Jesus was not afraid to tell the religious leaders just how wrong they were in depending for their entry into the kingdom of heaven on being part of God’s chosen people. He showed them that others might be invited to be part of the wedding feast in heaven, people whom those leaders might never consider to be suitable. In order to get his point across, Jesus told parables which illustrated this truth. The parable of the wedding feast has a twist at the end which leaves everyone in the same position: it is simply not possible to take our entry into heaven for granted. God does everything he can to help us but it’s up to us to respond.
The readings for the service at 2pm SLT on Thursday were Ezekiel 36:23-28, Psalm 51:7-12 and Matthew 22:1-14. My reflection is given below.
In many different ways during his ministry Jesus sought to teach people that the arrival of the kingdom of God meant that things had changed. Many of the ordinary people and some of the most despised – the tax collectors and prostitutes – were open to his message as it was one of hope for them: the first shall be last and the last first. When you’re towards the bottom of the pecking order in society this is really good news.
Those who were the leaders of the people, the religious authorities, found it much harder to accept what Jesus was saying. They were experts in the law and lived very moral and upright lives, following every detail of the Law of Moses. They challenged Jesus, wanting to know by what authority he taught. Having asked them in return where John the Baptist’s baptism came from and thus silencing them, he went on to teach three parables on the theme of replacement – those who thought they would inherit the kingdom of God would be replaced by others.
The parable of the wedding feast is the third of these parables, aimed at the chief priests and elders of the people. It was the norm for a feast such as described to involve people from a wide area for a period of several days. An invitation was sent out in advance, to which those invited gave their reply, and then once the feast was ready another invitation was given. In this parable the guests had two, not one, follow up invitations.
Refusing a direct invitation from a king would be a great insult to him. It seems that those invited didn’t appear to take this seriously. Some of them paid no attention to the servants, they were indifferent. Others were actively hostile, murdering the servants. As a result the king arranged for their city to be burnt, a punishment only used in response to serious treason or revolt against the king.
The king represents God of course, and the feast is the banquet in heaven when the guests will enjoy fellowship with God. Those first invited are the Jews, particularly the leaders in the context of this parable. The king sends his servants to find alternative guests to attend his feast. They were sent to the edges of the city, where the urban area gave way to the surrounding countryside. The people there were on the edge of society, perhaps the righteous poor or the lepers or the criminal underclass, with no distinction made between Jew and Gentile. The king had said to bring everyone the servants found. They were certainly not the sort of people a king might be expected to invite to his son’s wedding feast. However, they responded and enough people accepted the invitation to fill up the wedding hall.
We have a picture of a wonderful party with the accommodation filled to capacity with people who might never have expected to attend anything so grand. It would be rather nice to leave things there but Jesus adds a twist to the story. The king enters his wedding hall to inspect his new guests and his gaze fixes on a man who is not correctly dressed for a wedding.
At our daughter’s wedding we had some people tell us on the day that they couldn’t come, so very much like this parable. Also, like the king, we invited others to take their place. It was all very last minute for those guests. Unlike those who had expected to attend, they didn’t have time to go out and buy a new outfit for the occasion but they arrived in suitable clothes. They had a wonderful time, perhaps all the more so as it was an unexpected opportunity to attend.
I would tend to expect that when Jesus told parables he was logical and I have always struggled with the logic of this part of the parable. If the people invited were from all walks of life, perhaps some being homeless, how could the king expect them to have a suitable white garment to wear at the wedding feast? Surely this is totally unreasonable. They were not in the same position as our last minute guests were, having something in their wardrobe which would be suitable.
There are some passages in the Old Testament which may suggest that a king supplied garments for his guests to wear (Genesis 45:22, 2 Kings 5:22, Esther 6:8-9 if you want to check them out). Not everyone agrees that this is right but it would make most sense in this parable. God has provided for his new guests the appropriate clothing to wear at the heavenly banquet. Nothing impure can be in God’s company so the garment would be righteousness, possibly indicating that God sees the righteousness of Jesus when he looks at us – ‘imputed righteousness’ is the term used for this. Not only does God invite his guests, though they have done nothing to deserve the invitation, but he provides what they need to be properly clothed, to be acceptable to God.
The issue of the improperly clothed man still remains. We have to assume that he was given the garment like everyone else but in some sense he didn’t put it on. It seems the servants didn’t notice a problem but the king, God, does. This suggests that it is an internal problem as it’s God who sees the heart. I don’t think this is at all easy to explain and I’m struggling to work it out myself. It doesn’t help that scholars have more than one view on this so all I can do is my best.
I’ve come up with a couple of pictures that might help. I was thinking of our son when he was very small, putting his little feet into his dad’s big shoes and clumping around in them. Just wearing the shoes didn’t make him into a man but he was trying the role out for size and for a little while he pretended to be a man, acting like his dad. The other picture is that of dressing our avatars here in SL. Putting on a very different outfit can feel strange, even though it’s only on our avatar. We might not feel it fits who we are. However, if we continued to wear that kind of clothes, hair or whatever, gradually we would relate to them and our behaviour would begin to match. That’s why it’s so dangerous for people to think that what their avatar does in SL has no effect on the actual person. Eventually it does have an effect.
Like our young son or the avatar with a new look, just putting on something new and different is not what God is asking when he provides the wedding garment. We have a choice about whether we wear it or not but even just wearing it is not enough. We have to be changed internally by it; ‘wearing’ is much more than an outward show. This is why God is the one who can detect that the man is improperly dressed because God is not distracted by outward things.
The readings from the psalm and from Ezekiel talk of the heart, the person inside, our thoughts, feelings, behaviour. It’s in allowing the Spirit to change us that we really ‘wear’ the garment that allows us entry to the wedding feast. Anyone can come to the feast, even those who seem to be the most unlikely guests, but they must embrace the demands that accepting the invitation places on them. As Jesus said just a little before this passage, the kingdom will be given to those who produce fruit in their lives not those who just go through the motions of faith.
God invites us, whether we feel worthy or not, and he provides us with all we need to be righteous in his sight through the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we will allow it. Listen to this lovely verse from Isaiah 61:10:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul 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 like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor