Reflection: What is that ‘wedding robe’ all about?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
11th of October 2020

Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We are in the final weeks of the liturgical Year of Matthew and I, for one, am glad. The Gospel according to Matthew is my least favourite of the four canonical gospels. Look at today’s parable. Both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus telling a story about someone giving a banquet who finds their invitations refused. In Luke’s version, Jesus is telling the story at ‘the house of a leader of the Pharisees’. In this version, when those invited refuse to come because of their many cares and distractions, the host tells his slave to ‘go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’. When these guests do not fill the host’s house, he tells the slave to again ‘go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner’. (Luke 14:15-24) Luke’s story has Jesus showing his usual preference for society’s excluded and outcast over those who thought that they were insiders. And no one in Luke’s version ends up dead.

Compare this with the story we hear today. We are still in the Temple on the day after Jesus entered the city and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers. Jesus is still facing the chief priests, and the Pharisees, and the elders of the people, who want to arrest him but are afraid to do so. In this context, those first invited to the wedding-banquet of the king’s son do not simply refuse to attend; some of them seize his slaves, maltreat them, and kill them. In response, the king is so enraged that he sends his troops, destroys the murderers, and burns their city.

The image of a man, the evangelist's symbol for St Matthew, appears here. The man in the picture is exhibiting the words of the Gospel by holding up an open manuscript.

From the Echternach Gospel, created in about 700 AD.

We must remember, when reading this parable, the things concerning the Gospel according to Matthew about which biblical scholars agree. It is a ‘Jewish’ gospel, written by a Jewish Christian for a community primarily made up of Jews; it was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD; it was written in the context of a dispute between followers of Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees. It is in this context that Matthew writes about the king, God, destroying the city of those first invited, the scribes and Pharisees, because they did not celebrate the wedding-banquet of the king’s son, Jesus. Matthew and his community had seen Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed, and they understood it as punishment from God for the leaders of the Jewish people agreeing to the execution of Jesus. Since Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, those who had actually executed Jesus, I don’t think their explanation works, but we have to remember that Matthew is writing against the Jewish competitors of the Jesus movement. We are observing, as I said last week, a family dispute; and we all know how vicious those can be.

That explains the violence of the first part of this parable. What do we make of the second part, which only Matthew tells, of the wedding guest who is bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? In terms of the story it makes no sense. The poor guest has just been brought in off the street; of course they have had no time to find a wedding garment! But, ignoring that detail, it seems that this is a result of the slaves bringing in everyone, both good and bad. When absolutely everyone is invited, some people are not going to be appropriately attired.

What is the ‘wedding-robe’ this guest lacks? One of the biblical scholars I regularly read when preparing reflections is Professor Brendan Byrne, a Jesuit who taught me at Theological College. He writes: ‘the man without a wedding garment represents all those who accepted the invitation but did not, within that calling, undergo the conversion of life required for entrance into the final kingdom … they will be found lacking the “wedding garment” of good works’.[1] As a good Protestant I read this equation of the wedding garment with good works and gasped. Of course we do not get into the kingdom of heaven through good works, I thought; salvation is by faith alone! But Professor Byrne does seem to be correct in his reading of Matthew. Remember that it is Matthew who quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 7:21) and Matthew who gives us the Great Commission in which Jesus tells the disciples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:19-20). Matthew does seem to be full of the importance of doing, not simply believing; of bearing good fruit.

The great teacher of salvation by faith and not works is, of course, the Apostle Paul. And this week we have our last reading from his letter to his favourite church, at Philippi. Paul has told the Philippians that he considers his identity as a Pharisee and his righteousness under the law to be rubbish compared to the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’. (Philippians 3:4-8) Now he reminds them that even if their salvation comes by knowing Christ, that does not mean that they can do anything they like. ‘Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,’ Paul tells the church. Be of one mind, the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul addresses this especially to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, his fellow workers in the gospel. Interestingly, he does not simply want these two women to have the same mind in the Lord; he asks his loyal companion to help them, too. And he then tells all the Philippians to let their gentleness be known to everyone. The word that the NRSV translates as ‘gentleness’ the RSV translates as ‘forbearance’. Paul loves the Philippians; they are his joy and his victory wreath. But he has no illusions about how hard it is to be the church. Being a follower of Jesus means living with all the others who follow Jesus, and that is never easy. There are always going to be clashes in a community made up of ‘everyone’; of all the people invited to the wedding feast, good and bad.

Remember the situation in Philippi. If Euodia and Syntyche were arguing, one of them could not simply move to another congregation. If they wanted to remain Christians at all, they had to show gentleness and forbearance, even to those with whom they disagreed. It might be a good thing for us if we, too, had the option of only one church. We would then have to put up with each other: even if we disagree on politics; even if our offer to help with morning tea is spurned; even if we think the way the congregation celebrates communion is incorrect; even if the minister forgets our name. (And I have known people to stop coming to a congregation for all of these reasons.) Euodia and Syntyche had to work out how to be of one mind, or they could not be part of the church at all.

Paul also gives the Philippians the remarkable commandment to rejoice in the Lord always. How can he command them to feel joy? It helps to know that Paul is not talking about the private happiness that might come from our individual circumstances; from being, for instance, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Paul puts ‘rejoice’ in the plural; Christian joy is always collective. It is a discipline, not a right. It is not escapist. It does not ignore the pains and difficulties of life. Christian joy does not deny how hard it is to live in lockdown, or how frightening it is to watch a pandemic decimate the world. Instead, joy offers a counter-witness to the world by enabling us to continue to live as a community, even when we cannot gather in the church building. Joy reminds us that even in a pandemic we can continue pray with thanksgiving when making requests to God, because God is still with us. The discipline of rejoicing means that we can see the lockdown as being about us collectively caring for each other, rather than about restrictions on our individual freedom.

Most counter-culturally, Christian joy looks for what is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, and thinks about these things. So often we look for the dispiriting, for where things are going wrong, for the mistakes people have made, for the evil that is done, rather than for what is worthy of praise. (And, yes, here I am primarily preaching to myself.) Looking instead for reasons for joy does not mean saying things are good when they are not. In this Budget week, thinking about what is true and honourable does not mean looking at the reduction in the number of humanitarian visas Australia is offering each year to 13,750 as a good thing. That reduction in offering protection to those who need it is definitely not a good thing and the church needs to continue making that point. But looking for what is honourable and true does mean, and again I am preaching to myself, responding to such decisions, and to the people who make them, with gentleness and forbearance.

When the lectionary offers us readings from both Matthew and Paul, it seems to be offering us contradictory versions of what it means to be Christian: following what Jesus has commanded and so bearing good fruit; or simply believing in Jesus Christ and living with joy. I hope that I have made it clear that while Matthew and Paul might disagree on the route of the journey, they are in full agreement about the destination. As Paul writes to his dear Philippians: ‘Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you’. And Matthew would remind us that by doing these things we will clothe ourselves in a wedding robe and be welcome at the banquet. So, let us take their advice; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (2004), p. 165.

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