Proper Dress for a Wedding – Oct. 11, 2020

Proper Dress for a Wedding

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Matthew 22:1-14

October 11, 2020

Main Idea – God’s welcome is wider than ours.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Two weeks ago I was invited to a small outdoor wedding. I spent some time trying to decide what to wear.  I didn’t want to be too dressy or too casual.  As it was outside, I didn’t want to be cold or overheated. I wanted to wear the right shoes. I wanted to dress in a way that showed respect to the bride and groom and was appropriately celebratory.  Today’s parable is about a wedding and the importance of the right wedding clothes.  And of course, as a parable of Jesus’, it is about so much more. 

Parables are like multi-faceted jewels that reveal something new each time we contemplate them.  Jesus taught in parables because they challenge our thinking and our understanding at a level deeper than conscious thought.  A parable takes an everyday occasion and gives it a twist that grabs our emotions and our intuitions before we are even aware of what we think. Today’s parable is very challenging and it will require stretching our understanding much like the last parable we considered.  This morning we will explore this parable’s traditional interpretation, the troubling questions that interpretation raises, and another way of looking at this story.   As we move around in the story, let us remember that God’s welcome is always wider than ours.

Matthew places this parable as the last of a set of 3 parables all dealing with Jesus’ authority.  The setting is in the Temple after Palm Sunday and after Jesus has cleared the Temple of the merchants and money changers.  It was a time of high tension between the followers of Jesus and the Roman and religious authorities. [Luke tells a very different version of this parable and puts it in a completely different setting.]  In Matthew’s life, tensions were high between his community and the Jewish community from which they were being forced out.  Jewish communities received some special privileges from the Roman Empire to worship as they chose.  Those being pushed out lost those privileges and were danger of being harassed and arrested by Rome.  This conflict between Matthew’s community and the Jewish community colors the whole gospel with Pharisees being identified as the ultimate bad guys.  Matthew’s anger and fear led him to demonize the community to which he had belonged.

This conflict with the Jewish community led Matthew to understand this parable as a simple allegory.  The King is God.  The Son is Jesus.  The wedding feast is the Messianic banquet. The first, unworthy guests are the Jewish people.  The first slaves are the Hebrew prophets. The second slaves, who are mistreated, are Christian prophets and evangelists. The second set of guests are the Christian community. The guest without a wedding robe is a new Christian who is insufficiently committed.  This allegorical understanding is the way the parable has been interpreted for most of Christian history.  The benefit of this interpretation is that we can rest in being the good guys.  We of course, would accept God’s invitation.  We of course, would be sure to wear the right wedding clothes.  Yea, Us!!  All good, right?

The problem with this interpretation is that while it pats us on the back, it demonizes the Jewish community, (tough luck for them) and it has contributed to hateful anti-Semitism for centuries.  It also glosses over the horrific violence attributed to the King in the parable.  Is this really our understanding of God?  violent, capricious, and petty?   Sadly, some outside of the church believe the church is just like this.  Judgmental, self-congratulating, and irrational.  More interested in putting on a good show than in improving the state of the world. Some within the church see God as wrathful and quick to take offense, and that only some will pass muster and be welcomed in.  Many people have been hurt by the church because of their refusal or inability to conform to the church’s accepted standard, to wear the proper wedding robe. 

So what are we to do with this parable?  What does it have to teach us?

One hint may be in how Jesus sets up the parable.  Usually, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…, a treasure, a pearl, a mustard seed”  but here Jesus says “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…” or maybe not.  This introduction encourages us to look deeper into the story.  So let’s enter into the parable again.   

The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  The King sent his slaves to call all the important and powerful people who had been invited to come to the banquet but they would not come.  Perhaps they were rivals of the King, perhaps they didn’t like him, perhaps they had their own important obligations that they needed to fulfill.  Whatever the reason, they sent their regrets.   The King sent out more slaves saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” This will be the party of the year, the greatest party ever!  You don’t want to miss it!”  But those invited made light of it.  They did not take it seriously.  They had other, better things to do, like taking care of their own farms, their own businesses.  When the King’s enemies saw that everybody was ignoring and dismissing the King, they saw an opportunity to further weaken and shame him by seizing, mistreating, and killing his slaves.

The King was enraged and humiliated.  He sent out his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Because the rich and powerful would not come to his party, he burned down their whole city, killing and displacing everybody there, the invited and uninvited.  8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” I don’t care who they are.  We just need a big crowd for this party.  I must have a huge celebration for my son’s wedding. I can’t be embarrassed in front of the new in-laws.

Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. Those now invited were thrilled!  Those who could, got dressed up in their finest clothes.  They recognized the opportunity to rub shoulders with the King and perhaps improve their station in life.  They were excited to have a chance at glamour and power.  Being worthy of the invitation no longer mattered.  All that mattered was that the hall was filled and the king’s humiliation was assuaged.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” It seems the King had forgotten that none of the rich and powerful were at the party, only those swept up off the street.  This man was dressed in his everyday clothes and he gave no excuse for why he had not dressed up. He had no interest in currying favor with the King.  He had no need to make himself look more important than he was.  His refusal to play along with the King’s charade left the King momentarily speechless.   Once he could speak, he said to the attendants, “Get rid of this guy!” “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  

This King acted like Herod, not like God.  He was arrogant, vindictive, and violent.   He was more interested in the appearance of approval than he was in authentic relationships.  Once the rich and powerful snubbed him, he didn’t care who came to the party as long as they looked the part.  He manipulated everyone around him to support his own version of reality.  Sadly, tyrants throughout history have acted in this way.

What if the guest without the robe is actually Jesus?  The one who refused to go along with the charade.  The one who was cast out, arrested, crucified for the crime of refusing to support an unjust regime.  Let’s sit with that a minute. (repeat)  How does that change our understanding of this parable and our understanding of our faith?  It certainly cuts through our pretensions and our smug judgementalism.  This parable challenges our privileges and assumptions.  Instead of “I’m sure glad I’m not those people”, this parable teaches us that while the world will go to great lengths to prove otherwise, God welcomes us just as we are.   It calls us to focus on what is good and true rather than what appears to be most powerful and worthy.

Our society is sick with the demonization of some people and the adulation of others.  We cannot agree on what is true and we have leaders who insist on their own version of reality.  We are living in a dangerous time.  But Jesus shines through the artifice to reveal the truth of God; the extraordinary, scandalous, inclusive love of God which does not care about appearances, does not care about status, does not care about proximity to power, that actively works to lift up those whom the world disdains.

Today’s parable can be reimagined as “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding where all are extravagantly welcomed just as they are.”  May we welcome others as God welcomes us.

Let us pray,

Welcoming God, help us to keep our focus on you rather than the rewards of this world.  Help us to welcome all to your love, providence, and grace.  Amen.