Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding-garment?
We are reflecting in these last weeks of Trinity season on the highest stage of the Christian life – about our coming to know our God more and more, and His kingdom, to participate in that life, to enjoy Him more and more in this life here and now and, in the life to come, eternally.
The closeness of our relationship with God is described throughout the Bible as a marriage union – that we may evermore dwell in Him and He is us. It is the subject of Song of Solomon and other books of wisdom in the Old Testament, and it is found in the prophets. And it is found in many of the parables of Jesus. Three weeks ago we were reminded that, to enter the feast, we are to humble ourselves and take the lowest seat until we are asked to come up higher.
Marriage with God is an invitation that is being held out to each one of us. And today we’re being told about the clothing we should wear when we get there!
In the Gospel parable this morning [St Matthew 22:1-14], God is the King who invites many to a wedding feast. Some refuse the invitation, some murder those who are sent by God to do the inviting. Jesus is describing a sweep of history. God continually invites his people Israel through history to rest in him – a call which was heeded by some and rejected by many. It is an invitation made through God’s prophets, many of whom were put to death for calling people to repent and to seek the higher life. And Jesus describes the judgement on that rejection of God’s purposes – The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans in 70 AD. This is sobering.
There is a judgement of human beings if we reject love: if we reject the source of true life, we die; if we reject the way of love, we become hateful, we shrivel up; left to our own devices, we are so diminished, we destroy ourselves. We can last for a while on our own devices, but in the end we cannot become who we’re meant to be without our Maker.
In the Parable, the King then opens the invitation more widely – Go to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find. This is precisely the call of evangelists from the time of the Apostles to the present – people going to the farthest corners of the world, and also to their closest neighbours, inviting them to the wedding feast – to enjoy a closeness with God through coming to know and love Jesus Christ.
So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
So far, so good. We can rejoice that the message of the Gospel continues to spread throughout all the world, that people have been and are heeding the invitation, coming into the Church.
But here is where it gets frightening, and also hard to hear…so let’s keep our ears open.
We know the gentleness and meekness and mercy of Jesus, that is true and that is appealing, but do we hear also the strong warnings of Jesus?
When the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding-garment: and he said to him, Friend, how did you come in without a wedding-garment? And he was speechless [he had no excuse.] Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.
There is a part of us that recoils that this sounds so contrary to what we know about how we should treat people. Let’s consider the justice of it – because it seems so harsh to us.
First of all we must note that this is not instructions on how to treat people who are invited by us to an earthly wedding.
There are many passages in the Bible that call on us to be hospitable, especially to strangers. And we can think of the letter of James, where he speaks about how we are not to make distinctions between the rich and poor when they come into the church, distinctions based on their clothing or wealth. In our churches, we have no dress code, we are glad to see people in whatever clothing they come in. And I suspect if we had an earthly wedding and someone turned up without special clothing, we might go out of our way to welcome them, to put them at ease, and we would rejoice at their presence. There is to be no snobbishness in our response to the stranger.
But the key in this parable is that Jesus says this is about what “the kingdom of heaven is like…” So we’re not talking about an earthly wedding, and earthly clothing, but some other wedding and some other clothing.
As Kingdom of Heaven people, we know the marriage feast is something at the end of time, when we enter fully the kingdom after a final judgement. And we know that the marriage feast is something we can begin to enjoy even now – perhaps foremost through the Holy Communion of Christ’s body and blood, and through the deepening of our life of prayer now, even entering into contemplative prayer, an experience of deep union with God.
For these moments, our final judgement as well as our present participation in the marriage, Jesus is warning us we need a marriage garment.
What is this marriage garment, and is it unjust that the man is condemned for not have the proper garment?
But it is not unfair for God to cast us out if we don’t have the marriage garment on, because throughout the Bible it is clearly God who most willingly gives us the garment –
Near the end of Isaiah (61:10), the prophet, speaking of a future salvation, says,
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God: for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels… the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all nations.
In Ezekiel 16:9-11 God describes what he did for Israel, yet they refused him…
Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck…. But they gave all the gifts given to them to idols, not recognizing themselves to be the idols (images and likenesses) of God on earth, the beloved bride of God.
Jesus tells his disciples after he was raised from the dead… Luke 24:49
Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And from Revelation…
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments…(3:5)
Who are these who dressed in white robes?…these are they who have washed their garments in the blood of the lamb (7:14)
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:2)
Prepared by whom? Adorned by whom? God has given the robes, so it is not unjust if we are cast out for not wearing them, as if we had to provide them ourselves. God has given us the right clothing, so we are called upon to wear them. The man in the parable without a garment had refused to put on the garment he was given!
And what is that garment? Different commentators through the ages have pointed to different clothing, but actually they are all tied up together. Some have said it is to be clothed with charity or love, or to be clothed with the Holy Spirit, or to be adorned with holiness of life, or to put on the mind of Christ, the garment of praise. They are ways of describing the same result. It is about a certain disposition of heart and mind.
It comes down to understanding the whole purpose of God’s dealing with his creation through the ages. Since the Fall of man, there has been a desire of God to draw close to us. But the holy God cannot draw close without destroying us, unless we are ready. Like sees like. Holiness sees holiness. God warns the people of Israel not to draw close to the holy mountain unless they have prepared themselves. He sets up the Tabernacle to dwell in their midst, but it is only through being veiled, hidden, that he can be approached, and not by all but only the High Priest, once a year, and only through sacrifice and through washings, and preparation. And that closeness becomes possible, for all people, once Christ offers himself on the Cross. The veil is torn in the sanctuary of the Temple. Access is for all who believe in the offering of Christ for their sins. The Spirit of the Holy God can dwell in the hearts of his people. We are invited to the marriage feast. But to see the living God still requires being like the living God in heart and mind – because that is where we meet him! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. [Matt 5:8]
In the next life, if we want access to the Kingdom of Heaven on the day of Judgement, we will prepare ourselves now, in this life, by putting on the marriage garment God gives us.
In this life, we can sit before him unafraid in contemplative prayer. But it is must be with the right heart and mind – not presumptuously, but in humility and love, trusting in the mercy of God, and with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, as Paul speaks about this morning [Ephesians 5:15-21]:
Be filled with the Spirit [that is, be filled with Love, and then return that Love to God]; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord [God is Spirit and we unite with him at the very core of our hearts – what are the thoughts going on at the centre of our hearts this morning? What is our disposition inwardly? Can we bring our hearts to think on God and enjoy Him?]; giving thanks always for all things unto God [are we giving thanks to God, inwardly, even in the midst of our necessary trials and tribulations, seeing them as part of what we need to grow, having an inner trust in the good purposes of God?].
In this life, this very morning, we can prepare ourselves for that heavenly Marriage Feast, through the Holy Communion of Christ’s body and blood. We prepare our hearts and minds, through repenting of our sins, and trusting in the perfect forgiveness that Jesus offers. God wants all of us to know deep and abiding joy, and to be made ready to enjoy Him forever! As we partake in faith and in love, our hearts and minds will be washed and clothed, purified, assured and strengthened, in the wedding garment of Christ’s love.
Lord, we beseech you, grant your people grace to avoid the infections of the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow you the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Ancient Gregorian Collect for Trinity 20]