In today’s Gospel Reading (Matthew 22:2-14), our Lord, Jesus, tells a parable about a Wedding Banquet. But this isn’t just any Wedding Banquet. This is a Banquet for the Wedding of the King’s Son…a Royal Wedding with a Royal Banquet. It’s highly likely that none of Jesus’ listeners had ever been to a royal Wedding, or a Royal Banquet. But, of course, stories of such a thing had reached the Galilean countryside, and they could certainly imagine the scene that He was verbally painting for them…it was something they could only fantasize might ever happen to them. For most people listening to Jesus, this story would have been shocking. Actually, it should be shocking to us too. Can you imagine getting an invitation from a wealthy King to help Him celebrate the most joyful event of His life…and then rejecting that invitation?
In the first century, Middle East, royal wedding celebrations lasted for several days, and the Banquets that accompanied them were the most amazing and momentous social events of anyone’s lifetime. Upon any King’s banquet table would be such a splendid and sumptuous selection of delights, that most invitees would never again experience during their lifetime. Now, it might seem strange to us that the King would wait till the food was already on the table before He sent out messengers with His invitation. But that wouldn’t have been strange for Jesus’ hearers. You see, in those days, there was no email…no e-vite…nor were there even printing presses back then. Instead, a couple of weeks before the wedding, the King would send out His messengers to his beloved friends and family and respected members of His court with the Good news about the upcoming celebration to ask those honored guests if they would be able to come. When the meal was actually prepared, the King would send out a 2nd set of His messengers, back once again to the ones who had consented the first time, to let them know that the banquet feast was now, finally set for them. If, upon that second invitation a guest who had been honored with such an invitation now changed his or her mind about their original promise to come, then that showed great disrespect, or even disdain for the King.
Actually, in Jesus’ story, both the King and His messengers were most especially treated with disrespect. For those who rejected their King’s loving hospitality, they met up with an end consistent with their actions, the total destruction of everything dear to them.
In spite of those invited guests’ disrespect for the King, and their sudden refusal to come, the King wasn’t stopped from continuing His celebration…so He then sent more servants out, with missionary zeal, to invite more people… …people from the back alleys…people from the furthest corners of His Kingdom to come celebrate the banquet feast of His Son’s marriage. The invitation didn’t just go out to His beloved friends and family, it didn’t just go to the respected nobility of His Kingdom, but it ended up going out to everyone….offering His love and generosity and blessings and a great honor to even the least within His Kingdom.
Brothers and sisters in Christ…make no mistake about it…God is the King that our Lord speaks of in today’s parable…the King of glory! The wedding He speaks of is the marriage between His Son, Jesus Christ, and His Bride, the Church. The wedding banquet He speaks of is the feast of faith we experience at the Eucharistic chalice…a miracle whereby He feeds us Himself…a meal that He died to prepare for our sakes, a delight that we could never in our lifetime experience otherwise. The chalice is the bridal chamber—the honeymoon bed, whereby this marriage is consummated, where we become mystically “one flesh” with the King of Glory. And this parable is about anyone who refuses to take advantage of attending such a marriage banquet invitation. Can you imagine declining the invitation of a King? Can you imagine rejecting the invitation of God Himself? Can you imagine that God goes to all the trouble of laying out this banquet before us and the response of someone calling themselves a Christian…calling themselves Orthodox is… Meh…??? Is that the way a King should be treated? Is that the way the King of Glory should be treated?
But there’s another detail in Jesus’ parable, which carries with it a little sting— that poor wretch who enters the feast unsuitably dressed. The King honors all of His guests by giving them a garment—a festal robe—fit for such a royal celebration. But there’s one guest who doesn’t appreciate the honor given him—he’s not reacting appropriately to the grace given him—and he belittles his Host by not responding to this great honor fittingly. The King is visiting with his guests, and as He looks across the room, he sees this man who’s not bothered to wear the wedding garment that the King has supplied him. And he asks him how he got in to the party without a proper garment. And the man says nothing. He’s “speechless.” So, the King has the man bound-up and throws him out of the banquet to meet his own dark demise—as it says, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So let’s talk about the wedding garment for a moment. What is this wedding garment that Jesus puts so much emphasis upon? We mention this wedding garment every week in the prayer we recite together just before receiving communion. We say, “How shall I, who am so unworthy enter into the splendor of the saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me since it is not a wedding garment.” There’s an amazing hint given to us when we attend the Bridegroom Services during the first three nights of Holy Week. As we enter into Holy Week on Sunday night, we cast our gaze upon this icon of our Lord—O Nymphios—The Bridegroom—and we’re overwhelmed with the awareness that we haven’t come dressed for the party the way our Lord has—we’ve cast aside the robe that He has for us because we’d rather put on something more to our liking…something more comfortable…something that fits our will, not His.
How is our Bridegroom—the King of Glory—dressed for this great wedding celebration? He willingly wears the robe that was put upon Him to mock Him as King. He has received upon his head a symbol of the world’s contempt—an agonizing crown of thorns. And, He holds within His hand a make-believe royal scepter, made of a mere swamp-reed, which was meant to ridicule Him. In the greatest expression of Divine Glory, He wears humility…which is the Godliest virtue above all. As our eyes behold this icon, honoring this greatest of all mysteries (that God would allow Himself to suffer such indignity on our behalf) …there’s a certain hymn that emerges amidst the Bridegroom Service: It says, “How shall I, the unworthy one, appear in the splendor of Your saints? For if I dare to enter Your bridal chamber with those saints, my garments will betray me: for they are unfit for such a wedding. The angels will cast me out in chains. cleanse the dirt of my soul, O Lord, and save me in Your love for mankind. O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues.” Does any of that sound familiar? The bridegroom service helps us to understand what we mean by this prayer we recite each Sunday.
And the wedding garment our Lord, the King provides to the guests and to His bride, is found in the grace of our baptism—a participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ—the very same thing we see Christ wearing in this Bridegroom icon. “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ…Hallelujah!” But the guest in today’s parable has chosen to no longer truly wear Christ…that baptismal garment, which is a participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. This is what we are supposed to put on every day and every moment of our lives…for His sake…a life of loving, self-sacrificial offering on to His Church and on behalf of others…a daily expression of the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. What our Lord is trying to get us to realize is that while we may call ourselves His followers, while we may call ourselves Christians, while we may call ourselves Orthodox, and while we may be involved in many Church activities…we may also, in fact, not be living our lives in such a way as to lead us toward Salvation—union with Him. And it’s very likely that we haven’t come properly clothed for the consummation of this marriage at the chalice.
Every Sunday we’re invited to the Eucharistic banquet to celebrate our mystical union with our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. We need to ask ourselves, is this an invitation that I really want to take lightly? Should I ever refuse this invitation, saying, “It’s no big deal”? or “I’ll just blow this off today”? Should we think we have more important things to do like taking care of our home, our family or our business, or our recreation?
And lest those of us who regularly attend this marriage feast think too HIGHLY of ourselves, we should understand from Jesus’ words today that not everyone at the banquet table is good…some have come quite badly prepared…not wearing their baptismal garment of self-sacrificial offering to God’s Church and to others for the sake of loving Christ.
When we come to this wedding feast and our lives are filled up with so many things that aren’t Christ, and our hearts are full of bitterness towards someone, the King will notice that we’re not wearing our wedding garment. If this is the case, then Holy Communion won’t be for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Such a partaking of the Eucharist will cast us further into darkness, sadness and suffering. The famous contemporary Orthodox theologian, Fr. Thomas Hopko, who went to be with the Lord just three years ago, used to say frequently in his lectures and sermons, that many of us get worse rather than better, when we attend Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments of the Church. Why is that? Because we don’t want what God wants for us to do and to be. We just want what we want and we don’t want to repent and change our lives.
Jesus’ final words in this passage say, “For many are called but few are chosen.” In another place Jesus says, “Many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24). This parable doesn’t mean that God calls a lot of people, picks over them, and keeps only a few. Rather, it means that God calls everyone and by His merciful grace, He gives them the free-will to respond—to be chosen—to become His favored ones…called out from the called. To experience His Life in us—we must respond to the call, using the free will energy that God gave us for that purpose.
All at the same time, Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Meal of the feast, and the Wedding Garment—all of which are a way of describing union with Christ…what St Peter describes as “partakers of the Divine Nature.” It’s silly to ask whether this is talking about faith, or love, or the fruit born from our lives into the lives of others around us. It is none of them separately, but rather, by God’s grace and our own free-will—faith that works by love that bears forth fruit—being whatever God requires of us, with God’s reigning over our hearts. Without entrusting the whole of our lives to God, and without setting our lives apart for fulfilling God’s will, no Christian will experience the grace of God’s joy in their lives.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us are called to the wedding banquet every time we have a eucharistic service at Church. The only way we can become God’s chosen people, is to 1) accept the invitation, 2) attend the banquet each week, and 3) come prepared with our appropriate wedding garment.
As with last week’s parable, we find a powerful and even devastating warning to those of us who aren’t willing to allow God to rule over our hearts regarding the whole of our lives. So much of 21st century America revolves around getting us to make light of our sin (to claim that sin isn’t really sin and love works differently than how God says). So many merely rely on God’s mercy as a kind of insurance policy. Popular culture in America offers us a very distorted relationship with God…and therefore, often, we’ve become influenced to practice such distortion. This parable is meant as both an invitation to God’s mercy and a wake-up call to our casual approach toward it.
If we look carefully, I’m sure that each of us can find ourselves in each of these characters in this parable. There are those of us who have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ since childhood. Do we also make lame excuses for not giving careful attention to God’s call? Likewise, there are those of us who take it so lightly that we’ve not bothered to prepare the garment of our souls with the virtue of self-sacrificial offering to Christ’s Church and to others for Christ’s sake? Each of us who’ve been called to the wedding banquet, do we fully appreciate God’s generosity toward us, and respond accordingly?
Let’s pray that our loving and generous God, may always find us properly dressed and worthy of the joy of His Son’s Wedding Feast.