Thursday, October 13, 2011

What's your attire?

     Our Gospel lesson from Matthew this week would have shocked Jesus' listeners.  To remind you where we are in Matthew's narrative, this is during Holy Week.  Jesus has rode in on the donkey to the acclaim of the people.  Jesus has turned over the tables of the money changers and driven out all the vendors from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus has healed those who have come to Him.  And He has been teaching in parables.  The religious elite in Jerusalem want to silence Him.  The people clearly adore Jesus.  Their honoring of Him with palms and shouts of "Hosanna" and His willingness to accept such adoration is dangerous to them.  They have worked out an uneasy truce with the Roman occupiers, a truce dependent upon their ability to keep the peace.  Jesus, to them, is clearly dangerous not just to the power and way of life, but to their very lives.  So they have accosted Jesus and asked Him, essentially, why a nobody carpenter from a backwater town would ever presume to speak to them or about them in this fashion.

     Jesus follws these questions with a series of parable about God's judgment of the religious elite.  We have explored them the past two weeks in the parable of the two sons and the parable of the wicked tenants.  Given those two parables, it is no wonder that in a few days, the religious establishment will conspire to put Jesus to death.  But Jesus is not finished.  He follows up the first two parables with another, transitional, parable.  I say transitional because Jesus is moving from His condemnation of the religious elite to the final instructions for His disciples and the crowds.

     But in this parable, Jesus tells the story of a king who plans a wedding feast for his son.  Thankfully, we are coming off a royalty wedding which might help us understand a bit of significance.  How many of us, independent Americans, made time to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate?  We who are heirs of those who through off the oppressive English basically became British citizens again.  We could not get enough information or camera angles.  What a dress?  Look at his uniform!  Look at the trees in Westminister.  Doesn't the queen look good?  I wish I could ride in a horse-drawn carriage.  Who designed that dress?  That hat?  On and on we were mesmerized by the event.  How many of us would have loved to have received an invitation?  How many weddings have tried to copy things seen in the royal wedding?  That is the kind of affair which Jesus is describing in the parable.  Weddings were huge events in the ANE, anyway.  But now the king is throwing one for his son!  Who would not want to go?

     But, apparently, many of the important invitees forgot about the feast or just do not care.  Maybe the kids knocked the invitation off the refrigerator, maybe the invitation was lost in the mail -- for some reason the people do not come to a wedding to which everyone would want an invitation.  So, once again the king send his slaves to remind them of the event and its opulence.  The feast is ready -- the oxen and calves have been slaughtered.  The wine is exquisite.  Hurry!

     In the parable, those who are reminded of this invitation simply ignore it.  Though it would have been unthinkable to his audience, the invitees are concerned about their businesses or their farms.  Some are apparently annoyed at being asked again and decide to mistreat or even kill the messenger-slaves.  Naturally, as the people hearing this parable would expect, the king is enraged.  He has been dishonored!  Not only have the people ignored the wedding feast, but they have mistreated His personal envoys.  Can you imagine the audacity of doing that to Queen Elizabeth in this day and age?  How much more powerful were kings in those days!

     So the king kills all those who dishonored him and burned their city.  Nothing is left.  So who will share in the feast?  The king sends slaves out once again and tells them to invite everyone they find to the feast.  Fortunately, the slaves find enough people, both good and bad.  That is not surprising.  Imagine had the aristocracy of Britain blown off William & Kate's wedding.  Given the sheer numbers of those lining the streets and outside Westminster and those watching at home on the telly, I'm thinking she could have filled her hall on short notice as well.  The wedding hall is stuffed with guests.

     Understand, of course, the implication.  As we have talked about repeatedly, wedding feasts were events.  Wedding feasts were times of great celebration and hope.  I know we don't have much of a dress code in the United States nowadays, but that has not always been the case.  There was a time when air travel or church meant that one dressed up.  There was a time when dark blue or black was the attire of funerals.  There was a time when one never wore white shoes in the time between Labor Day and Memorial Day.  There was a time when parties were held and women showed up in evening gowns and men in their dashing tuxes and suits.  It was like that in the ANE.  The crowds and disciples and religious elite knew that one always wore ones best to weddings.  And to a kings wedding--why that would necessitate the finest clothes one could possibly afford.

     Of course, the king comes down to the hall, sees the hall packed, but then notices one man dressed casually.  Everyone else has understood the significance of the event and of the one hosting the event.  They have taken the time to wear their best wedding robe.  This poor chap has decided that neither the event nor the host was worth putting on his best.  He has come as he wanted, not dressed for the ocassion.  I am sure that some of us sitting here may want to excuse his behavior.  Maybe the man was poor?  Maybe he did not have the money to buy new clothes.  Keep in mind the rest of those present, the good and the bad.  In Jesus parable it is clear that people are there from all walks of life.  Those respected and not, those wealthy and not, those in honorable professions and not--they have all shown up properly dressed.  All but the one man.  The implication is, naturally, he has the clothes available.  Had he been to poor to buy a wedding garment, he would have had an answer.  Had he been working in the fields and rushed so as not to offend the king, he would have had an answer.  Yet, standing before the king, he has no answer.

     Amazingly, the king approaches him and addresses him as "friend." This would have shocked the crowds within hearing of Jesus' voice. Those closest to thrown have already rejected the invitation. Many have been killed. The man addressed in the parable does not even have a name. Yet the king addresses him familiarly. Unfortunately for the man dressed inappropriately for the wedding, he has no words for his king. He has committed a terrible breach of etiquette. He has insulted and dishonored the king.

     Predictably, the king has the man trussed and tossed out into the darkness.  The man has not responded to the gracious invitation of his king as he should have.  So the king judges and rewards him for his behavior.  While everyone else will be enjoying the feast and all its spectacles, this man will be thrown out.  And the king observes that all are invited while few are chosen.  The king, of course, has the perspective of knowing that all have been invited and that some have rejected the invitation.  Yes, I know that our translators chose many for the Greek word polloi, but the Greek word without its article usually stands for the word "all" or "everyone."  People from all walks of life received the invitation to this feast.  Initially, only the aristocracy or the powerful rejected the invitation, but even the regular "good" and "bad" people have been called to respond.  At least one invited guest is judged for rejecting the invitation and judged for that rejection.
     How the parable applies to real life is not too hard to see.  The king is our Father in heaven.  Amazingly, He is preparing a wedding feast for His Son.  Those initially invited--Israel.  The slaves and servants sent -- His prophets who have called His people to prepare for His invitation.  Those invited in lieu of the rejection by God's people -- the Gentiles, those viewed as both good and bad by His people.  The robe?  Why many of us can easily see that it is the righteousness imputed to us by Christ.  But what of the man who refused to wear the wedding robe?  Who is he?
     Truthfully, we might be tempted to consider him to represent Judas.  Certainly Judas heard the invitation and seemingly accepted it, only in the end to betray His Lord.  It sort of fits.  But look again.  How are people in this story judged?  The king judges them individually based upon their response to His gracious invitation.  To those who should have been invited to the wedding, he gives multiple chances.  But he also shows graciousness to those who had no expectation of entry to the feast.  Buried within each response, of course, is the idea of personal accountability.  Both the initially chosen and those invited last minute have the identical invitation.  Each can choose to accept the invitation and honor the king.  Or each can reject it and worry about the things they think are more important.  The choice is theirs.  But so is His judgment.
     Brothers and sisters, one of the important lessons of this parable is personal accountability.  Each person, the polloi in the story, are invited to the king's feast in honor of his son's wedding.  Each has a response to that invitation.  Those who accept the invitation and embrace it, wear the appropriate clothing, are invited into an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime event.  Those who reject it, whether by rejecting the invitation outright or by ignoring what must be worn, are culpable for their hardened response.
     One of the great blessings of the Gospel and, perhaps, also one of its most terrifying aspects is the fact that we are each accountable for our heart's response.  Our invitation to the feast does not depend upon our relative importance in this life.  Our invitation does not depend upon a lottery, or our profession, or who we know, or whether our family is good or bad.  Our invitation does not depend  upon our illnesses, our infirmities, or even whether we are, when we receive it, good or bad.  It is dependent entirely upon God's grace, a grace that causes Him to extend the invitation to all.  Our contribution to this feast is minimal.  He asks us to bring no gifts.  He asks us only to dress appropriately, in holiness and righteousness.  Unfortunately for us, were we left to our own devices, our clothing would not be suitable for the ocassion.  And so, while we were yet bad and stinky and unworthy of such an invitation, He sent His Son to clothe us. And through His blood, you and I are cleansed and made worthy to stand before our King, our friend.
     And yet, the man with no robe ought to remind us of the seriousness of the decision.  If we show up at the party but forget to robe ourselves properly, He will still hold us accountable.  Like those who have rejected the invitation out of hand, neither are we allowed in if we do not respond from our hearts as called.  All He demands for entry is a repentant heart and an acceptance of His Son's offer to lead us in this life and all eternity.  It seems so simple, and yet it can seem too hard.  Trying to enter the party without the demanded attire is, in the end, no different to our Father in heaven that rejecting the invitation in the beginning.  So, whose robe are you wearing as you stand reading to enter into His house?  Clothes of your own fashioning or the fashioning of some other tailor?  Or are you bathing yourself in the righteousness afford by His Son, and clothing yourself in His righteousness.  In the end, only one answer enjoys the happy ending and the blessing of our King.  Which do you choose?

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