‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ Matthew 22:12
When working in a little rural coastal parish some twenty years ago, I had a parishioner who was always fascinating to visit. There were times when he was bad tempered, times when he was crabbed, times when he was rude, but he was always fascinating. He had trained as a secondary school mathematics teacher before the war, but when war broke out had joined the British army, rising to the rank of major. He must have had an extraordinary proficiency in languages because he became fluent in Urdu and served as an interpreter in the British army in India. He lived in a little cottage overlooking the harbour, much loved in his retirement years because of the hours he spent teaching maths to the local children after school.
He died peacefully at a great old age, not having achieved his ambition of putting the world to rights, but having left his little bit of it better for him having lived there. His son was professor of physics in Dublin and insisted that the next time I was in Dublin, I would join him at the top table for dinner at Trinity College.
The appointed day came and I arrived at Trinity in my best suit and with an academic gown borrowed from one of the Dublin clergy. My host wore his professorial gown as we lined up to enter the dining hall. Alongside us was a young lecturer from the North, dressed casually and with no gown.
Suddenly the young lecturer said, ‘Oh no! The Provost is here and I didn’t bring a gown. Aghh! There goes my career’.
I didn’t take the man very seriously until my host said, ‘Ian, would you do him a great favour and lend him that gown? You are quite correct to have worn it, but it is not required of guests. Academics are expected to be properly dressed.’
I took off the gown and the young Ulsterman wrapped it gratefully around his shoulders and avoided catching the eye, and presumably the wrath, of the Provost. My host smiled, ‘I never understood that story in the Bible about the man not having a wedding garment’.
This morning’s Gospel reading is a difficult story, even the professor of physics did not understand it!
‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ asks the host and then has the man thrown brutally thrown out. What is the story about? Why invite someone only to throw them out because they are not properly dressed?
If the picture we have of God is of someone who is completely arbitrary and unpredictable, then it’s not surprising that the professor, who clearly knew the story, said he wasn’t a religious man. Why would anyone believe in a God who behaved like a bad tempered child?
I got frustrated trying to make sense of the story. One writer said that the problem was that the passage was various bits and pieces that Matthew had put together and that it was like buying a car only to find that it was bits of two cars that had been welded together. That didn’t answer the question, why did Matthew put the story together the way he did? He must have wanted to convey a point that Jesus was making.
Traditionally, preachers have said that this picture of the last judgment that Jesus gives us is about us being clothed in the righteousness given to us by Jesus himself. The story goes that when you arrived at the wedding you were given wedding garments by the host, and so you looked the part through the host’s generosity. It’s a nice story, except that there was no such tradition in First Century Palestine. It’s fine to tell the story now in that way, but the people listening to Jesus at the time would not have made sense of it.
Guests arriving at a wedding feast were meant to arrive in their best garments, that is what it says in Jewish writings from the time. The man is thrown out of the feast not because he has not been given a wedding garment, but because he hasn’t bothered to wear one. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that perfectly well. If the young Ulsterman who came to that dinner at Trinity without bothering to bring his gown had been thrown out by the Provost, it would have made the point very clearly.
Certainly the invitation to be with him comes from God, but there is also a need to respond. There is no compulsion, those first invited in the story freely choose to reject the invitation, they do not come at all to the wedding feast. Those who do come have made an effort to respond, and look at who they are, ‘Go to the street corners’, says the king in the story, ‘and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad.’ The people who are invited are ordinary people and they put on their best clothes because this is a special occasion.
When I was in a country parish in the North, we would have an outing from the parish to Portrush each year and for some people it was their only outing of the year and they would put on their Sunday best because this was a special occasion. In this story they have put on their wedding garments, all except one. He has come on the assumption that he need do nothing by way of responding to his host’s generosity. He believes he has a right to be there.
What is Jesus saying to us in telling this story? Isn’t his point about God’s grace towards us and our response of faith towards him?
God’s grace, God’s love towards us, cost him his Son and how do we respond? Like the man at the wedding feast with no wedding garment, like the young academic with no gown, we are sometimes too casual.
We sit lightly to our faith at times, like an invitation to a party we might go to and we might not, we assume that it’s our choice about when we make space for God and when we don’t. Jesus is saying, “Sorry, that’s not the way of things. Take this seriously or don’t bother”.
The man without the wedding garment would have realized, had he bothered to take notice, that everyone else had made an effort, and he would have gone away and prepared himself. He is complacent, he thinks he has a right to be there, and he would have been shocked when we was thrown out.
Let’s not be complacent in our faith; let’s not be lazy; let’s not make assumptions about God; lest we reach that Last Day and find ourselves thrown out.