Matthew has Jesus telling three end-time parables about worthiness when he enters the Temple and his authority is questioned.
In the first, Jesus talks about a man who had two sons—one who said he would work in the vineyard, but didn’t; the other said he wouldn’t, but did.
The second is the parable of the talents, in which the Kingdom of God is taken away from renters who were supposed to sow and reap its vineyard to yield a harvest. When they didn’t, the landowner rented his vineyard to others, who produced fruit.
In the third parable, we’re told of the king planning a wedding banquet for his son to which many people have been invited but refuse to come. The king sweetens the invitation by describing the scrumptious food he’s planning to serve. But still they won’t come. So, instead, the king invites everyone – good people and bad – to the banquet.
People come from near and far and enjoy the feast, but one person who’s there isn’t dressed appropriately. The king asks him why his appearance doesn’t show the proper respect due under the circumstances, but the man has no reply. He’s thrown outside and banished from the kingdom.
A similar parable is told by Luke; but this particular story appears in Matthew whose audience were Jewish people in an effort to introduce them to Jesus and get them to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
In that context, at least the beginning of the parable makes sense to us.
God had called a special people to be a nation of priests, witnesses to the one and only God … encouraging others to follow them, mindful of the way. But, despite the cries of prophets, time and again their focus shifted from the Holy One of Israel to their own self-centered desires and idols.
Then, one day, the Holy One of Israel became one with them … yet, still they rejected Him and his voice. Ultimately, the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone and foundation of faith for others.
Understanding the meaning and intent of this parable up to here isn’t all that difficult. It becomes more challenging, however, when we get to the part about the wedding garment. And it gets even more confusing with its footnote about many being called but few chosen.
It’s passages like these that almost make me wish I had a Baptist or fundamentalist perspective, because it would make the meaning of this parable so much easier for me to translate.
Gay people, especially, “get it” when it comes to dressing appropriately for the occasion, wearing white when invited to white parties and leather when going to certain clubs or bars. There’s a time and a place for “drag,” just as we know when and where we’re expected to wear a suit and tie or business attire. Personally, I’m more comfortable wearing my bright, bold “street clothes” than priestly garb and vestments, there are times and places you’ll see me with a clerical collar.
The guest invited to the king’s wedding banquet also knows what he’s expected to wear; but, evidently, he deliberately chooses not to. In effect, he’s looking at the king and spitting in his eye or slapping his face.
“Yes, I’m here enjoying your food and the festivities,” his attitude seems to be saying. “But I’ll be damned if I change clothes or what I’m wearing! I’m here on my terms, not yours.”
From my perspective, this invited guest — who’s been affirmed, included, and welcomed with love and compassion by his host — has committed the unpardonable sin and blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
Which is why he’s been thrown out and no longer resides in God’s Kingdom.
Whether or not he had a wedding garment to wear really is besides the point. Some theologians say that kings often provided their guests with wedding garments, while other scholars will tell you that the king only required those invited to come in clean — not dirty — clothes.
Cleanliness, at least, is a badge of honor and respect if not a Christ-covered life of spotless spiritual sacrifice.
Pitying the improperly dressed man and questioning the king’s severe punishment, some of you may ask: does it really matter?
After all, the king’s servants had urged him to come to the banquet: even though he was at the edge of town, on the fringes of society, they still wanted him to join them. Should a man like this be expected to dress fancily? And should the king really care so much about what his guests were wearing, as long as they came to the party?
Isn’t God’s banquet, the wedding of the Lamb and the church … the Kingdom of God … all about grace? And are we not meant to come, “just as we are?”
When we hurl these questions at Matthew’s gospel, an uncomfortable truth stares back at us: There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s gracious invitation. There is more than one way to dismiss the Kingdom of God.
This is where my Baptist and fundamentalist friends would probably chime in, insisting that the wedding garment represents the blood of Christ, the garments of salvation.
God’s chief desire, I bet they would tell you, is to gather worthy guests for his Son’s banquet. The one who arrives without the right clothes, without repentance and righteousness, is just as unworthy as the one who rejects the king’s invitation outright.
And, you know something? Maybe they’re right!
Isaiah 61:10 uses the clothing image beautifully: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Despite their tattered clothing, the others at this wedding understood the nature of the king’s invitation. Honored by the summons to celebrate with him, they took time to find something to wear, maybe even begging or borrowing to do so. Doubtless, some still looked like people off the streets; but they rejoiced with royalty because they came prepared to celebrate with their lord at the banquet.
Yet this one guest and his clothes betrayed indifference to the king.
No, it’s more than indifference … it’s sheer contempt!
He is there eating the food, drinking wine, enjoying all the mirth and merriment. But he is just as bad, some would say, as those who rebuffed the king’s rule with a last-minute refusal … maybe even worse. He is declining to celebrate with the king and he does so while standing in the king’s presence!
And here, then, is the difficulty: If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d agree that we sympathize with the improperly dressed man, because we identify with his easy-going frivolity. We know God’s grace is wide and welcoming. We know God’s generosity is endless and that God’s mercy endures forever. Why not just relax and enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom? Why not come to God’s party just as we are, rather than worry about wearing robes and clothing ourselves with a banner of righteousness and a covering for our sins?
The answer, I believe, is in the parable: The wedding garment is a tribute to the king. Without it, we are unworthy wedding crashers, fit more for a trash-lined alley. Because, in the banquet of God, our clothing indicates our understanding of the celebration. What we wear reveals that we have accepted the invitation and are willing to join the King in his joy.
Yes, God invites us to come to the wedding just as we are; the invitation is a free gift of grace. But we’re also expected to remember who invited us and why we are there … and that means we should dress accordingly and appropriately.
It’s the quintessential dynamic tugging between grace and works, of our faith as expressed through our deeds.
As with all paradoxes, both are true … and concentrating only on one is unhealthy. The trick is learning to manage the two extremes and, of course, to wear the right clothes and accessories.
Let’s not forget that this passage, as written, was directed at the Jews of Matthew’s time. But what about today? Is there some additional “take-away” we can glean from the Scripture?
Perhaps it’s something as simple as stated by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer and amplified here:
“When you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change … and you change the way you look.”
Then, again, maybe it means that our church bells continue to ring, calling many to worship and follow the Lord … but that it’s no longer the choir robes, shawls, or outerwear garments that matter, but the fruit of the Spirit that signals who we are and what we’re wearing to the Lamb’s wedding?
After all, Matthew 7:16 says that, “by their fruits, you shall know them.” Maybe love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the gifts of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians – are the garments that distinguish us now from being just plain ordinary.
In the end, I submit, it won’t really matter whether we’re gathered in church or at a wedding–but that we’ve changed our clothing and come clean with the LORD!
So, what will you be wearing to the wedding?
You’re invited, of course!
Me? I’ll probably be wearing one of my bright and colorful Hawaiian shirts. But I do hope it will be covered with fruit, that special fruit of the Spirit!