Dressed in Something New

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14

Sunday evenings, I help set the tables for the urban dinner church where I am the community coordinator. In our small congregation, anyone is welcome, and often anyone comes. At our tables, those who might not usually set foot in a church for a multitude of reasons find their way in for a warm meal and a cool respite from the Houston heat and humidity. At the table, we find friendship, and get to hear the good story. As our pastor says week after week, “All are welcome here – believers, skeptics, sinners, saints. All are welcome at Christ’s table.”

It’s difficult for me to come to this week’s gospel text without my beloved church in the background. In some ways, our identity as a congregation looks much like the second part of the parable, where the rejected and disregarded king sends his servants out into the streets to gather everyone in, and everyone comes.

So when the man shows up without his wedding clothes on for the feast and the king throws him out into the outer darkness, the parable stops me short. Our hospitality at my church is such that I can’t really imagine us turning anyone away from Sunday night dinner. Friendship and ministry on the margins is a challenge, and often the challenges require us as a congregation to have firm boundaries about the kind of support and resources we can offer, especially to the un-homed.

But turning someone away from dinner for not having the right clothes seems out of the question. I confess, this is a bit of a hard teaching of Jesus for me.

It isn’t just any dinner in the parable – it’s the wedding supper for the king’s son, no small or insignificant affair. And up to the point where the king invites everyone in, he’s had a difficult time even being taken seriously. The invitation, his preparation, and his gift have been “made light of,” the text says – and not only, but his slaves have been beaten, mistreated, and killed. This is worse than being simply disregarded; those he has invited have been hostile to his hospitality crew.
By the time the parable turns to the man who shows up at the feast without the wedding clothes, one has to wonder if the king is merely so ticked off that he just over-reacts toward the man. This is a possibility, but I think there’s something deeper here.

Part of my struggle in interpretation is my own context and the assumptions I bring to the text, in particular my knee-jerk reaction of taking “wedding clothes” in a strict and literal way, and the way access to proper clothing is tied in my immediate thinking to socio-economic realities. At first glance, I begin to wonder if the king comes down hard on the man for poverty.

But this can’t be what’s at stake; we’re told nothing about status in this parable, other than a question about what it means to be called vs. chosen. His error also isn’t about being either good or bad – Jesus says that when the servants go to the streets, they bring in both the good and the bad. So perhaps we can extract this question too about the man’s particular virtues or lack thereof, and set it to the side.

The most important question lies not necessarily in why the man comes in the wrong clothes, but in what the clothes symbolize – what they gesture toward.

Here I think of the way scripture often talks about transformation and salvation – about stepping into and living into a new reality – in terms of getting dressed in something new. A classic example is the Ephesians passage where we are admonished to put on the full armor of God. But other examples abound.

In the Hebrew Bible, priests dress in a particular way for service in the temple, with their clothing connoting holiness and fittingness for the priestly task at hand. And Job 40:10 talks about adorning with dignity and clothing with honor and glory.

In the New Testament epistles, to belong to God is to put on Christ. Romans 13:14 says we ought to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and Galatians 3:27 says that “all who were baptized into Christ were clothed with Christ.”

In particular though, Colossians 3:12 is striking, perhaps a helpful interpretive key, as it says, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Here the reader is told as one chosen to have a particular posture, and the instruction uses the metaphor of putting on, or being clothed in these postures.
The clothing the man in the parable lacked was perhaps closer to not being adorned in the right kinds postures toward the wedding feast. Yes, everyone was invited, but the guests were still expected to come in a manner worthy of the occasion, with some awareness of the honor and dignity due a wedding, and what their proper role as a guest was.

In our contemporary wedding practices, I wonder if we often can lose sight of the way attendees at a Christian wedding aren’t mere spectators present for entertainment, but play a deeply important role in the future life of the couple. To attend a Christian wedding is to bear witness to a union, to promises and commitments, and to say “amen” to the Spirit of God joining two people into one. The officiant pronounces the couple to be married, and the people who witness the wedding proclaim in an ongoing way through friendship and support that this marriage is a true marriage which is, in a flawed and human way, a mirror of God’s faithfulness to us. The guests of the wedding will now live like the two people are now one flesh, one unit of being.

I wonder if something like this dynamic is also at play in the parable. If we are meant to read Jesus himself and his marriage to the church back into the parable, then this task of bearing witness to the wedding and proclaiming the marriage is central to the role of the guests who come to the king’s wedding feast. More so, this kind of bearing witness is central to the church’s identity. The wedding feast itself is sign and symbol of the kingdom breaking in, and whatever else the church is, first and foremost, we are the ones who bear witness to the kingdom, proclaiming what we have eyes to see, and waiting in hope for what we will see.

Perhaps the man who gets thrown to the outer darkness isn’t clothed with a posture of witnessing and proclaiming, but instead shows up as a spectator, treating the inbreaking kingdom symbolized in the wedding feast not as the fulfillment of all things, but instead as mere spectacle. He comes for the bread and circuses, but not for the sacrament and ordinance. He is welcome to come, invited even, but he comes in an unworthy way. As one who does not live into the task of being chosen, he perhaps does a certain kind of violence to the kingdom.

This all raises interesting questions for congregations like my own who have taken upon themselves a profound depth of hospitality to all. Is this text a warrant for judging those who take up our invitations, or limiting our guests in some way?

We are no king. We are in no position to exclude, and as my pastor says week after week, this is Christ’s table, not our own – all are welcome. We invite and invite, we go to the streets to say “you are welcome here,” knowing that the kingdom realities we invite others to are contagious realities. Around the table, we hope together that we will not only witness something of the wedding between Jesus and the church in our practices of bread, wine, and feasting, but see also the marriage, the eternal faithfulness, and the inbreaking kingdom in our midst. We hope to catch a vision of the gospel that we can live. We hope that we might together taste and see that the Lord is good.

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