In yesterday's gospel, Matthew has Jesus talking about weddings. We get a story about a king inviting people to his son's wedding. But every invitee refuses to come, and some actually kill the messengers. The king ends up in a fury and wipes out the ingrates. Then he sends his servants to the highways and byways, inviting the "good and the bad" until the wedding hall is filled.
Brutal, but easy enough to understand. Those who were "worthy" rejected the invitation, but the lowlifes accepted. It's easy enough to read the king as God, the original invitees as the leaders and self-appointed worthies of Israel, the messengers as the prophets and the eventual banquet guests as the lowly who accept an invitation in spite of their unworthiness.
But in Matthew, unlike in Luke who also includes this parable, the story continues, telling about a man who shows up at the banquet without the appropriate wedding garment. He ends up getting challenged by the king and then thrown out of the celebration "where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."
The homilist rightly noted that these are two different stories -- that Matthew and Luke both had access to the story about the king trying to fill his banquet hall, But only Matthew had (or was willing to use) the tale of the guy wearing the wrong clothes. Matthew, with two wedding parables to tell, connected them rather than leaving one out or telling it separately. They're both about worthiness to attend wedding,
? And so the homilist homilized. But I think that's going a bit too far.
It's long been a staple of Christianity thought that we can never be worthy of God's love. God is infinitely and perfectly good. We are...well, you know, less so. What can we do to buy ourselves into heaven? It's a question that bedeviled Martin Luther and led to a breach with the Church, which at the time was willing to countenance certain acts (donations, prayers, good deeds) as winning God's favor. But, as Luther and others concluded, what act could a sinful and limited human perform that would allow entry into the company of the perfectly holy and good God? To God, our feeble actions actions are beside the point. God invites us in spite of, not because of our worth or our charitable deeds.
So does this perspective appear in the parables? The key to the first lies in the way the king's servants "gathered all they found, bad and good alike" for inclusion in the banquet. Their entry was neither due to their virtue nor to their lack thereof. But then how did they get in when others did not? It was simply because they did not refuse the king's offer. The original invitees, those thought worthy of an invitation, resisted the offer to attend the banquet, with dishonesty and with violence. So the king turned to those who would be more open to his offer.
The probable meaning? God has invited the pious and observant to the wedding feast, whether you construe the banquet as a life of fullness in this world or in the next. They refused to attend, intent on continuing business as usual, resistant to God's call to a communion beyond the confines of their social and religious mores. They were asked to leave their comfort zones, and resisted to the point of murdering those (like the prophets) sent to extend God's invitation to a banquet of true goodness. What choice did God have, in his love of humanity, than to turn to those whom society judged unworthy? It was these who ultimately entered the banquet hall to celebrate with their king.
So now let's turn to the second parable. Our homilist suggested that his appearance at the wedding without the proper garment was a case of him not having made himself worthy through prayers and right action. But that flies in the face of the first parable, with its invitation to gather the "bad and good alike." It also raises the ugly possibility that the man could not afford the proper garment. It be like poor man showing up at a modern wedding in a dirty T-shirt and jeans because he couldn't afford better. But there is no indication in the story that man could not
the proper garment. He just shows up that way. The point is that he dressed the way he did when he
have dressed better. What would make a person show up at an event, where there is a dress code, but dress inappropriately anyway? I suggest that the strongest reason is a passive-aggressive slap at the host, or the host's values. The man, unlike those who openly refused the king's invitation, does show up at the wedding, true. But his choice of garment showed that he was actually not doing so to honor the host. And that attitude earned him a trip out of the banquet hall and into the dark.
It's not enough just to show up for the Kingdom, Jesus teaches, not if you do so with reservations or hostility to the invitation that God provides. Even "the bad and the good alike" can enter the banquet, when their desires align with the graciousness of the host who has invited them. You cannot include yourself among the elect while harboring secret hatred of God's desire to save the lowly and the unworthy. You will be found out and cast out until your heart softens and your view widens. The kingdom is a place (or even a state of mind) in which one accepts God's invitation gladly, as one accepts God's invitation of others.