Are You Invited?

THE GOSPEL PARABLE READ at today’s Divine Liturgy is actually two stories with two different if complementary points. The first concerns those invited to the banquet and those who finally came. The second is the issue of the so-called “wedding garment.”

The Gospel of Matthew depicts Christ encountering increasing opposition the closer He came to the center of the Jewish establishment, Jerusalem. In Matthew 21:1-17 Jesus enters the Holy City, ejects the money changers from the temple and confronts the chief priests. Then we read four vignettes, each criticizing the Jewish leadership in the harshest of terms.

The first such condemnation is the episode of the withered fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22). Then, in Matthew 21:28-32, we read about the two sons: one who professed obedience to his father but in words only – a veiled criticism of the Pharisees who claimed to know the will of God – and the second who actually did the father’s will.

In the words of St Hilary of Poitiers, the religious leaders “…put their faith in the Law and despised repentance from sin, glorying instead in the noble prerogative that they had from Abraham” (Homily on Matthew 21, 13). The second son recalls the sinners who repented at the preaching of John the Baptist: the tax collectors and harlots who enter the kingdom of God before “the righteous” because one can repent of greed and lust, but not of the denial for the need of repentance. Finally in verses 33-46 we read the parable of the wicked vinedressers whose infidelity leads the owner of the vineyard to lease it to others. And, as the Gospel reminds us, “When the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them” (Matthew 21:45).

The Royal Wedding

The story of the wedding banquet is in many ways an echo of the parable of the vinedressers. In each story an important person reaches out to his people; he is rebuffed, and finally turns to others. The vineyard owner in the first parable and the king in the second represent God. The disdainful tenants and the invited guests signify the people of Israel. The new tenants of the first story and the new guests of the second represent the Gentiles who would respond in faith.

It may be hard for us to imagine the reaction of the invited guests to the banquet. An invitation to such an occasion would be esteemed, even coveted. “But,” as the Gospel says, “they made light of it and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business” (Matthew 22:5). It is as if Matthew were describing our own day rather than his. This is the way many Christians – our own friends and relatives sadly among them – react to their invitation to the Eucharistic Banquet week after week. But how could an invitation to a royal wedding be dismissed so easily?

Couching this parable in terms of a royal wedding is a way of saying that the initiative of God in sending the prophets to Israel, announcing the coming Messiah was at least as compelling as a kingly gala. One after another, prophets came and were recognized in some way as foretelling what was to come. At last the Forerunner came and proclaimed “Everything is ready – this is the Lamb of God” but was ignored by many who heard him. Those invited had so lost themselves in the concerns of the everyday world that they treated the invitation like junk mail.

Those Who Accept the Invitation

The messengers seek out – not the pillars of society at their farms and businesses – but the insignificant on the highways, representing the Gentiles. According to the Jewish opinion of the day, the Gentiles are inferior in God’s eyes to the Chosen People. Nevertheless, they respond to the king’s invitation where the important people did not.

Churchmen are often criticized for catering to the well-to-do: landowners, benefactors, etc. Pope Francis of Rome has repeatedly pushed Catholic leaders to focus their efforts on the poor without ignoring the leaders of society. In fact he notes, what generally happens in our world is the opposite. “If investments in the banks fail, ‘Oh, it’s a tragedy,’” he said at a Pentecost vigil in Rome; “But if people die of hunger or don’t have food or health, nothing happens. This is our crisis today.” In the language of Matthew 22, Pope Francis might be called the Bishop of the Highways.

The Wedding Garment

In the second part of this parable the people from the highways have come to the banquet, but one is not wearing the appropriate “wedding garment.” In Jewish tradition this meant finery, one’s best clothing. A Jewish parable tells of a king inviting people to a banquet. Some went home and prepared immediately; others continued working and therefore arrived still in their work clothes and so were not allowed in. In the Gospel this theme of readiness is frequently found in Jesus’ teachings, particularly in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).

Many Fathers interpreted the “appropriate garment” to mean a virtuous life. The Gentiles may have replaced the leadership of Israel in the People of God, but if they ignored the Gospel way of life, they too would be excluded. St Gregory the Dialogist saw the garment as woven out of love of God and love of others. “These are great precepts,” he wrote, “sublime precepts, and for many they are hard to fulfill: nevertheless this is the wedding garment. And whoever sits down at the wedding feast without it, let him watch with fear, for when the King comes in, he shall be cast forth.”

The “Bridegroom Matins” of Holy Week uses this interpretation as the basis of its beloved exapostilarion, “I see Your bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, but I do not possess the right garment that I may enter therein. Brighten the robe of my soul, O Giver of light and save me!” We much acknowledge our own spiritual emptiness (“I have no garment”) and seek God’s grace (“Brighten the robe of my soul”) to be made worthy of a place at the banquet.

How shall I enter the splendor of Your holy place, for I am unworthy? If I dare to enter the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment, and I shall be chained and cast out by the angels. O Lord, cleanse the stain of my soul and save me, for you are the Lover of Mankind.

O Bridegroom more beautiful than all men, who have called us to the spiritual banquet of Your bridal chamber, remove from me the ill-clad image of my iniquities by this sharing in Your sufferings. Adorn me with the glorious robe of Your beauty and manifest me as a radiant guest of Your Kingdom, for You are compassionate.

From the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week