On Matthew 22:1-14 (for this coming Sunday)

I remember being on a retreat with a group of Anglicans once, at a beautiful retreat center at Sewanee Tennessee.  While Methodist retreat leaders tend to pick "feel-good" or thematic Scriptures for our retreats, these folks (being good Anglicans) simply read whatever was in the daily lectionary for our Morning Prayer gathering, and it happened to be the text that we have set before us this coming Sunday in the Lectionary, Matthew 22:1-14. That is the first time that I remember ever really meditating upon this text, and - while I cannot remember what Father Patrick Smith said about it, I do remember thinking that the passage was very bizzarre, especially the bit about the wedding garment at the end.  Why would the original invitees kill the messengers?  That seems extreme to say the least.  Why would the king throw out the man at the end of the parable for wearing the wrong clothes?  That also seemed extreme and disconnected from his previous wish to invite anyone and everyone.  Had he switched from being a King who wanted to include everyone in his wedding feast to one who was now exclusive and elitist based on the most inconsequential of externals?

I've since come to realize that "the wedding garment" is nothing other than the New Life we have in living, covenant, communion with Christ and his own life.  In baptism we "put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27); in our daily living we are to "clothe ourselves with the new life" (Eph. 4:24 - also picking up on the ancient baptismal tradition of putting on a new robe after baptism).  In a similar Biblical image, the "robes" of our lives are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).  One cannot be a part of a Kingdom that is characterized by Compassion, Holiness, Righteousness, Love of God and neighbor while at the same time obstinately refusing to be clothed with the new life that brings these qualities to us.

My fellow Methodist clergy (and Anglicans who have a "Wesleyan accent") may find John Wesley's Sermon 120 - "On the Wedding Garment" useful food for thought on this text (which looks to be unusually short for a Wesley sermon).

Here are also a few comments from N.T. Wright's Matthew for Everyone (Part 2) on this text, that struck a chord with me:

"...this parable...often bothers people because it doesn't say what we want it to.  We want to hear a nice story about God throwing a party open to everyone.  We want (as people now fashionably say) to be 'inclusive,' to let everyone in.  We don't want to know about judgment on the wicked, or about demanding standards of holiness, or about weeping and gnashing of teeth...

But there was a difference between this wide-open invitation (that the King eventually gives in the parable) and the message that so many want to hear today.  We want to hear that everyone is all right exactly as they are; that God loves us as we are and doesn't want us to change.  People often say this when what they want is to justify particular types of behaviour, but the argument doesn't work.  When the blind and lame came to Jesus, he didn't say, "You're all right as you are."  He healed them.  They wouldn't have been satisfied with anything less.  When the prostitutes and extortioners came to Jesus...he didn't say, "You're all right as you are."  His love reached them where they were, but his love refused to let them stay as they were.  Love wants the best for the beloved.  Their lives were transformed, healed, changed.

Actually, nobody really believes that God wants everyone to stay exactly as they are.  God loves serial killers and child-molesters; God loves ruthless and arrogant businessmen; God loves manipulative mothers who damage their children's emotions for life.  But the point of God's love is that he wants them to change.  He hates what they are doing and the effect it has on everyone else - and on themselves, too.  Ultimately, if he's a good God, he cannot allow that sort of behaviour, and that sort of person, if they don't change, to remain forever in the party he's throwing for his son." 

While it may seem a scary parable - a warning of judgment for those who reject the freely-offered invitation (and I suspect some will avoid preaching it for exactly that reason, or will try to "explain it away") - it nevertheless has within it much wonderful news:  The King invites everyone and (when seen in light of the wedding garment as the new life in Christ) the King's Son himself provides the wedding robe for anyone who wants to be a part of the party that is the Heavenly Kingdom - all we have to do is have enough sense (and humility) to accept his offer, rather than demanding to be let in on our own terms, or demanding that his welcome should conform to our expectations.  He, after all, is the one throwing the party.  And we are invited!

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