Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Gospel we hear the parable of the Wedding Feast from St. Matthew’s Gospel. The parable likens the Kingdom of God to a king who made a marriage feast for his son. He sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage, but they would not come. He then sent other servants reiterating that all things were now ready for the feast. But they refused. Some returned to their worldly pursuits, while others treated the servants harshly and killed them. The king was so angered by this that he sent his army to destroy the murderers and burn their city. He then told his servants that since those he had invited had refused they should go into the highways and call as many as they could find into the feast. When they had all come to the feast the king himself went in to see the guests. He saw a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. He rebuked him and cast him out of the feast. “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
But what was the context in which Jesus told this parable? It is the equivalent of the parable of the great supper in St. Luke’s Gospel which we hear each year on the Second Sunday after Pentecost. In both these parables the theme is a great feast in which those who were invited were so preoccupied with their own interests that they refused and it was those who were not originally invited who ended up attending the feast. The feast in question is the feast of the messianic age at the end of time that the prophets had looked forward to, when God’s Kingdom would finally come and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Though still future in its fullness, the Kingdom was now being manifested in Jesus’ own person and ministry. In his words and mighty works he summoned all Israel to repent. But it was not on the whole the outwardly pious and respectable who responded, but the social outcasts whom the self styled righteous deemed the “lesser breeds without the law”. Hence, the parable describes the effect that Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own person and ministry had upon his contemporaries. Those who saw themselves as the pillars of the law mostly rejected his message, but the social outcasts were moved to repentance and found a place in the Kingdom.
While the parable of the great feast in St. Luke’s Gospel is primarily about those who refused and those who responded to Jesus’ message in the towns and villages of Galilee, in St. Matthew’s Gospel the parable forms part of Jesus’ final challenge to the Jewish nation in Jerusalem to repent. It follows the parable of the Wicked Husbandmen in which the rejection of the message of the owner’s son is the climax of the past history of rebellion against the prophets who spoke truth to power in previous ages. Hence, the assault on the son is of a piece with the previous murderous assaults upon the prophets of old. The Jewish leaders rightly perceived that this parable had been spoken against them. In the same way the parable of the king who made a wedding feast for his son tells the story of the past history of refusal and rebellion by the Israelites climaxing in their murderous assault upon the kings’ servants. The king responded by sending his armies against the murderers and destroying their city. This is again a commentary on the response to Jesus’s message. It meant blessedness to those who accepted it, but for those who refused it he foresaw a fearful judgement to come upon the nation and the destruction of the city and the temple at the hands of pagan armies. “If only thou hadst known, even thou in this thy day, the things that belong unto thy peace, but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straighten thee on every side; and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee; and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone, because thou hadst not known the time of thy visitation” (Luke 19). There would be judgment on the nation that had repudiated him, but vindication for Jesus himself and his followers.
But the parable now has a further twist with the story of the man who came without a wedding garment and whom the king cast out of the feast for being unprepared. This seems an excessively harsh and disproportionate response. Why should a man be cast into the outer darkness simply for being unprepared and not having a wedding garment? The man without the wedding garment stands for those who claim to be Jesus’ followers but do not show charity in their lives and so find themselves condemned in the end. Though Jesus sharply criticised the scribes and sages of his time for the self righteousness, superficiality and inhumanity of their behaviour, he none the less laid high moral standards upon his followers. The righteousness to which they were called was a greater righteousness than that of the scribes because it focused not simply on outward conformity to external observances, but on the purity of the heart, as a tree is known by the fruits that it produces. Claiming to be a follower of Jesus and not showing charity in dealings with others was like the man who expected to be included in the marriage feast but did not have a wedding garments. Our faith is worthless if we do not exercise charity in our lives.
But does not this reintroduce an element of moralism into the gospel and undermine the message of God’s grace to the undeserving? It only produces this effect if we forget that the wedding garment is not something which we possess ourselves, but is rather God’s free gift to us. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves and it is only by God’s grace that we are enabled to think, to will and to do that which is good. The wedding garment is God’s gift to us that enables us to exercise charity towards others. It is not a righteousness of our own strivings, but rather the outworking of God’s grace in our lives. Let us take heed to the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle to the Ephesians and be renewed in the spirit of our minds, casting away the old garment of the sinful life and put upon us the new garment. Let always remember that this is not a garment of our own works but is the garment that is bestowed on us by God’s grace in Christ, “the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness and truth.”