It used to be easy: knowing what to wear to a wedding. If it were in the afternoon, you wore one thing. If it were in the evening, that meant something else. But what about today? If the wedding is not in a church (but in a park or a restaurant or a public space), what do you wear? If it’s the second or third wedding, does that factor into it? If it’s a commitment service or a Holy Union, and the expectations are different, what do you wear?
Imagery of feasts and banquets runs throughout scripture. Then, as now, what one wears to a banquet matters. But in biblical wedding feasts, one didn’t just get party favors, one was often given a new garment to wear. For a guest NOT to have the right wedding garment on really meant something. It meant that one was for some reason refusing the hospitality of the host. It meant not only a breach in etiquette, but it could easily be understood as an insult, a refusing of generosity, a vulgar assertion of pride.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew understands that his Christian community has problems. They struggle with a number of questions. How is it that we’re so small, they ask. Why aren’t more people believers? How do we continue without a temple? How do we live as outcasts from the religious establishment?
We have our own questions: As so many of us travel, what are the risks in terms of terrorism or in terms of disease? What is the stock market going to do next week? How is our family going to make ends meet? How is our church going to meet the expectations and hopes for its budget next year? As we approach elections in a few weeks, what direction will our community and our country take?
To the people of Matthew’s community and to us, Jesus tells us to focus on the kingdom of God. Focus on the kingdom—that place, that day, that way of seeing that is far off in the future, but also has already begun to unfold even in our midst.
Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a king who gave a marriage feast. He sent out a first wave of invitations, but a lot of those people couldn’t be bothered. Then he sent out another wave of invitations, and some of those people not only ignored the invitation, but abused the servants and even killed them. [You begin to see language that Matthew’s community of young Christians would have found very familiar.] Finally, the king says, “ok, then invite everyone. Throw open the doors, put the food on the table, tap all the kegs and invite as many as you can find.”
It’s a wonderful image. It’s an image echoed in our first reading where God is indeed the “Lord of hosts” —presiding over a feast for all people, a “feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees (rich, flavorful wine). And such a Lord of hosts not only makes sure everyone has enough to eat, God watches over each guest, caring for each one.
Feasting that brings together both the bad and the good. Feasting that draws in people no matter what their background, no matter what their nationality, no matter what their intelligence or qualifications or talents.
In today’s Gospel, the problem is not that the wrong person got in. Everyone was invited. But the person refuses to wear his wedding garment. And the king shows no mercy. Here again, we see that Jesus is talking about much more than simply a wedding feast.
This is perhaps the wedding feast of all feasts, the feast at the end of time, the marriage of Christ with the Church, that feast referred to in Revelation as the “supper of the Lamb.”
He is “bound hand and foot, cast into outer darkness, where people will weep and gnash their teeth.” Jesus says, “Many are called but few are chosen.” But in effect, isn’t he actually saying, “Many are called but few choose to remain?” Much is offered, but few choose to accept. Remember that all are invited. All. The choosing is ours, whether to accept the invitation, enjoy the feast or go on in a different direction. Jesus knew what we know by experience, that no matter how lavish the feast, how extraordinary the food, how splendid the company, there will be those who accept the invitation, walk in, and then sort of look around bored, and decide, “hmmm, you know, I’m really not all that hungry….”
All are invited, but there are expectations of the guest. In today’s Gospel, so much hinges on the wearing of the right thing. When we get to that final feasting, will we be ready? Will we be wearing the right thing? Of course, the garment is a symbol. St. Paul helps us unpack that symbol in his letter to the Colossians, when he says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3). We are to clothe ourselves with Christ himself, with his words, with his actions, with his heart. If that feast were today, what would we wear?
Perhaps some of us might be overdressed. We’ve worked so hard at faith that we almost wear our faith—our theologies, our ideas, our understandings of the world. We have seen what we have seen and can no longer be surprised, or angered, or delighted. We moved along heavily in our garb. A wedding garment can seem like a light thing, lighter than we might have imagined, simpler, and easier.
Others of us might be underdressed. We might have accepted the invitation, but refuse to come to the table. Perhaps we don’t think we’re worthy. Perhaps we’re still suspicious. Or perhaps we’ve simply not noticed that even though all are invited, few are chosen, or rather few chose to be a good guest.
At our baptism we are washed clean. We are made new. In some churches, a white garment is placed over the baptized person and as the garment is placed on the baptized, the person is told “you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ so that you may have eternal life.”
We’ve been talking about a feast of biblical proportions. We have a sense of what we should wear. But how do we lean toward that vision? How do we develop a foretaste of things to come? Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest who died last year, helps us think about this. In a wonderful prayer, he helps us set our palate for things to come. He prays:
“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 278.
If we try, each meal, each Eucharist can be a foretaste of what is to come. What we wear to the feast matters, but not in the way we usually assume. Faith calls us to change our clothes, so that what we wear increasingly resembles that white garment of our baptism, that same garment given to us by God. May we continue to practice our feasting. May we have minds and hearts large enough to perceive the wideness of God’s mercy.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.