The first time I preached on this text about the King’s wedding banquet was six years ago.
It was before I went to seminary—I was in my home parish, in the process of discerning my call and experiencing some of the things that I would be doing if I became a priest. What I heard most in this parable was: welcome! God welcomes us to the banquet—the banquet of the Eucharist, the heavenly banquet of eternal life. I heard Jesus saying that all are welcome, especially ordinary people. My refrain was: come to the banquet! So after the sermon, I greeted people. One of my friends said: what about that guy who got thrown out? How was he supposed to have a wedding robe when he was just invited at the last minute off the street? Why did he get thrown into the outer darkness? After a deer in the headlights moment, I promised her that the next time I encountered the text I would pay special attention to the last part, to the wedding robe and why the man without it was thrown out of the banquet. Outer darkness. Wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Just gives you the shivers, doesn’t it?
And here we are. Now, as a more experienced preacher, I know that when we hear that God loves us, we are always waiting to hear the condition or the exception. God loves you, BUT you have to meet God’s standards. God welcomes you BUT you have to have a wedding robe. We have anxiety. We are sure we don’t measure up. We are looking for the small print at the bottom of the contract. There must be a catch, we think. This parable might sound like evidence of what we have suspected all along—God’s unconditional love must have conditions, and they might be arbitrary and hidden ones, we think. So is there a catch? What is Jesus telling us in this parable of the King’s wedding banquet?
Whenever you encounter a parable, you can be sure there will be something unexpected about it, even something offensive, if you understand it correctly. If it sounds like an easy, happy story, you have missed something. One question I always ask as I study the text is: who was Jesus talking to? In this case, he was talking to the chief priests and the Pharisees—religious leaders who are lumped together as if they are the same. They are not. The chief priests were the leaders of the Temple, the ones who guarded the traditions, and oversaw (controlled) the people’s worship. The Pharisees were also leaders, more grassroots, who wanted people’s everyday lives to embody their religious beliefs. Like Vatican cardinals standing there listening alongside mega-church evangelical leaders. Not the same, but two groups who were often in debate and conflict with Jesus. Jesus, the chief priests and the Pharisees were in the Temple. The disciples of Jesus were probably with him, and ordinary people too, listening in on the conversation.
Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew’s Gospel we have heard many stories about the kingdom of heaven: it is like a treasure in a field, like leaven in flour, like a mustard seed. Always there is something very unexpected—like workers who came at the end of the day receiving the same pay as workers who started first thing in the morning. In these parables, the figure of the king, the father, or the landowner, is generally understood to be an image of God.
Imagine Jesus standing with an assortment of important religious leaders, telling them that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet a king gave for his son. The king invited all the people you would expect: important people, solid citizens, community leaders, but they all refused to come. A song about this goes something like: “I’ve bought a house, I’ve bought a cow, I can’t come to the banquet now.” Not only did they refuse, but some responded with violence! The chief priests and Pharisees would certainly have understood that they were being criticized. Jesus was telling them they were not hearing what God was telling them to do, that their ways were not righteous, and that they had scorned God’s kingdom. They would expect to be invited to God’s banquet, but they had spurned the invitation. How? They were too focused on their own power and status, and not devoted to justice and caring for the poor. The king had to look elsewhere for people to come to the banquet.
When the king gave up on the usual suspects, he invited the “unusual” suspects: everyone in the street, the good and the bad. All of those tax collectors and sinners who were following Jesus—they knew there was room for improvement in their lives, and they repented and sought to change. A little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you!” Which is more or less what he was saying again here.
But what about that pesky wedding robe?
If the king sent his slaves out to gather everyone—the good and the bad—then what was it about the one guy that got him thrown out? Surely nobody was dressed for the wedding! There was no time for a “save the date” card. No engraved invitation to display on the fireplace mantel. No shopping trip to find the perfect dress. Clearly, much about this wedding robe is allegorical—the robe is a metaphor, not a piece of clothing.
Sometimes it is helpful to look through other passages of scripture to puzzle out the meaning of a term. Several of Paul’s letters refer to clothing that isn’t clothing.
Let us…put on the armor of light… Put on the Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 13:12-14)
As many of you were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourself with Christ (Galatians 3:27)
Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. (Colossians 3:12)
The wedding robe might be the metaphorical garment of righteousness. If we are clothed with Christ, wearing the armor of light, and wrapped in compassion and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, then we are transformed even more than if we had changed our clothes.
You might call it a transformation of the heart.
Does this seem abstract to you? Have we walked so far into the metaphor that it is hard to connect it to everyday life? I have a story to tell you that will show you what I mean.
Nedi Rivera grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
It is a region that is inland from the coast and a hugely important agricultural area. It is the bread basket of California. In 1968, she graduated from college with a degree in physics. That same year, her father was consecrated the 3rd Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin. Nedi married, raised children, and was very active in the church. Sometime in the mid-1970s, she began to hear talk about the possibility that women might be ordained in the Episcopal Church. She began to hear her own call to ordained ministry. Her father, Bishop Victor Rivera, was a prominent opponent of women’s ordination. Nedi went to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California (my alma mater), and was ordained a priest in 1976. Her father did not attend her ordination. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for her.
She served as a rector in the San Francisco area until 2004, when she was called to be a bishop by the Diocese of Olympia, in Washington State. If you have been to the consecration of a bishop, then you know the practice of the Episcopal Church is that other bishops gather and lay hands on the priest, calling on the Holy Spirit to make her a bishop. She became the first Hispanic woman, and the twelfth woman bishop in the Episcopal Church. Her father was one of the bishops who participated in her consecration. Later, Nedi said that her father did not change his mind. He had a change of heart.
Bishop Victor Rivera would be someone you’d expect to be invited to the king’s wedding banquet for his son, but until he was transformed by compassion and humility, he wouldn’t have had that wedding robe required for admission.
We are all invited to the wedding banquet, to the kingdom of heaven, and all that is required is a transformed heart.
I’d like you to think about when your heart has been transformed by compassion, humility, kindness, patience, by your relationship with Jesus Christ. I’d like you also to think about what in your life needs that transformed heart right now. Is there a need for healing? For forgiveness? Where are you being invited to the wedding banquet, and how can you open your heart to accept that invitation? God’s love is unconditional, and all that is required is that you accept it. Remember that you are already clothed with Christ by your Baptism. If you look, you’ll see that you have your wedding robe.