We continue in our reading of the parables of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. Up today: the “parable of the Wedding Banquet.” It all starts out rather normally—A king gives a wedding banquet. Invitations go out, people find excuses to be absent. (Let’s look past the killing and bad behavior on both sides, with the citizens mistreating and killing the servants and then the king retaliating with troops and burning the city). Bottom line: the king has a feast but no guests.
So a second “wave” of invitations go to everyone on the streets—the good and the bad. All are rounded up so the wedding feast is full. (And this is where the gospel of Luke ends his version of the parable). But Matthew has a different take. The second round of guests is there, the banquet is taking place, and the king comes in to see his guests and notices one who isn’t wearing a wedding robe. He then tells his attendants to “bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
And I have always felt—that is so unfair. I mean, it wasn’t as if the second group of guests got any warning. There they were living their lives and they get this invitation, on the spur of the moment, and they drop everything and show up, so the king can have guests at this wedding feast. As the familiar hymn says “Just as I am without one plea.”
And then the king gets mad? What if the person couldn’t afford a wedding robe? Is there a Dress Code of righteousness? Does this mean you have to be able to afford to have special clothes to come to the king’s banquet? What is going on?
As that question percolated in my mind, the first image that floated into my consciousness was the funeral of George Floyd. Burned into my brain is the end of the service, where the pall bearers had collected his casket, and began to slowly walk him out of the sanctuary while the choir sang the song we just listened to, “I shall wear a crown.” The casket swayed slowly, to one side and then another, as the bearers on each side took a step together, and the voices of the choir kept wailing, getting louder and louder, “I’m gonna put on my robe, tell the story, how I made it over…I’m gonna put on my robe, tell the story, how I made it over… I’m gonna put on my robe…”
I’m going to put on my robe
--like the white robes that have been used all over Christendom for the day of baptism
I’m going to put on my robe
--like the white robes worn by the faithful before the throne of God in the book of Revelation (7:9)
I’m going to put on my robe
--like the armor of God that Paul counsels us to wear in Ephesians—putting on Christ?
The belt of truth,
the breastplate of righteousness,
the shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace,
the shield of faith,
the helmet of salvation,
and the sword of the Spirit.
Another image came to me—of Adam and Eve in the garden, recognizing their nakedness after eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and wanting to cover themselves before God. And I thought, interesting that a robe, or any clothing, can be to hide something, or it can be to show off something.
Ohhhhhhhhh, maybe this wedding robe in our parable isn’t an actual garment, not something that we physically take out of our closet, not prom attire, not requiring a big budget and fitting time. Maybe this robe is an attitude, a belief system, our lifetime of living, that we must choose to “put on.”
In the Lukan version of the parable, the emphasis in on the fact that the least of these are the ones who end up sitting down to the feast with the king. I think Matthew is saying just showing up is not enough. You have to be spiritually prepared—symbolized by the wedding robe. And this parable, like the parables of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, or even the parable of the sheep and the goats (our Matthew 25 focus parable), reminds us that we do not know the hour or the day when God will show up—when we will get that invitation—when we will be in the presence of God.
And so, we have to put on our robe, every day when we get out of bed.
We have to put on our robe, every time we step out of our door (or log onto our zoom platform).
We have to put on our robe, each time we interact with someone else. For you never know.
Another image comes to my mind, a personal image—the black robe that Presbyterian ministers have worn for centuries. That black robe, in the beginning of the reformation, would have been seen as differentiating pastors from the brocaded vestments of the priests. Wearing a black robe was a way of aligning yourself with the reform movement—with the desire for all to read and study the Bible—with an emphasis on educated clergy and being on the level of other professionals.
The black robe wasn’t just worn by clergy: it was a symbol of the teacher, the lawyer, the judges, the learned, educated, scientific men of the Renaissance.
I don’t know what other pastors in this day and age feel when they put on their robes—but I know that it always gave me a feeling of weight—that this was a symbol of investiture—that it was a reminder of my status as pastor, just like the stole around my neck. I was dressed up. I was “on.” I wasn’t just me. I was there to do a specific job, to honestly and faithfully convey what I heard in the Word of God, maybe even to embody the presence of God. It reminded me of who I am, and whose I am.
As Seasons of the Spirit comments: “Perhaps the robe is a robe of justice, or equality, or community. When we are so busy or fearful or distracted, do we forget to clothe ourselves in these values?” (p. 88) And, of course, the answer is yes, yes we forget to always have the mantle of justice and equality and community around us. For putting on your robe is not an easy thing.
Notice how Matthew ends his parable “For many are called, but few are chosen.” That seems an odd way of concluding a parable that has the servants of God conducting a sweeping of the streets, casting a wide net, and picking up anyone they can find! What does he mean—“few are chosen”? Everyone seems to be invited by the end. Many and few don’t seem to be in the equation.
The questions I hear in this parable are 1) Do you accept the invitation? and 2) Are you wearing the right garment?
If we are honest with ourselves, how many of us have missed opportunities to answer God’s call at one time or another in our lives, because we were too busy, too focused, too tired, too distracted, too selfish…? We figure we can get back to it, make it next time, catch up later. Jesus’ parable is a wake-up call that we need to pay attention to the invitations sent to us by God. We might miss out.
And if we are honest with ourselves, how many of us are always clothed with truth, or righteousness, or the gospel of peace, or faith, or salvation, or the Spirit? Or even more to the point, how often are we clothed with kindness, or willingness to offer another chance, or treating others as we would want to be treated? Sometimes it seems like that robe, or armor just seems to be too heavy, or it chafes, or it gets in the way. We’ll just remove it, like a tie or jacket or pantyhose on a hot day. And then we like the freedom we feel without it—and maybe we choose not to “suit up” the next day, and the next.
Parables poke at us—not just the establishment, not just the religious hierarchy, but at each and every one of us. And this parable has a hard poke. Have you picked up your invitation? Have you put the feast on your schedule? And “What are you wearing?” it asks. Have you “put on your robe”?
This seems a timely message as our country, our world careens into what Fareed Zakaria has called “bipolar” behavior. (I have yet to read all of Zakaria’s new book called, “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World” but found the titles of his lessons interesting).
This seems a timely message as we are getting increasingly tired of the confines of living during a pandemic. I’ve noticed (both in others and in myself) a short fuse: people seem in a hurry to GO in their cars—honking or speeding, and the inability to all be on the same page about masks makes everyone jumpy.
This seems a timely message as the length of days and months stretches that we have been away from each other, and leaves us with what feels like frayed relationships, making us wonder about the meaning of it all.
Now before we get too far into this pity party, I know we aren’t the only people in all of creation who have felt this way. And I marvel at how connected we can be during this time when we are isolating for our own sakes. If anything, this time we are experiencing underlines Jesus’ point. You don’t get to choose what era you live through. You don’t always get dealt the best cards.
Yet in every time, We can be sure, the invitation goes out: the king is preparing a feast. Your presence is important, is wanted, is desired. No wedding present is expected, no need to find where the bridegroom is registered. But you do need to “put on your robe, tell the story, how you made it over…”
That is how we answer the invite.
May we go, this very day, to our closets
And get our robes out.
May we gain strength from being in a community that wears their robes proudly and for all to see.
May we be ready for the day when we sit down at the table,
When we get to eat our fill at the feast,
When we know that we have truly come home.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.