Warnings at the Wedding Feast

Parable of the Wedding Feast, by A. N. Mironov (From Wikimedia Commons)
Parable of the Wedding Feast, by A. N. Mironov
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost / Fourteenth Sunday of Matthew, September 6, 2015
II Corinthians 1:21-24, 2:1-4; Matthew 22:2-14
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

The Gospel passage this morning is one that we do not hear every year in our lectionary. It is appointed for the Fourteenth Sunday of Matthew, but this reading is heard only if Pascha is fairly early in the year, since usually beginning around the second week of September, we switch to readings from Luke.

In this passage from Matthew, the Lord tells the parable of a king who gives a marriage feast for his son. He sends out his servants to call those who have been invited, but the guests refuse to come. They all have more important things to do, and some of them even kill the servants.

In this version of the parable, the king in his anger destroys the city of those who refuse to come. And then he tells his servants to go out into the streets and find new people to attend the feast. This parable parallels the story told in Luke 14, where we hear about the specific excuses of those who will not come—one has just gotten married, another has bought some land, another has bought some cattle, etc. (Luke 14:16-24).

This portion of the parable as heard in the first century served as a warning to the Jewish people—God’s original “wedding guests.” They were the chosen people. But when He sent His Son Jesus to gather them into the wedding banquet which is the Church, they would not receive Him and instead killed Him. And then God permitted the Romans to come and destroy even the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. It remains destroyed to this day.

And those who are gathered in from the streets to be part of the wedding banquet represent the Gentiles, who are now called into the Church to feast with Christ.

We should not leave that interpretation there, however. This is not just about Jews and Gentiles. This is about anyone who has been given the invitation to the feast of faith and refuses to take advantage of it. Yes, the Jews as a nation lost their status as the chosen people because they would not join the new chosen people, which is the Church. But any Orthodox Christians can also lose his status as being among the chosen if he will not accept Christ’s invitation to the feast of faith. Just because we are formal members of a parish does not mean that we are feasting at the banquet. It is not only Jews who have lost their place at the table—whole parishes and even nations who have abandoned Christ have found themselves outside the communion of the chosen.

That is why this parable should serve as a warning to any church and to any Christian who do not avail themselves of what the Son of God is offering as He calls us into the marriage banquet. You cannot count yourself as a wedding guest if you do not show up to the wedding. It is not enough merely to have received the invitation. It is not enough merely to send a gift or a card. You have to show up. You have to participate. You have to be engaged. Or else you are not a guest at the banquet.

But there is more to this story.

This version of the parable of the marriage feast here in Matthew 22 adds another detail not found in Luke’s account—the man who comes to the feast and is found without a wedding garment. The king is visiting with his guests, and he sees this man without a wedding garment on. And he asks him how he got in there without that garment. And the man says nothing. He is “speechless.” So the king casts him out from the feast.

Now, this may seem like a strange detail—why would this man be cast out of the marriage feast just because he’s not wearing the right clothing? Didn’t the king insist on finding people out in the streets to come to the feast? Are they really all supposed to be suited up?

There is a cultural detail we need to know to understand this piece of the story. In that time and place, the wedding garment was provided by the host and given to the guests as they came into the feast. So why did this man not have one on? The answer is that he must have been given one but either refused to put it on or that he put it on and then later decided to take it off.

Even though we don’t hear this Gospel every year, the image presented here of the wedding garment should be quite familiar to us, as it is sung about at the Bridegroom Matins services served in the evenings of the first part of Holy Week. It is one of the most famous hymns and most famous melodies in the Byzantine musical tradition. Here is the text:

I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. Make radiant the vesture of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.

This is the prayer of someone who has heard the call and come to the wedding banquet and is standing outside ready to come in. He sees the bridal chamber “adorned” but confesses that he has “no wedding garment” so that he can enter. And he prays to the “Giver of Light” that He would make his soul’s vesture “radiant” so that he can enter into the bridal chamber and therefore be saved.

So what is this “wedding garment” for us?

It is the grace of baptism. If you have ever been to an Orthodox baptism, you know that a white baptismal garment is placed on the newly baptized Christian. It is perhaps less noticeable for babies than it is for adults, but there is still that white garment put on. This is the “wedding garment” that is needed for entrance into the marriage feast. But the physical garment is a symbol of the garment of baptism, which is Christ. “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” as we sing, quoting St. Paul (Gal. 3:27). Christ Himself is the “wedding garment,” the “vesture of [the] soul” that we sing to be made “radiant.”

But we should not think that, just because we have entered into the marriage feast that begins by becoming part of the Church through baptism and eating and drinking from the Table of the Lord—the Holy Eucharist—that we are thereby guaranteed to be able to stay at the feast.

This man from the parable was definitely at the feast. And he had been given the wedding garment. But when the King came for him, he was not wearing his garment. He was not “wearing” Christ. So he was bound, hand and foot, and “cast into outer darkness”; “there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” Why? Because he did not obey the Lord of the feast.

So we have two warnings in this passage: The first is for those who were invited to the marriage feast but refuse to come—these are those who make excuses. Historically, they were the Jews, who did not heed Christ’s call and instead killed Him. And the Gentiles were therefore invited in and took their place. But this applies even now to any who are invited but do not come. This is not just about Jews and Gentiles. It is also about “members” and “not yet members.” Just because someone is a “member” or has an Orthodox Christian heritage does not mean that he is actually at the marriage feast. He has to respond to the invitation and enter in.

The second warning is for those who accept the invitation but do not do what is needed in order to remain at the feast. The man found without his wedding garment was cast out by the king. And if we do not keep the wedding garment on for ourselves, keeping Christ on by imitating Him, by repenting of our sins, by receiving the sacraments, by sacrificing ourselves and our possessions, then we who once put on Christ by baptism have put off Christ by our failure to obey Him.

May we see the beauty of the feast and enter in. And coming to that great marriage banquet, our prayer will be that glorious hymn from Holy Week:

I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. Make radiant the vesture of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.

To the Giver of Light and the Lord of the Feast be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.