Once Winston Churchill received an invitation from George Bernard Shaw to one of his opening plays back in the early 1900s. The note read, “Enclosed are two tickets to the performance of a play of mine. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Churchill sent back this reply: “Dear GBS, I thank you very much for the invitation and tickets. Unfortunately, I am engaged on that night, but could I have tickets for the second night? – if there is one.”
How do you respond to invitations? How do any of us respond? I suppose it depends on the invitation doesn’t it? As a priest in this diocese, I receive invitations to different events on a regular basis from other priests and churches and the bishop. Some of these events, that I am invited to attend are really required attendance affairs. For example, I am “invited” to attend the annual clergy conference and I am “invited” to attend the annual presbyter’s convention. Well, the fact is, I am expected and required to be there and if I am not there the bishop wants to know exactly why I am not there. Some invitations are like that, aren’t they? But then there are those invitations to exclusive gatherings that one would like to receive. Getting an invitation to attend the Academy Awards or to a White House dinner or to Buckingham Palace are invitations that do not just go to anyone, just to a select group of people.
And that is the point of the story Jesus is telling in our Gospel message today isn’t it? In Jesus’ day and age, to receive an invitation from the king to a royal wedding celebration would have been like getting a private invitation to dinner at Buckingham Palace, except more so. You see, their wedding celebrations lasted for a week and with the king footing the bill, it would have been over the top sumptuous and lavish. So for the king’s subjects who had actually received the invitation to refuse it and ignore it would be practically incomprehensible. To be invited and then to claim one is too busy with farm chores or business duties would be over the top rude and then to mistreat the king’s messengers on top of it all—well, it is no surprise the king sent in his troops to kill them particularly in that day and age. This message is pointed to the religious leaders. They have ignored the invitations from the King, that is God, and they have mistreated his messengers.
However, the next part, well, that is pointed to us as well. The King, God the Father, sends out his servants to invite everyone to the wedding banquet and so they go out into the main streets and gather everyone they find and soon the hall is filled with guests. The king comes into the hall and finds a man there who is not wearing a wedding robe and says to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The man has no reply to make and the king says to his attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What happened here? Everything is fairly clear up to the point where the King goes into the hall to look over the guests, right? Everyone is invited, good and bad people get into the wedding feast. That is like us; some of us before we became Christians did very bad things. I, as a priest, have heard confessions of people who have lied, cheated, stolen things, committed adultery, coveted, even murdered. But, God through Christ Jesus cleanses us from every sin. Through God’s great love we are forgiven and made into new creatures. So what is this about having the proper wedding clothes? And if this is a fellow from the street, how can the king expect him to have the proper clothes anyway? And doesn’t it seem a bit extreme to throw him into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth all because he didn’t have the right clothes on? I mean, what if these were the only clothes the poor guy had?
It is important to note that in the parables of Jesus people and things represent other things. As we have seen in the last weeks a denarius represents eternal life; working in the vineyard represents doing God’s work and so on. So the question is, what do the wedding clothes represent that this fellow doesn’t have on but who accepted the king’s invitation and who is among all the other guests who apparently do have the proper clothes?
In Scripture clothing is a common metaphor for the behavior of a person. In Isaiah 61 we read about putting on a robe of righteousness, Paul wrote in in Colossians 3, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In First Peter we are told, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” Putting on different clothes, in the case of Jesus’ parable, “wedding clothes” is a consistent Scriptural expression for holiness and righteousness. The old clothes, our bad behavior and attitudes, have to come off and new clothes, good behavior and attitudes need to be put on. This parable confronts us with the paradox, a seeming contradiction. On the one hand we have God’s free invitation to the banquet with no strings attached, anyone standing around in the street can come, and anyone good or bad can come. The honest merchant, the hard-working laborer, the faithful wife and faithful husband all the way to the merchant who cheats his customers and employees, the thief, the robber, the rapist, the adulterer or adulteress, drug addict, and prostitute; all, all are invited freely. No one has to earn an invitation.
And then on the other hand we have God’s requirement of the wedding clothes the “putting on” something appropriate to that invitation, we have to dress to fit the occasion when we come to the banquet. In other words, if we say, “Yes” to the invitation that we did not deserve nor have we earned, if we say yes, well then, we need to change our clothes, that is, we need to change our behavior. If you and I expect to fit in at the celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb at the end of time with God’s holy people up in heaven, according to what Jesus tells us here, we need to have on the proper clothing.
Mostly people think of themselves as being pretty good people. We tend to evaluate ourselves by looking at those around us. We think, “I am better than so and so.” According to Scriptures though, we do not set the standards. God sets the standards and we find them in God’s word. Also, righteous living is not something to which we simply attain or someplace we arrive. Righteous living is a constant growth. In the context of our lesson today it means am I trying to become more compassionate to others, am I trying to be less impatient and critical and so on? Obviously all of us have spots and smudges on our clothes; no one among us is perfect, yet since as Christians we have accepted the invitation to God’s great celebration we need to be consciously working to become more devoted to our Lord Jesus and more caring for others.
How does this apply to us in this month of stewardship? Clearly, part of following Jesus, part of righteous living is submitting all our life to God. And this includes our finances. Did you know that in the New Testament that we are not commanded to tithe? It’s true! What we see the early church Christians did is that they continued to tithe but then on top of the tithe they gave offerings and it is because of their example we now talk of our tithes and offerings. Paul gave this example to the Corinthian believers, “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of troubles, they had an abundance of joy even in their extreme poverty which overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For I can testify they gave even beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 actually begging us earnestly for the favor of giving to the relief of the saints– 5 and this, beyond what we expected, but first they gave themselves to the Lord.”
Money is a tricky thing. It can get a grip on our hearts and that’s why God set up the tithe as a standard in the Old Testament and in the New Testament it became a minimum standard of giving. Please continue to pray about what your pledge will be; I commend you to use the tithe as your model but I also ask that if you have unable to tithe that you consider raising your pledge from what it was last year 10% more.
The bottom line though is for us to remember our invitation to heaven. We need to continue to make sure that we have on our wedding clothes for heaven.