28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 9, 2011 – St. John’s
The parable we have just heard, like the one read last week, serves as an allegory of the history of Israel. Jesus draws on a biblical tradition, illustrated by today’s first reading, which compares the messianic era to “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy rich food, and pure, choice wines.” This, Jesus says, is what God has been preparing for ages. He sent out servants after servants to tell those invited to come, the feast was ready. But the invitation offered by these prophets was ignored; indeed the prophets themselves were beaten and killed. In punishment of them, the king has destroyed those murderers and burnt their city. Now, in place of those originally invited, the call has gone out to the streets and alleys, and people have come in, and the banquet hall is full.
The meaning of the parable in Matthew’s Gospel is plain enough: those originally invited to God’s banquet have failed to respond to the moment when the feast is ready: “The Kingdom of heaven is near,” Jesus’ fundamental message was, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” But as in the case of the prophets of the past, so now the invitation was being spurned and its messengers abused. Matthew, writing after the event, probably saw the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 as God’s punishment for the rejection of Jesus. Now the invitation has gone out to the Gentiles: all peoples can now enjoy God’s rich feast as the Church.
But in Matthew’s Gospel this story does not end there. It includes a perhaps independent story about what happens when the king comes into the banquet. Many have found it odd that he should be so severe with the man not properly dressed for the wedding; after all, hadn’t he just been dragged in off the streets? To understand the point Matthew wishes to make, you have to notice that he says that the banquet hall is filled with both good and bad. That the Church has both bad and good within it is a frequent theme in this Gospel; think of the field in which both wheat and weeds are growing, of the fishnet that is dragging both bad fish and good toward the shore. Similarly the wedding feast has begun in the life of the Church, but when the king comes–a symbol of the coming of Christ in judgment–he will demand to know whether the guests have clothed themselves in righteous deeds, a familiar rabbinic metaphor. Being in the Church is not enough: living a life worthy of the feast of God’s grace that has already begun will determine whether one can enjoy its fullness in the Kingdom. What had originally been a parable about the reversal of conditions that Jesus’s message and mission effects has become, by the addition of an originally independent parable, a lesson for the members of the Church.
We ourselves, of course, are that Church, gathered here for this eucharistic meal which is itself an anticipation of the banquet feast of the Kingdom. St. Augustine said that every Mass is the celebration of a wedding, and we are guests at it. When God comes to see the wedding feast, he will look to see if all of the guests are properly clothed. What is this clothing? Augustine asked. It is the charity or love without which, St. Paul said, we are nothing and all our deeds are nothing. Don’t say: you’re too poor to have a proper wedding garment. Clothe the naked and you will yourselves be clothed, and you won’t have to be afraid or ashamed when the Lord comes and inspects his guests.
That challenge now falls upon us, then, this mixed body of both good and bad, individuals–you and I–in whose lives both good and bad struggle for dominance. We have been brought, however unworthily, into the wedding-hall, into a knowledge of God’s grace to us in Christ; and the question now is whether our lives will demonstrate that we belong here, whether we can live up to gifts and grace already given. This is the challenge of Christian morality: whether our lives will reflect the great mercy we have already begun to enjoy, so that when the feast reaches its fullest joy, we may be judged worthy to remain.
St. Augustine on the Parable
He who invited them to the wedding found a man who did not have a wedding garment, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you come in without a wedding garment?” The man was speechless, couldn’t answer. And the Master of the house who had invited him said, “Bind him hands and feet, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For so small a fault, so great a punishment? The punishment is indeed great, but not to have a wedding garment is something small only to people who don’t understand. If not having a wedding garment were not a serious fault, why would he have been so incensed, why would he have decided that the man, because he lacked a wedding garment, should be bound hands and feet and cast into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth? I say this because you have been invited through me; even though he is the one who invited you, it was by me that he invited you. You are all at the feast, and you should have a wedding garment. I will explain what it is so that you may all have it, and if any one listening to me does not have it, let him, before the master of the house comes and inspects his guests, be changed for the better; let him receive the wedding garment and sit down in all assurance.
For in truth, dearly Beloved, the man thrown out of the feast does not signify a single person; far from it. They are many. And the Lord Himself who proposed this parable, the Bridegroom Himself, who calls people to come together to the feast and quickens those he calls, has himself explained to us, that that man does not signify a single person, but many–he says it there, in that very place, in the same parable. I don’t go far for this, I find the explanation there, there I break the bread, and set it before you to be eaten. For He said, when the one without the wedding garment was thrown out into outer darkness, He added immediately, “For many are called, but few chosen.” You throw out a single man, but you say, “For many are called, but few chosen.” Of course, it’s not the chosen who are thrown out–they were the few guests who remained; the many were represented by that one man, because the one without a wedding garment is the whole group of the wicked.
What is the wedding garment? Let’s search for it in the Holy Scriptures. What is the wedding garment? Without doubt it is something which the bad and good do not have in common; if we discover that, we shall discover the wedding garment. Among the gifts of God, what do the good and bad not have in common? That we are men and not beasts, is God’s gift, but it’s common to good and bad. That the light from heaven rises upon us, that rain comes down from the clouds, that the fountains flow and the fields yield their fruit; these are gifts, but common to good and bad.
Well, then, let’s go into the marriage feast, let’s leave the others outside, the ones who were called but didn’t come. Let’s consider the guests themselves, that is, Christians. Baptism is a gift of God, and both good and bad have it. The Sacraments of the Altar the good and bad receive together. Despite his wickedness Saul was able to prophesy: in his rage against a holy and most righteous man, even while he was persecuting him, he prophesied (1 Kgs 19). Are only the good said to believe? “Devils also believe, and tremble” (Jas 2:19).
I’ve shaken all that out and have not yet come to the wedding garment. I’ve unfolded my bundle, I’ve considered all, or almost all, that’s in it, and have not yet come to that garment. Somewhere the Apostle Paul has brought me a large box in which great things are wrapped; he’s laid them open before me, and I’ve said to him, “Show me, if perhaps you have found among them that ‘wedding garment.’” As he begins to shake them out one by one, he says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, though I have all knowledge, and the gift of prophecy, and all faith, so that I could remove mountains; though I distribute all my goods to the poor, and give my body to be burned.” Precious garments!–but still no wedding garment. Show us the wedding garment! Why are you keeping us in suspense, O Apostle?…. “If,” says he, “I do not have charity, I am nothing, nothing profits me (1 Cor 13:1-3). There’s the wedding garment! Put it on, you guests, that you may sit down without anxiety. Don’t say; we are too poor to have that garment. Clothe others, and you are clothed yourselves. It’s winter, clothe the naked. Christ is naked; and He will give that wedding garment to any of you who do not have it. Run to Him, beseech Him; He knows how to sanctify His faithful ones, He knows how to clothe His naked ones. To be able to have the wedding garment and so to be free from fear of the outer darkness and the binding of your members and hands and feet, do not let your works fail. If they fail, what can you do with your hands tied? If your feet are bound, where will you flee? So keep that wedding garment, put it on, and so sit down in security, when he comes to inspect. The Day of Judgment will come; a long space is being given now. Let anyone who once was naked now be clothed. (Augustine, Sermon 95, 5-7)