This is a sermon I prepared for an advanced preaching course on the parable of the man without a wedding garment (Matt 22:11-14), which is the last scene in the parable of the wedding banquet (22:1-14). I will be preaching it tomorrow afternoon. I would appreciate both your prayers and your constructive criticism.
What Are You Wearing?
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.
"Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are invited, but few are chosen." (Matt 22:11-14)
The scene at the White House was astonishing. The President of the United States was pacing his office in subdued anger. Flared nostrils and wide eyes contrasted sharply with his distinguished Armani tuxedo and platinum cuff links. It was December 15, day one of a three-day celebration for the marriage of the President’s only son. The overlap of the Christmas season and a White House wedding made for an extraordinarily lavish occasion. The President should have already taken his place in the grand foyer to welcome his many distinguished guests. But he was on the phone with his assistant and something wasn’t right.
“What do you mean they’re not coming? Who’s not coming? When did they call you? They ‘texted’ you? They sent you text messages?” Text messages. Some of the most important leaders and political representatives in the world—European ambassadors, African diplomats, and South Asian dignitaries—sent the President of the United States text messages begging off their attendance on the day of his son’s wedding.
The pacing President was a mixture of emotions: hurt, embarrassed, and enraged. This was a personal insult. This was an intentional humiliation. So many important guests, so many ill-timed rebuffs—this was more than just a “scheduling conflict.”
The President’s rage lasted only a few minutes, though. He would deal with them later. He had a wedding to celebrate. He couldn’t fume over these betrayals when three days of feasting, dancing, and entertainment awaited him and his family. But, how could he celebrate with an almost empty party? And, where could he get more guests at such a late hour?
Within minutes the President made up his mind. He would invite all the people of the community in Washington, DC. Yes, it’s a little crazy and the Secret Service will hate it, but his son is getting married. He must have a full house, an overflowing party, to commemorate the occasion. And, who would enjoy such a party more than his less-than-privileged neighbors?
That very hour, hundreds of invitations were hand-delivered by White House staff persons throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. Even the roughest parts of town were paid a visit. Everyone was invited: sanitation workers on their rounds, bank tellers behind glass windows, teenagers playing hacky sack, and even an old woman planting silk daffodils in her front yard. Everyone was invited.
At first, most thought the invitations were a scam. But, the serious faces of the deliverers told them that this was the real deal. Though shocked and even a little scared, most busied themselves getting ready, changing from work clothes to their “Sunday best.” For some that meant twenty year-old polyester suits with ill-fitting brown trousers and coats that won’t button. For others, polka-dotted navy sundresses, worn cream-colored loafers and pitifully lop-sided braids. Yes, the grotesque parade of mismatched hats, dress shoes, and evening bags winding hastily down Pennsylvania Avenue was enough to give Joan Rivers a stroke.
But, to the President, who desperately desired to celebrate his son’s marriage, the procession was a gratifying sight. Sure, many among the crowd came merely to pick at platters of fruit and cheese, enjoy a mouth-watering filet mignon, and top off their full bellies with chocolate custard and cheesecake. But, most felt honored to be summoned to such an event. They could bring nothing for the bride and groom. Yet, their gratitude, their innocent, wide-eyed delight, was enough. Looking over the crowded, candle-lit ballroom, teeming with excited and talkative revelers, the President was infinitely satisfied.
But, one among the bunch had not spent any time in front of the mirror. His heather grey sweat suit boasted a number of brownish blotches, all of which corresponded quite well with his ruddy leather house shoes. One prominent stain near the neck smelled of barbeque sauce, a remnant of his lunchtime McRib. The man’s hair was greasy and matted under his Redskins ball cap, having seen neither comb nor soap in many days.
Spotting the unkempt man at a table of caviar and cheese, the President was confused. “Poor man. Does he not know where he is? Perhaps there’s been some mistake.” He spoke to him in a concerned tone: “Hello, friend. How did you happen to come to our party this way? You do know this is a wedding, right?” The man said nothing, but stared at the President blankly. He finished shoving a cracker piled with caviar into his gaping mouth and washed it down with a gulp of champagne. The awkward silence and apathetic gaze of the man betrayed the truth: The man knew exactly where he was. And, he didn’t care that he was out of place.
Dismayed at the man’s rudeness, the President motioned to a pair of muscled men in black suits. Despite their professional demeanor, they had no problem forcibly escorting the bewildered man from the party. When he put up a fight, yelling pitifully and clutching his invitation, they dragged him by the armpits and toss him into the dank alley. When he finally recovered, struggling to stand amidst piles of full garbage bags, the man thoughtlessly picked cracker crumbs off his sweatshirt. He pulled up his sagging sweatpants and shrugged. “So, this is what the alley of the White House looks like.”
A little less than two thousand years ago, Jesus told a similarly strange story, recorded for us in Matt 22:1-14. Many have speculated as to the identity of those who were first invited to the banquet but later deemed “unworthy.” And, many have focused upon the generous nature of the king’s second invitation, summoning “good and bad” to join the celebration. But today, we will focus upon the last scene of the story, the one that makes you uncomfortable, the one that you might have left out if you had a hand in editing the Gospels.
Darkness, weeping, and gnashing teeth is not the way you want Jesus to end a parable about God’s kingdom The man without a wedding garment came to a party but ended up in hell. Poor guy. We can’t help but pity the underdressed man and question the king’s punishment. The king’s servants had urged him to come to the banquet. Even though he was at the edge of town, even though he was on the fringes of society, they wanted him to come. Should a man like this be expected to dress appropriately? And, should the king care so much about what his guests wear as long as they come to the party? Isn’t God’s banquet—God’s kingdom—about grace? Are we not meant to come “just as we are”?
As we hurl these questions at the pages of Matthew’s gospel, an uncomfortable truth stares back at us: There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s invitation. There is more than one way to miss God’s kingdom. God’s chief desire is to gather worthy guests for his Son’s banquet. The one who arrives at the banquet without the right clothes, without the evidence of righteousness, is just as unworthy as the one who rejects the invitation outright. And, both will be excluded.
The royal banquet Jesus describes in Matt 22 would have been a tremendously expensive, and complicated affair. The king’s household would have been occupied for months with the planning, storing, arranging, and managing of such festivities. As his servants made preparations, the contents of the storehouses would boggle the mind and assault the senses: giant vats of olive oil, huge stone jars of wine and beer, crate after crate of dried fruits and nuts, and sealed ceramic jars of sharp-smelling spices and salted meats.
The list of musicians, jokers, dancers, and other performers employed to entertain the revelers would have been a foot long, costing almost as much as the food. When the first day of the feast arrived, the halls of the king’s palace would be filled with all manner of exotic birds and lizards, enclosed in gilded cages for the sole purpose of titillating the king’s guests. The seven-day gala would have been a momentous occasion in the life of the kingdom as they honored the heir to the throne.
But, the lengths to which the first-century monarch would go to host a royal wedding does not even begin to compare to the lengths taken by God to prepare for the Great Banquet at the end of the age. Indeed, you have been invited not to a seven-day gala event, but to an eternal celebration of the coronation of the King of Kings.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus, we acknowledge and proclaim his victory over evil, sin, and death even now. But we await the final realization of this reality in all its fullness at the end of history. Now, with groaning and great travail, those of us who have responded to his invitation anticipate the time when God will set all things right and bring to completion the reconciliation of all things. We are invited to the final banquet of God. We are to be honored, worthy guests at the wedding supper of God’s Son.
You can see why the king in Jesus story would come and “look over” or “inspect,” his many guests. Surely you can agree that it is good and right for the king to desire worthy guests at such a party. He deserves guests who appreciate the finery set before them and who honor their host with a joyful heart and festive attire. Now then, if an earthly monarch deserves to be honored with festive clothes and merry hearts, how much more so does the eternal King of Kings! Knowing the magnificent banquet that awaits us at the end of the age, how can we possibly defend the slovenly man in the parable? Does not our defense, our sympathy with his plight, put us at odds with the king—at odds with God?
On the surface, the man’s appearance may have been little worse than some of the poor attempts at finery present in the banquet hall. But, there’s a major difference. The others, despite their tattered clothes, understood the nature of the king’s invitation. Honored by the summons to celebrate with him, they took time to find something to wear, maybe even begging or borrowing to do so. Doubtless, some still looked like people off the streets, but they rejoiced with royalty because they came to the banquet prepared to celebrate.
Yet, the lone man’s clothes betray his indifference to the king. No, its more than indifference—its contempt. It’s a passive-aggressive rejection of the king’s party. He is present. He is eating the food. He is drinking the wine. He is watching the merriment. But, he is just as bad as those who rebuffed the king’s rule with a last-minute refusal—maybe even worse. He is declining to celebrate with the king and he does so while standing in his presence. By attending a wedding festival in his grubby house clothes, the man has silently revealed his allegiance. And the king should be offended. He must be offended.
But, here is the difficulty, my friends. If we would be honest with ourselves, we would see that we sympathize with the underdressed man because we identify with his easy-going frivolity. We know God’s grace is wide and welcoming. We know God’s generosity is endless. We know God’s mercy endures forever. Why not relax and enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom? Why not come to God’s party just as we are? The answer is in the parable: Your wedding garment is your tribute to the king. Without it, you are an unworthy wedding crasher, fit for nothing but the trash-filled alley.
We know that it is the grace of God, which invites us to take a place in God’s kingdom. But, we are less likely to acknowledge is that it is our righteousness, which proves that we belong there. We don’t want to admit it, but the cliched judgment scenarios will never happen. God will not ask you, "What did you do with my Son?" Jesus will not stand as your defense attorney in a celestial courtroom in the sky. And, being a Christian will not get you a "pass" on standing before God.
No. The testimony of the New Testament is clear: you will be judged based upon your righteousness—based upon your wedding garments. In the Apocalypse, the faithful witnesses, who serve Christ unto death, prepare for the “wedding supper of the Lamb” by clothing themselves in “righteous works.” They receive the right to walk with Jesus in “white” and return with him robed in fine linen, “white and clean.” It is time to ask yourself, what are you wearing?
Even in our age of increasing casualness, we know instinctively that clothing and appearance is vital, especially for significant occasions. On January 27, 2005, world leaders gathered in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The day was blustery and snowy, but the ceremony at the Nazi death camp was held outdoors. Most of those in attendance, including French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, made the best of the weather, wearing dark formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots, balancing the need for warmth with the dignity of the event.
But, there was one in the crowd who didn’t fit in. Perhaps you recall the sadly humorous photos. In a sea of black-coated, distinguished world leaders, Vice President Cheney wore a bulging olive-grey parka with his name emblazoned across the front and a fluffy, fur-trimmed hood. Beneath the hood, he wore a navy knit ski cap, embroidered with the words “Staff 2001,” and on his feet were bulky, lace-up hiking boots. In any other context, the Vice President’s clothing would have been ideal. But, in a solemn, memorial ceremony, honoring the tens of thousands killed at Auschwitz, Cheney’s apparel was embarrassingly out of place. One journalist had this to say:
There is little doubt that intellectually Cheney approached the Auschwitz ceremony with thoughtfulness and respect. But symbolism is powerful. That’s why the piercing cry of a train whistle marked the beginning of the ceremony and the glare of searchlights signaled its end. The vice president might have been warm in his parka, ski cap and hiking boots. But they had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all.
Indeed, in the banquet of God, your clothing indicates your understanding of the celebration. Your clothes reveal that you have accepted the invitation and you are willing to join the King in his joy. If you arrive at the wedding supper of God’s Son underdressed, you reveal that you are under-whelmed with the occasion, not considering it of enough importance to make proper preparations. The one who will not array him or herself in the finest clothing for the king’s party must be shown the door. He or she is unworthy. And, missing God’s celebration is much worse than being tossed into the alley of the White House. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth,” indicate that exclusion from the light and joy of God’s presence is the consequence for a slovenly appearance.
So, what about you? What are you wearing? The wedding banquet of the Son is coming. We will gather at his festive table and join in the celebration of the rule of God. Grace has invited us to enter in. The doors are flung wide and the servants of the king await our arrival. But, there is more than one way to miss God’s Kingdom. There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s invitation. You can refuse outright. Or, you can arrive in the sloppy clothes of an unworthy dissident. The King is coming to inspect his guests. What are you wearing?
As one in attendance at the banquet of God, you must take on the garb of righteousness, the robes of good works, which are the evidence that you belong in the kingdom. It’s so easy for us, for ministers of the Gospel, to forget about our own appearance as we instruct others in the Way. I urge you: Put on linen robes of holiness. Adorn your head with garlands of worship. Dress your sleeves in flowing folds of peace. Embroider your fabrics with stitching of proclamation and truth. Affix to your hem tassels of healing and brilliant beading of liberation. Wrap yourself in scarves of justice and ornament your arms and neck with golden bangles of wisdom.
Do not miss God’s celebration by rushing into the kingdom with garments disheveled and unkempt. Do not spurn God’s invitation and rebuff God’s grace by ignoring the formation of your character and the performance of righteousness. The King is coming to look over his guests. He is seeking worthy attendants at his Son's marriage supper. What are you wearing?
*The inset picture is of a third century fresco, “Fractio Panis" (the breaking of bread) in the Greek Chapel in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla.