October 7, 2011

The wedding garment parable? It’s not about clothes.

David Stuart | iStockphoto
Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast contains an odd aside about an improperly attired guest. The king’s invited guests have failed to show up, so to fill the house and consume all that food, the king sends his servants out to find all and sundry and invite them to the party. So one fellow shows up in his workaday clothes, and the king says, “‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matt. 22: 11-13)

This seems harsh. I mean, this improperly robed fellow could hardly be blamed for not dressing up when he didn’t get the invitation until long after the last minute.

Some commentaries say the guest is in trouble because the king would have supplied a robe, so the guest’s refusal to wear it was rude. But others say there’s no evidence to support this idea that hosts supplied clothes for guests -- especially a bunch of hastily rounded-up substitutes.

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible said, as I suspected, that this passage isn’t about a literal garment. It’s about righteousness.

I pulled out William Barclay’s And Jesus Said, which examines the parables. Barclay’s theory is that Matthew recorded this as a warning against the sort of misconception Paul later addressed in his letter to the Romans. Some people apparently thought forgiveness means we can continue in sin so grace can abound. To which Paul replied: “By no means!” Barclay puts it this way:
It may well be, then, that Matthew is saying, “It is true that there is a free invitation from God to the most unlikely people; but that does not absolve them from the duty of trying to fit themselves to be His guests.” (And Jesus Said, page 159)
The ejected guest lacked three things: propriety, understanding, and reverence. He didn’t know what was appropriate, he didn’t know why the occasion was important, and he didn’t respect his host, the king.

How does this relate to our Christian walk?

We practice propriety in church buildings but forget that God is everywhere. Barclay writes: “It is not only in churches but in all the world that life must be fit for God to see.”

We forget what worship really is. We go through motions and recite creeds without understanding why it’s important to praise the One who made us.

We worship irreverently. Barclay notes that people will stand at attention for the national anthem, but slouch through a hymn; “and yet the hymn is sung to the King of Kings who is present at the service.”

Reverence is remembering that you are in the presence of the Lord Almighty, and behaving accordingly. The lesson of this odd little parable is that we ought to prepare ourselves for worship. Yes, we may approach the throne of grace with confidence. But we ought not do it five minutes late, disheveled, and preoccupied with worldly minutiae. We ought to do it with mindful care, clothed with “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

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