SJF • Proper 23a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe… +
Have you ever gone to a dinner party or social function and arrived to find that you were not, as the signs outside some posh restaurants say, wearing “proper attire?” Depending on the degree of the inappropriateness, this can be either mildly annoying or intensely embarrassing! Some fancy restaurants will keep a stock of ties or sports jackets on hand for the sake of gentlemen who show up deficient in one category or the other. Snooty they may be, but they are not so foolish as to lose business by turning away potential customers. Still, you might well risk getting a haughty look and a gesture towards the door, if not a helping hand from a bouncer. And if it’s a private function, you have no recourse, but to endure “the eye” from all the other guests.
It is very uncomfortable to feel out of place, and since, as the politically incorrect saying goes, “clothes make the man,” few things in polite society make one feel more out of place than being improperly dressed for the occasion.
And there are times when being improperly dressed can be more than an embarrassment. It can be a matter of life and death. You probably know the various TV reality shows that consist of amateur video of terrible accidents and disasters. It’s not the kind of show I really care to watch; not because it’s violent — I mean, I like a good action picture as well as anybody — but because unlike the fictional tales of Bond or Bourne, these videos are real, real tragedies of real people in horrible situations, and I just don’t like the idea of real tragedy being transformed into entertainment.
One of them, though, a terrifying one that I did happen to see, starts calmly enough. What you see through the camera is a group of skydivers jumping from a plane; and the camera follows them because the cameraman is one of them. As they descend towards the distant ground they are weightless, and you see them do a wonderful ariel ballet that forms all sorts of lovely patterns, then one by one they open their chutes and disappear.
But then, something goes wrong. The camera starts to shake uncontrollably, then begins a free-fall of its own, tumbling and twisting dizzily as it plummets to the ground, occasionally as it spins catching sight of a terrified man twisting in the air. In the excitement of the filming, the cameraman himself has forgotten his parachute. The most important thing to wear, the thing that would have saved his life is still sitting up on the plane, where it can do him no good.
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Yes, indeed, what you wear can save your life. In today’s gospel we have just such a story of how serious failing to dress properly can be. This isn’t just any old dinner party; this is a royal wedding banquet. And here is one of the guests sitting, as it were, in cutoff shorts, a tank-top, and flip flops. No wonder he is speechless when the king confronts him! What can he say? Before he can say a word, he is bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness outside the brightly lit banqueting hall, there to weep and gnash his teeth.
We are apt to sympathize with this poor guy. After all, he wasn’t one of the original invited guests — they refused to come, and they also faced the king’s rage. This man without a wedding garment is one of the second-string guests, the stand-ins, the ordinary folks who just happened to be in the neighborhood going about their business — or lack of business — when the king’s slaves gathered them all into the banquet hall. How could he be expected to have a wedding robe?
Yet that seems to be just what this unreasonable king expects, and out the poor guy goes. As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t seem fair. He hadn’t been invited the first time around. He hadn’t asked to be invited the second time around. Yet he is treated as if he deliberately chose, with full notice and plenty of opportunity, as if he had received an engraved wedding invitation stating what proper dress would be, to come to the wedding without the proper attire.
So what is this parable all about? In particular, what is this wedding robe, that makes it so important? The man in question, after all, isn’t the bride or the groom, or a groomsman or the best man; he’s just one of the guests — invited at the last minute at that. What is Jesus teaching us in this parable? What’s is it about?
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First let me note that not all of Jesus’ parables are what’s called “allegories” — that is, a story in which each aspect of the story symbolizes something definite. Most of the parables are not like that; they are intended just to make a single point. And it misses the point in those cases if you try to explain each detail as if it corresponded to something else. But some of Christ’s parables, such as the story of the seeds falling on the different kinds of soils, which we heard earlier this year, do call for this kind of interpretation. Jesus himself demonstrated that by explaining what each kind of soil, or lack of soil, represented. So too this parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Guests and the Wedding Robe is worth looking at point by point.
Those who refuse to accept the king’s invitation, for instance, represent those who refuse the Word of God. It may well be that the ones who kill the messengers, and have their city burned as punishment, represent the leaders who refused to heed the prophets and whose hardness of heart, according to Jewish tradition, was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction in the days of Jeremiah.
In the second part of the parable, the church is portrayed, the church with open doors, where all are invited to join in the feast. But — and here’s where the wedding robe comes in — the heavenly banquet hall is not a fast food franchise. It is serious business, this kingdom of heaven, and there are no “dress-down Fridays” to say nothing of Sundays!
But don’t for a minute think that Jesus is talking about a dress-code for Sunday worship! As Jesus’ brother James reminded the early church, don’t turn away someone from your church who may be dressed poorly; Jesus loved the poor, and he spent most of his time with them. So this is not a parable about us dressing up for Sunday worship.
But remember, at the same time, the symbolism; the elements of the parable are symbols, not to be taken literally. This isn’t about literally dressing up, it’s about a wedding robe that here doesn’t represent a wedding robe: it’s a symbol of something else. The wedding garment is a symbol here: it represents the clothing from above, the new self that is put on in Christ.
One who sits at the Lord’s table is expected to have been clothed anew with the white robe of baptism, the robe that covers all our other clothing, just as Christ’s death covers all our sins. A few of us, on Sunday, literally do wear that ancient white baptismal robe — the ministers who serve at the altar here — you can see them all, dressed in these long white robes. In the early church, that was the kind of robe that would be put on someone when they went to be baptized. (And don’t we still today dress up even little babies in a little white suit, or a little white gown? As I sometimes say, there’s sometimes more fabric than baby, when I’ve done some baptisms here!) So this white baptismal robe is called an “alb” from the Latin word for “white” — as in albino! This alb is what we now have as a relic of that wedding robe. It represent new life that begins when you are baptized, the new self that is reborn in Christ.
For Christ has removed the shroud of death that covered all nations — he has swallowed up death for ever. And instead of that old winding cloth, that old shroud, he has given us this new garment of life. That’s why the man gets into trouble because this garment is available to all, this new creation in Baptism — that’s why the man without a wedding robe had no excuse — the free gift of God in Baptism is available to all who chose it, and the banquet table is open to all who are baptized. God’s heavenly banquet is like one of those restaurants that keeps a supply of neckties and sports jackets to provide for anyone who comes to the door not wearing one — there is no excuse for anyone not to abide by that dress code. The waters of baptism are available to all without cost, flowing freely for all of humanity — available — but not just “available” for Jesus wants all the nations to be baptized in those waters, as he sends out his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, telling them, Go and baptize all nations; baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church received those marching orders, and it has a mandate to go to all the world, to open the doors and invite everyone in, in to the baptismal waters, and the heavenly banquet.
To be baptized into God’s righteousness: That is what it means to be properly dressed for God’s table. It’s not about the clothes you wear, it’s about the new life that comes from above. As that great old prayer says, “We do not presume to come to this thy table trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Those manifold and great mercies take the form of the wedding robe of baptism, into which all are invited to come. The chiefest mercy is the gift of grace through the death of Jesus Christ our Lord, into whom we are buried in baptism, with whom we share in this heavenly banquet, and in whom we rise to everlasting life. We dare to approach this table because we are clothed in the wedding robe of baptism, we are wearing protective garments, the armor of God, the new creation that comes in baptism.
The new garment of the baptismal self is more than proper attire; it is more than a jacket and tie, it is more than a tuxedo — it is even more than a parachute! It is the uniform of the blessed children of God, the robe of state of the royal children of God, the vestment of salvation — it is being clothed with Christ. Beloved sisters and brothers here today, however else we may appear to be clothed, in our ordinary clothes or in our Sunday best, or these ancient relics of earlier days, however we are dressed in physical clothing, let us give thanks to God that we wear as well the wedding robe of baptism. It is the garment whose one size fits all, and is given away for free — but nonetheless it is fit and proper for those who join the chorus of praise at the Lamb’s High Feast, the king’s great wedding banquet. +