Sunday the Twenty-eighth

If You O Lord, laid bare our guilt, who could endure it? But You are forgiving, God of Israel (Psalm 129: 3-4).

I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life (Psalm 23).

“The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?' But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.' Many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:9-14).”

“Is there anything in the text we just heard that raises a concern?” This is a question that my undergraduates frequently hear once we have listened to a particular biblical text. It is a question quite applicable to the parable proclaimed this Sunday. A king dispatches servants to gather all who have been invited to his son’s wedding feast. People excuse themselves not once, but twice and even with mind-boggling violence. Since the preparations for the festival are complete, the king instructs another batch of servants to get anyone, both the good and the bad, and bring them to the feast. Yet when one shows up without a wedding garment, he is not only removed from the feast but bound hand and foot and cast outside because of improper attire. Even if we understand the significance of the wedding garment, the sense of the text suggests that there may not have been time for this person to don such a garment. So, what’s up with the white garment?

Many biblical scholars suggest that knowledge of first-century Jewish wedding practices is essential to assist in the salvific meaning of the parable. At the same time, scholars acknowledge that we do not have all the relevant information to have a complete or big-picture view of the wedding feast celebrated in this era. We do know that once a couple married-but-before-they-lived-together (what we would call today a ‘formal engagement’) plans were ‘officially’ set in motion for the eventual day of the bride moving into a home (or room) prepared by her husband. An important note here is that the marriage and its announcement (again, in biblical times this was the commitment but a couple did not live together at this point) came after the families (i.e. fathers) worked out the terms of marriage for their children, especially his daughter. With the announcement of the marriage, the couple was committed (or espoused) to each other. In terms of our culture, they could not ‘see’ or date other people. The groom, guided to a degree by his father, began the necessary work of building a home or adding a room onto the family home for his bride. He enlisted the help of family, friends, and skilled people to make all ready. Others in the town made preparations for the wedding festival, a celebration to mark the glorious event. Some would prepare food, some would hope that their wine would be ready while others took care to have a suitable place for the celebration. The bride for her part lived in a state of expectation not knowing the exact day when all would be ready. She and her friends lived in anticipation of the groom’s voice announcing that all preparations were complete and his bride could now come to live with him. The bride’s father escorted her to the new home and she was handed-over to her husband. As the bride was carried over the threshold of the door (marking the start of living together) the celebration began throughout the town. The festivities could last as long as a week, or until the wine ran out – an embarrassment for sure if this happen too early (cf. Cana, John 2). As for the matter of the wedding garment, scant and sketchy historical data suggests that this was a garment worn particularly by those who had a close role in the proximate preparations for the arrival of the bride. Some data suggests that the wedding garment was the change of clothing marking a transition from preparatory work to festive celebration. Especially for those involved in the proximate and last-minute preparations for the bride’s move to her new home, the wedding garment was a refreshing way of leaving behind the work and entering into the celebration.

Many commentators note that this parable has much in common with the parables of previous Sundays. The theme of ‘gift offered, gift rejected and gift given to another people’ surfaces once again this Sunday. Similar to past weeks, we do not want to lapse into a mentality where we as humans decide a person’s or a people’s eternal destiny. There is only one Person who alone will do that – God the Father. But the “wedding garment” is the ‘sticky’ element this week. Why does its absence cause someone to be violently and quickly booted from the festival? Some commentators have mentioned in passing that the garment is a symbol. While not many have offered insight as to the symbolic nature of the garment, it is worth pursuing here. Admittedly, there is a chasm of difference between our present, cultural meaning of symbol and the theological meaning of symbol. Perhaps in the weeks to come I will offer some words on that topic which I often give to both undergraduates and seminarians. The other difficulty is that scholars at times use the word symbol and it seemingly terminates further reflection and discussion on the point at hand.

When it comes to symbol in the Scriptures, there is no better authority than the Fathers of the Church (and a few Ancient Christian Writers, Origen of Alexandria the notable bright-star in the group. Look for a blog entry shortly on the Fathers of the Church. They are surfacing as a vital resource in the Church’s New Evangelization.) The Fathers of the Church know how to “do” symbol in the reading and proclamation of Sacred Scripture. Too often people believe symbol is a license that gives free reign as to what a biblical text can mean. In these cases symbol is often an opinion that does violence to the literal sense of the Sacred Text. Not so with the Fathers. In their commentaries on Sacred Scripture, they show and teach how to be lead more deeply into the saving meaning of the Text.

As for this week’s Parable, a few Fathers of the Church offer insight on the whole episode, but Saints Augustine and Gregory the Great amply address the wedding garment. A good deal of Patristic commentary notes the variety of people invited to the banquet and all the people – good and bad – who come to the banquet as a result of the ‘last round-up’ commanded by the King. Since the Fathers of the Church often view the many banquets and feasts in the Scriptures as an image of the Kingdom of God, Saint Augustine and company comment that the parable is hope-filled: all are invited to the banquet and some at the festival might even be somewhat unsavory. The point is that nobody came to the banquet as a result of her or his initiative. No one ‘earned’ a place or a seat at the banquet. All were invited as pure gift hence equality among all the guests be they rich or poor, good or bad. All are equal in the eyes of the Inviter. But for the Fathers, especially Saints Augustine and Gregory the Great, the universal invitation is not without a requirement. Both view the banquet as the Church and Baptism as the ‘door’ through which the invitation to the Church is opened. However, the baptized must be clothed in the garment of love. Since a wedding is a joining, the garment expressive of that joining must reflect the essence of that union – love. Saint Augustine further comments that this love is none other than the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ Himself. That love – the wedding garment – must be worn by the baptized 24/7/365.

With these insights it is possible to conclude that the wedding garment speaks of a reality deeper than our good or bad actions. The wedding garment speaks of an underlying attitude or manner of life that is sacrificial in nature. This is especially needed in our culture of moral relevance and goodness. How many times do we hear, ‘Oh, well, you know … she or he (or me, of course!) is a good person.’ An exceptionally vague concept of goodness has become the epitome of life and it is a goodness that is often self-defined. The Christian is not called to goodness but holiness. Our thinking, speaking and acting must go beyond a vague, self or societal construct of convenient goodness. The wedding garment – especially for the baptized and those who consider themselves good – is the challenge to think, to speak and to act sacrificially: the essence of love lived Personally by Jesus Christ Who died that we might enjoy the festivities of the Banquet His Father summons us to in the Holy Spirit.

Father in heaven,
the hand of Your loving kindness
powerfully yet gently guides all the moments of our day.
Go before us in our pilgrimage of life,
anticipate our needs and prevent our falling.
Send Your Spirit to unite us in faith,
that sharing in Your service,
we may rejoice in Your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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