First a disclaimer. I don’t know that much about wedding customs in the time of Jesus. I do know that it was typical for the celebration to go on for days — weeks even. And in today’s Gospel reading we are led to believe that for the guests, a certain attire is expected. In fact, I remember learning a while back that the ‘wedding robe’ we hear about today would have been provided when the guest arrived at the door. I don’t know that all the wedding robes were alike — although I imagine that they were. And so today I am thinking about all those times and places where we wear the prescribed attire — as ‘uniforms,’ almost — which by their very name speak of the unity they offer. I am remembering the common purpose those who wear them have: at the very least, to work together.
Teams wear them, of course. Military personnel do, too. Graduates don their cap and gown on their special day. Although it varies, most of us have a picture of how a bride and groom will dress on their wedding day. Depending on the store, I know what attire will identify who can help me find what I am looking for. Pastors put them on, too — at least those of us of a certain generation or tradition. I like to wear a clerical collar when I am out on calls, officiating at funerals or weddings, and on Sunday mornings. It reminds me that I am there for something larger than me. And yes, sometimes the rest of the world recognizes and sees this, too. Oh yes, we know what it is to wear a ‘uniform,’ whether it is provided or not as we conform to dress codes of one kind or another. Indeed, I can remember in Junior High — a very long time ago — to belong you had to dress in a certain way. In the early 70’s it was Levi’s jeans and Adidas t-shirts. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Again, what one wears connotes belonging. And common purpose. And perhaps certain responsibilities.
We do this in worship, too. Again, in the tradition that is my home, as pastor, I wear the white or flax colored robe to lead. When I put on the robe, my role is prescribed. As I understand it, the robe worn by me, the assisting minister, and our acolytes is meant to be a sign of our baptism — hearkening back to when the newly baptized would be dressed in white. Last Sunday, eight confirmands wore them, too. This morning in worship, a beautiful baby girl who was baptized was also all in white.
Again. We dress the same so as to not be a distraction to others who gather. It is an equalizer, in a sense. It is also a reminder that those wearing the robe are there for a purpose. We have ‘jobs’ to do in behalf of all who come together. It is a sign of ‘belonging’ to something greater than ourselves.
And yes, I think, too of the white pall we lovingly drape over the caskets of dear ones. It, too, is a symbol of baptism. In addition, it also serves as a visible reminder that no matter how costly the casket, in God’s eyes, the beloved baptized are all alike.
I have no idea what the wedding robe would have looked like in Matthew’s Gospel. As for its purpose, I am left to guess that it was worn so as not to take attention away from the celebrated couple and their family. Perhaps, especially in a case like the one described today, it was a special gift as those attending may or may not have had the means to dress appropriately for such a celebration. Perhaps it was just ‘tradition’ — one wore the robe as a sign and symbol that something special was happening then.
And so it is, just as in recent weeks, today we hear Jesus telling a story in such an extreme fashion that if we are paying attention we find ourselves shocked by every new turn of events. Take another moment now to consider the sequence of events described before us now:
The king’s son is getting married. Who wouldn’t want to be there? Even if you were not especially a supporter of the current regime and its policies, wouldn’t curiosity alone get the best of you? So when the king hears that the invited guests have inexplicably refused to come to the banquet, he decides to send other slaves — perhaps some with more persuasive powers. This time he tells them to entice the guests with a vivid description of the feast that was waiting for them. This time, though, we hear that they not only turn the other way, some laugh and go back to work — on what was probably a national holiday! It gets even worse when we hear that others still turn on those bearers of the invitation and kill them. Understandably, by now the king has had it. He sees to it that they are destroyed, along with their city.
Oh yes, by now Jesus’ listeners must be shaking their heads in disbelief. I mean, really. Who behaves in this way?
And then the story takes yet another unexpected turn. By no means will the banquet hall be empty. The king tells his slaves to go and bring in whoever they can — “both good and bad” — who will be more than happy to come to the party. And they come.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. We are left with this strange twist at the end where we hear about the one who was there, but who had apparently refused to dress properly for the occasion. And evidently, it is a blatant, arrogant refusal. Again, this is hard to comprehend. He has been invited to the party to end all parties. He has even managed to get himself there. But once inside the banquet hall, his behavior shows that he doesn’t really want to be there at all. He has refused to put on the robe.
And you and I are left to wonder why.
Oh yes, with all of you, I shake my head at this. When told this way it’s hard to understand. And then the veil drops and I realize that sometimes the one who refuses to put on the wedding robe is me.
- Oh yes, it is me in those moments when I have secretly considered myself somehow superior to — or at least not ‘as bad’ as the other guests who were also invited to the party. When I don’t want to cover up what makes me distinctive by putting on a robe.
- I expect this is me every single day when I believe I have to do more, be more to be able earn an invitation to the banquet. When all I really have to do is show up. All I have to do is put on the robe.
- Oh yes, it is me when I forget I am here for a purpose larger than me. The robe reminds me of this: perhaps, like with a wedding feast, I am simply here to live in joy and gratitude for all that God has done.
- And yes, it is me every time I forget that I, too, always need the ‘wedding robe’ of Christ’s forgiveness — to cover up all my brokenness, my failings, my sin.
The story Jesus tells today makes no sense. Why would anyone refuse an invitation to the king’s party? And once there, why wouldn’t you just put on the wedding robe and join in the celebration? The story makes no sense. And then I realize it plays out in my own heart, in my own life all the time. Oh yes, can’t you almost hear the king pleading with me to just let all the rest go and come to the banquet and put on the robe?
When the day is done, indeed, when my last day is done, I am just grateful that the wedding robe will simply be handed to me. The robe that symbolizes God’s eternal claim on me in baptism that covers up my hesitation, my sense of shame, my fear, my guilt. This is the promise for sure. Now. I wonder what it would look like if I would just put on that robe every single day.
- In a parable which is so hard to comprehend, it does at least help me understand its meaning when I realize that the wedding robes were actually provided to the guests. How about you?
- Can you think of times and places and ways when you have refused the invitation — or having arrived — have still refused to put on the wedding robe? What was going on then?
- Again, it must be said. This story makes no sense. Why would anyone refuse?