to go from a moment of the most wonderful grace, to the cruellest and most inexplicable condemnation.
And I am sure that Jesus intends for us to be troubled by this, to let it stop us and make us think about what on earth is going on here. We know that that the king’s banquet hall is full of people who have no reason to be allowed in other than that they were invited by the king himself. Jesus has told us, the servants were ordered to bring in everyone, good and bad, right off the street, to fill up the hall. What could it possibly be that this one man was lacking that everyone else had, from the poorest beggar to the most respectable citizen?
Saint Augustine wrote a wonderful meditation about this very question:
“What is the wedding garment that the Gospel talks about?” he wrote. “Very certainly, that garment is something that only the good have, those who are to participate in the feast… Could it be the sacraments? Baptism? Without baptism, no one comes to God, but some people receive baptism and do not come to God… Perhaps it is the altar or what a person receives at the altar? But in receiving the Lord’s body, some people eat and drink to their own condemnation (1 Cor 11:29). So what is it? Fasting? The wicked also fast. Going to church often? The wicked go to church just like others…
“So what is this wedding garment? The apostle Paul tells us: “What we are aiming at… is the love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Tim 1:5) That is the wedding garment. Paul is not talking about just any kind of love, for one can often see dishonest people loving others …, but one does not see among them this love “that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” Now that is the love that is the wedding garment.
The apostle Paul said: “If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal… If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-2). He said that even if he had all that, without Christ “I am nothing.” It would be useless, because I can act in that way for love of glory… “If I have not love, it is of no use.” That,” says Augustine, “is the wedding garment. Examine yourselves: if you have it, then come to the Lord’s banquet with confidence.”
There is a story in Luke’s gospel about a time when Jesus was visiting his friends in Bethany, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus would later raise from the dead. On one particular day, Jesus was sitting and teaching and Mary was sitting at his feet, listening. But Martha, like so many of us, was running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to see to every detail of the food and the table setting and all those things we obsess about when important company is visiting. And finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, look how I’m doing all the work here! Make my sister help me.” And remember what Jesus told her. “Martha, Martha,” he said, “You are worried about so many things. But only one thing is necessary.”
Only one thing is necessary. Love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith; love that drew Mary to sit at the feet of the Lord, drinking in his every word; love that flows from the thankful hearts of those who have been brought in to the banquet, surprised by the grace of God. We have been brought into the house of our Father a mix of good and bad, worthy and unworthy, each and every one of us, through no power or deserving of our own. But only one thing is required of us. Our part is only to love in return, as we have been loved. And that is our wedding garment.