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The Wedding Banquet

14th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Moses the Black of Scetis; St. Job of Pochaev / 2 Corinthians 1.21 – 2.4; Matthew 22.1-14

F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, just as last Sunday’s Gospel portrayed our landowner God removing the care of His vineyard from one peoples and entrusting it to another peoples, namely the Gentiles, this morning’s Gospel follows this same theme.  

Only this time, rather than a vineyard Jesus invokes the image of a wedding banquet.  As almost all of you know, the subject of Holy Marriage is one endlessly compelling to me.  Our church fathers and mothers say in fact that the most common imagery used throughout Scripture to portray God’s loving relationship to His people and to His Church is—you guessed it!—the image of holy marriage, or the image of a wedding banquet.  

From Hosea 2.19-20: I will betroth you to Myself, in righteousness and justice, and in mercy and compassion.  I will betroth you to Myself in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.”  And in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus refers to Himself as the Bridegroom (Mt. 9.15, Mark 2.19-20, Luke 5.34-35), a word that instantly transports me to Holy Week and Bridegroom Matins, where we chant—Behold, the Bridegroom is coming.  And from the book of Revelation (19.9), where eternal life with God in heaven is described by John the Evangelist as a wedding banquet.

And now again in this morning’s Gospel, where Jesus narrates a most unusual and joyful wedding banquet arranged by a king, for his son; a wedding banquet unlike any I have ever known. 

The king sends out his servants to announce the glorious event; just as God sent His only begotten Son into the world, inviting His chosen guests to be wedded to Him and to His church.  But all who receive the invitation stiff the king and will not attend the festivities. 

The king sends his servants out yet another time.  Tell all invited, he says, about the oxen and the fatted calf that have been killed, for all to nourish on at the banquet; surly that will inspire them to come.  But those invited seized the servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them; all imagery of God’s people rejecting and killing His only begotten Son. 

Now furious, the king sends forth His armies to destroy their city, deeming them unworthy of the banquet; an image foretelling the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

The king then gathers yet more of his servants and tells them to go out into all the highways; highways referring to those in the Gentile world.  Go out into these highways and invite as many as you can to attend the wedding.  I love St. John Chrysostom’s commentary at this point in the Gospel narrative: O the lavish and wide open and unconditional love of God for all of humanity.  Everyone is invited to the wedding banquet, not just the chosen few.  All of humanity is invited to come to God’s Holy Church.  How our precious Lord welcomes the whole world to His Bride the Church.

And so the king’s servants do indeed go out into the highways and invite the masses to attend.  And who are these masses?  The answer, partway through v. 10, is astonishing: So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good.  And the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Dear ones, invite both the good and the bad!  And just who are these people designated as bad?  What is it about them that constitutes their badness?  And who are the good people?  And why are they good? 

Whatever the answer, one thing can be concluded: forget the illusion if not delusion that the church is made up of good people only, and no bad people; set aside the illusion that the church is made up of pure wheat absent the chaff; made up of pious believers only and no impious folk. 

Packed into our Orthodox imagery of the church as a hospital for the cure of souls is the understanding that Christ—the Bridegroom—came to save sinners; that all of us are sick and sinners, some more than others; that our Lord’s way with His own Bride, the church, is to leave the ninety-nine sheep in order to go and save the one sinner; that all the heavenly host rejoice when one sinner comes to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior and are baptized into the fullness of the church’s Sacramental life. 

Setting aside the illusion that God’s church is comprised of saintly types only will go a long way in helping stop your judgment of others; will go a long way in helping you extend a loving hand and heart to those who might be in the category of “bad.”  Certainly this is partly what our Lord meant when He said, three chapters earlier in this same Gospel, that many who think they are first will find themselves last, and the last will find themselves first (Matthew 19.30).

But wait a minute Fr. Daniel!  You need to qualify what you just said; because some who are invited do indeed appear to be bad.  No sooner do we hear that both the good and the bad are invited than we encounter a man who, when the king sees that he is not donning the proper wedding attire, orders his servants to bind and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And then Jesus’ closing words in His parable, words that should give us pause for self-reflection: For many are called but few are chosen.

Why was the King so upset by this man not wearing his wedding garment?  Because here is a form of badness that arouses the king’s ire and limits his unconditional invitation to the banquet. 

A wedding garment in the ancient culture of Jesus’ time was provided by the host.  The early church came to interpret this part of Jesus’ parable as the baptismal garment worn by those initiated into the church through the Sacrament of holy Baptism. 

Not only is not donning the proper wedding garment a rejection of the hospitality of the host, but it signals as well the presence of this man’s pride and the rejection of the repentance and righteousness that God calls us to when we come into the fullness of the church through holy Baptism.  In short, this man’s negligence in not wearing the proper wedding garment is met with the king’s chastisement because his pride puts him at risk of losing his very salvation. 

Yet another interpretation by our church fathers and mothers on this adornment of a proper wedding garment is the emphasis on proper etiquette in church attendance.  To begin with, honor the invitation by attending our King’s wedding—come to church and don’t stay away from church, from the great Banquet, from Holy Eucharist.  When you then enter this banquet, come appropriately dressed.  Make your bows and prostrations and the sign of the Cross at the right times.  Venerate the icons.  Hold your hands across your chest when you come to the Holy Chalice.  Maintain an appropriate silence and reverence.  All etiquette appropriate to attending the wedding.

There is a fine line here, dear sisters and brothers.  On the one hand, mother church teaches us not to judge others for their lack of proper church etiquette.  Stories and examples abound of people in church who appear to others as rather impious yet whose hearts overflow with piety.  And stories abound of the faithful who get a blue ribbon in church etiquette, yet whose hearts are revealed to be far from God because of their legalistic emphasis on always doing it the right way.  There is a right and correct way to do our faith, but this right and correct way must be accompanied by a right and correct heart!

One thing is for sure.  Our Lord, as with the king in our Gospel parable, knows and judges the heart of all of us; He knows an attitude of irreverence and sloth when He sees it; he knows when we should be donning our wedding garment but are not.  He knows when practices of church etiquette are done for the right reasons.  And where such practices are seemingly absent in a person’s life, He knows why they are absent and will judge that person accordingly.

The bottom line, observes St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, is that we come to the wedding feast, we come to the Divine Liturgy, to Holy Eucharist donning our invisible baptismal gown in a spirit of humility and love and righteousness, walking the path of God’s commandments, and that we shun like the plague any passions that seek to tumble us into mediocrity and slothful inattentiveness in our walk with God.  Dear brothers and sisters, with hearts of gratitude may we all heed the invitation to the great Wedding Banquet, and may our dear Lord find us worthily clothed in the garment of righteousness.  F/S/HS