10 October 2020

The Marriage Feast

At that time: Again Jesus spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.

- St. Matthew 22:1-14

A common picture used in the Scriptures to describe our relationship with God, and the eternal life He promises us, is the image of the feast – eating and drinking in the presence of God. In this portion of the Gospel He describes heaven as being like a wedding party thrown by a king. We hear a similar illustration in the Old Testament, when it refers to a great feast of meats and wines.

When the Bible speaks of a feast, it’s not just a matter of sitting down to eat. It’s always food combined with fellowship, eating in the company of your fellow believers, and in the company of God. The message is this: that God is hosting a feast, and at the center of the banquet is His Son, the Lamb who was slain, but who lives.

In scriptural terms, the invitations to God’s feast were sent long ago – they were engraved by his own hand, and they were addressed by name to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to all God's people. God's invitation to feast with him in His Kingdom was written on stone at Mount Sinai. It was written when He said to His chosen people Israel: "I will be your God, and you will be my people," and He extended the invitation over and over again through His prophets.

Israel was a people bound and bidden by God's promises, ancient promises that reached back through the centuries to that first Promise which God spoke after the Fall of our first parents. Actually, it was a promise to Satan, "I will put enmity between you and the woman..." And in that statement, God promised a Saviour, a Deliverer, One who would defeat death and the devil, and who would restore the lost relationship between God and His people.

God made His children a people of His promise. He promised Abraham a homeland and descendants as numerous as grains of sand on the seashore. He repeated His promise to Isaac and to Jacob. Within the adversity of slavery, and in a new way, God conceived His people in Egypt and gave them another birth through the waters of the Red Sea. He raised them in the wilderness and brought them to the promised land of Canaan where they grew and prospered. They were His chosen people - chosen for the great purpose of bringing forth His Son for the salvation of the whole world.

Time after time, God recalled His promises: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make a feast for all peoples," Isaiah tells us. God promised a feast of salvation, an eating and drinking that would take away death forever. The Passover lamb in Egypt was a foretaste of the feast to come, which would be God and man in communion, eating and drinking together.

In Christ, God had (in a mystical way) come to eat and drink with His people. In fact, actual eating and drinking were so much the mark of Christ’s ministry that His detractors said He was “a glutton and a drunkard.” He shared meals with Pharisees and prostitutes and tax collectors. He ate with the religious and with the nonreligious. He fed five thousand people in the wilderness, and on another occasion four thousand. All that points to the fact that Jesus came to be our Bread, our life-giving Food. He said very plainly, "I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst."

In the parable the king was a gracious host. His table was rich. No expense was spared in preparing this feast for his son's wedding day. As Isaiah would have described it: "a feast of fat things full of marrow, with wine on the lees, well refined.” Who could say "no" to a meal like that?

According to the parable, many of the invited guests did say "no." Some were indifferent to the invitation. Others were too busy. One went to work on his farm; one went off to take care of his business. And others were even hostile in their rejection. They went so far as to kill the king's servants for even bothering them with the invitation.

Why did Jesus tell this parable? Because there are many today who still say "no" to God's “feast of fat things.” The time which should be for worship, the time that should be for God, they fill up with their own work, or with their own idea of leisure. Everyone has his excuse, but those excuses ring hollow when compared with the richness of what God offers. Think for a minute about how people react when there when a particular food that promises some fabulous health benefit - oat bran, or olive oil, or wheat grass, or soy protein - once the word gets out, the stores can't keep it on the shelves. Imagine if there was a food that could cure cancer, or heart disease. And imagine if there was a food and drink that promised to cure death.

There is such a food and drink. Jesus said, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." If people took Christ at His word about that, the crowds would be lined up beyond one’s sight.

In the parable the king wants his banquet hall to be full. So he sends his servants into the town to invite everyone, "as many as you find,” he says, “the good and the bad." When the respectable refuse, he invites the disreputable and the despised. And this part of the parable is a picture of exactly what God did. When the religious people of Israel rejected Christ, then God went to the Gentiles. The king sent his servants into the highways and byways, into the alleyways and into the darkened doorways – and soon there was no one who wasn’t invited to the son's wedding feast. And that's the point of the parable. When God gives a feast, there isn't a single person who is left off the guest list – just as when Jesus died on the cross for us, no one was left out of the benefits of His death. It’s only indifference to that death, it’s only a stubborn refusal to be fed, that leaves people out of the feast - and then it's entirely their own fault. God's Will is to fill His banquet hall with guests. If they wind up weeping and gnashing their teeth in hell, it's because they have acted entirely against God's desire to save them. God has hosted a banquet, and he's invited the whole world.

And then, what seems to be an odd part of story. When the king entered the hall packed with guests, he saw a man who wasn’t properly dressed for the occasion. This is where the parable can get difficult to understand... after all, remember that the king’s servants had been pulling people off the streets to come to this party. How could they be expected to have all the right clothes?

Let’s suppose for a moment that the king decided that he wanted a well-dressed crowd at his son's wedding. And suppose for a moment that this wedding banquet hall was rather like those restaurants that have coats and ties on hand for patrons who arrive without proper dress. Imagine that the king started handing out beautifully tailored suits and the finest dresses at the door to everyone who came to the party, but this one man says “No, never mind. I’ll keep my own clothes, thanks.” Now we can understand the king’s disgust when he sees him lurking at the corner table, still wearing a dirty t-shirt and ripped jeans.

This is what it’ll be like if we try appearing before God clothed in the filthy rags of our own attempts at righteousness, boasting of our own "good works,” and bragging about all the good things we've done for God all our lives.

God supplies the clothing. He covers us with the perfection of His Son. St. Paul teaches us: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." God clothes us with Christ in our baptism. He wraps us in His righteousness. He covers us with His perfection. Christ is our wedding garment, and his seamless and spotless robe is our covering. Christ’s death is ours, and Christ’s life is ours. His perfect keeping of the Law is ours. God gives it all to us for free. We’ve put on Christ in our Baptism, and that’s better than any designer clothes could ever be. So we dare not come to the Lord's banquet dressed in anything less than Christ. We come to the feast God's way, or no way at all.

And so that brings us to the end of the parable. It’s a parable of God's kingly love – the King who keeps His promises. It’s a parable of His lavish love – a love which prepares a rich feast of salvation. It’s a parable of God lovingly looking for us, with a love that goes into the highways and alleyways, inviting the good and the bad to come and be fed. It’s a parable of God’s singularly holy love – a love that doesn’t look upon our sin, but upon Christ with whom we are clothed.

At the end of the parable, everyone was invited to the party, but only those gathered from the streets ended up in the king's banquet hall. Salvation was won for everybody by Christ’s dying and rising – everyone was invited -- but it’s only some who take him up on the invitation to be clothed and fed by Christ.

"Many are called but few are chosen." That isn't an explanation; it's an observation. Another way of saying it is: “everyone is invited, but not everyone winds up at the table.” God’s feast of salvation is for everyone, but He won’t force anyone to eat and drink. If we miss out on the banquet and go hungry, we have only ourselves to blame.

Jesus Christ died for us, and He rose for us, and He gives us the spiritual clothing we need for the banquet, where He feeds us with His body and blood in His Church. That’s the banquet hall to which we’ve been invited. We’re invited to live our lives as honoured guests – and indeed, as members of the household. All we need to do is to respond to the invitation, and our place at the feast will be secure.

Lord, we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil: and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee the only God; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Pictured: "The Peasant Wedding" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1567