Homily for October 15, 2017
The parable of the wedding banquet is one of several stories that Matthew tells about pretty much the same thing: who is invited to be in relationship with God, and how we respond to that invitation. The first story was about the laborers in the field, where the workers who started at 4pm get paid the same as those who worked in the hot sun since the morning. Though this offends our sense of justice, the point was that grace comes to everyone who desires it, no matter when they come to the table.
It’s helpful to remember Matthew’s context was the late 1st century. Many of the first Christians still held strong Jewish roots, and one of the defining tensions was how much Jesus’ ministry was rooted in his Jewish ancestry, and how much this movement constituted a break from that tradition. Many of the conflicts in the early church revolved around how Jewish the earliest Christians still needed to be, and how to include those who had no Jewish roots whatsoever.
So immediately the question of how much the workers get paid ceases to be about paying the workers the same for less work. It’s a parable about 1st century Gentiles who would presume to follow Jesus despite their lack of Jewish roots. Yet the story also makes an important statement about grace: a conversion of the heart that take place late in life is sacred and valuable, even if it’s unfortunate that it didn’t happen earlier. We are never outside the reach of God, no matter where in life’s journey we are.
What good news this is for someone who’s lived a hard life, perhaps never darkening the door of a church, perhaps living a life of selfishness and greed: God never forgets them, and there’s always that possibility of conversion. What good news this is for someone who’s livid perhaps a softer life, who never misses a Sunday in the pews yet lives judgmentally, loves conditionally, and can’t be bothered to confront their privilege or care for the poor? God never forgets them either, and there’s always that possibility of conversion!
In the parable of the Wedding Banquet, everyone is invited, but not all will respond with the conversion of heart that makes our faith really mean something. The first people whom the King invites reject the messengers. So, the invitation that was previously limited to one family unit, so to speak, is now sent out to anyone who wants to come.
The wedding hall fills with guests, but it turns out that not everyone there is fully there. Oh, they’re physically there, they’ve met the bartender and are schmoozing with the neighbors, but it turns out that not everyone is there with their whole hearts. One man is there without his wedding robe, and the king is speechless.
God invites all of us to the party. But now we see that something is asked of us in return. Andrew Purves writes that “The parable carries us into the subtle relations between the grace of election (all were invited) and the obligations of obedience (to be clothed with Christ, to live in Christ). Grace is freely given, situating us in God’s company by an act of loving election. As a consequence, we are obliged to live as God’s people, according to God’s will for our lives.”[i]
Let’s think first about why this invitation is such good news. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from: you are invited. It doesn’t matter whether your grandmother was on observant Jew or a lapsed Presbyterian: Jesus love you the same either way, and wants you to come to the feast. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, or said, or thought way back when or even last Tuesday: Jesus still loves you, and wants you to come. You don’t have to worry about being worthy, because your intrinsic worth comes from the fact that God created you with love and intention. Jesus loves you, and wants you to come to the banquet.
We get to respond to the generous invitation of God simply by showing up enjoying the party. It isn’t simple, of course. Showing up means delighting in the presence of God, it means grieving with those who suffer, it means living lives of righteousness and generosity. It means being willing to risk something of ourselves, to love courageously, and to place our trust in God.
The wedding party is both joyful and challenging because it’s about invitation, and obligation. We are given an invitation, and we can accept or reject it. And when we accept it, something is asked of us in return…
And that is that when we come to a festival, we dress for a festival! We clothe ourselves with Christ. That image pops us throughout scripture: Paul exhorts the Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”[ii] and in Galatians he writes that “because we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.”[iii] This is about the conversion of our heart, about anchoring our lives on Jesus, about wearing outwardly the faith that we know inwardly.
But it also means going beyond words and ideas and creeds. You see, our clothes say things about us that our words cannot. Think of it this way: in a business meeting, you wouldn’t pair every handshake with the words “Please note that I am a very professional person.” You don’t have to…your suit says that for you. A college professor at commencement doesn’t need to recite her own degrees before her speech…her academic gown says that for her. And in the parable, the one man may have known all the right words, from John 3:16 to the ten commandments, but his failure to put on the proper robes betrayed the fact that his heart wasn’t really in it.
He didn’t wear the robes because he didn’t realize why the feast mattered as much as it did. And what is our Sunday Eucharistic feast, but a reflection of the great heavenly banquet? So it matters that we wear robes, so to speak, that fit the occasion!
Now, in no way, shape, or form is this about what you wear to church. But the meaning of the wedding robe is not so far from how we think about the vestments that liturgical leaders wear. Robert Hovda was a Roman Catholic liturgist who wrote about what vestment say about our worship:
What is most important about public worship is that we gather together for a festival, a special occasion, a celebration of the reign of God that goes way beyond the tight, little, rationalistic, verbose, exercises we sometimes try to make of it into a large, broad fully human landscape, where Jesus is truly the firstborn of a new humanity, and where our liturgical tools (vestments and colors and taste and textures) penetrate the Babel of our words. Good liturgical celebration (and he’s talking about what the officiating ministers wear), like a parable, takes us up by the hair of our heads, lifts us momentarily out of the cesspool of injustice we call home, puts us in the promised and challenging reign of god, where we are treated like we have never been treated anywhere else…were we are bowed to and sprinkled and censed and kissed and touched and where we share equally among all a holy food and drink.[iv]
It isn’t about the robes. It’s about the banquet, which is nothing less than the reign of God, in which the poor are lifted up, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones, where our sins are forgiven, and where we are fed the food and drink of eternal life. The wedding banquet is the transformation of the world, the kingdom of God made real.
On this Sunday of course, on every Sunday, come as you are. The cut of your suit and the cost of your shoes matter little to God. But the great wedding banquet is another matter. On the day of the great feast, when heaven and earth become one, may we be lavishly attired, adored with Christ, and transfigured by the love of God.
Homily for October 15, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 19h Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 23, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4. Robert Purves: Phillipians 4:1-9
[ii] Romans 13:14
[iii] Galatians 3:27
[iv] Hovda, Robert: The Vesting of Liturgical Ministers. Worship, 54 no 2 Mar 1980. p. 106-107. I edited this quote for brevity.