Posted October 15, 2017
The parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22: 1-14) is about God’s grace unexpectedly lavished on all and sundry. That’s how Christians saw themselves in St Matthew’s day. They had suddenly been called from the highways and byways, so to speak, and brought into fellowship with the King’s son. It was not because they had deserved it. Some were good people, some not so good. But whether good or bad, they were all invited to the feast by sheer grace. The parable is about me and you. It wants to remind us that being a Christian is pure gift, and it wants us to appreciate that fact and to rejoice in it.
But there is a sting in the tail, for the parable contains a warning. There was one guest who was suddenly deprived of the grace that had been lavished upon him. In this story of grace, of the gift freely bestowed on all and sundry, there was after all a non-negotiable condition in the small print, and failure to satisfy it resulted in this guest being deprived of the gift itself. The man did not have a wedding garment. So he was excluded from the banquet by the King who had graciously invited him.
What is this wedding garment that you must have to remain in the feast? What does it stand for? Throughout the centuries there have been many suggested answers to that question. Did the wedding garment stand for baptism? Or did it stand for faith? Or did it stand for good works? Probably St Matthew himself, being a good Christian while never ceasing to be a good Jew, would say that the garment stands for good works, doing the will of the Father – a recurrent theme throughout his Gospel. On the other hand, if you were to adopt St Paul’s point of view, you would have to say that good works, along with faith and righteousness, are all the creation of the Holy Spirit, all part of the gift, which would have been lavished on all the invitees at the time of their accepting the invitation, and constantly kept alive in them by the Holy Spirit throughout the wedding banquet and beyond.
So what does the wedding garment stand for? Perhaps the very question is misguided, and all the suggested answers are equally misguided. Perhaps the wedding garment doesn’t ‘stand for’ anything. Not all parables are allegories. We don’t ask what the fatted calf ‘stands for’ in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or what the Good Samaritan’s oil and wine, or his donkey, ‘stand for’. The point of the present parable is simply the dissonance or incongruity of the situation. There was something ridiculously discordant between the guest and his situation.
The purpose of the parable is not to get us guessing what that missing wedding garment ‘stands for’, but to shock us into thinking about what might be discordant in our own situation; to jolt us into putting into words what we have always shied away from acknowledging; to get us to unmask ourselves to ourselves, and to confess to ourselves that – for all our Christian practices and professions of faith, and in spite of all the grace that surrounds us, in spite of our very presence at the banquet – there may be something in our hearts, in our life and attitudes and our daily conduct, or something unresolved in our past, something that we blithely ignore from day to day, that creates in our hearts a profound dissonance with the feast that is going on around us: some covert dishonesty, maybe; some egoism that blights everything; something that, although perhaps buried or glossed over by ourselves and unnoticed by our fellow Christians, is in the King’s eyes at odds with our being at his feast, and which one day may lead to our being excluded by the gracious King who put us there.
Don’t ask the parable what that thing is. The parable is asking you.
Fr Tom Deidun