And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son…’ (St. Matthew 22:1-2).
Recently, I was having a digital conversation with an old Navy buddy of mine and the subject of the meaning of life came up. His contribution to the discussion was to posit that the meaning of life was the pursuit of genetic immortality through the passing on of his obviously very valuable genes to future generations. For him, this grim, clinical projection of his DNA into the darkness of time was his only hope for making any kind of mark on a cold, unfeeling universe. It follows then that the purpose of mankind, and all things I suppose, is the struggle to make the future look more like ourselves. We are told by my friend, and the school of philosophy he is repeating, that in the end heaven is a mirror.
It is fascinating that anyone takes comfort from this diminutive picture of humanity’s potential greatness, but many do take a great deal of solace from this atheist mantra as it allows our lonely Western world to find ultimate glory in selfishness (and, of course, sex). This position, however, does have its practical drawbacks. For example, it is hard to make an ethical argument against the rapist, who within this view of existence, simply seems to be operating at a master’s level. Or what about the slaver? If human progress is determined by the struggle to dominate our genetic rivals, surely keeping other people chained up can only help my cause. The closer we look at this materialist meaning of life, the more we should be horrified by its logical implications barely kept at bay in our own time by a watered-down Christian morality and the lazy cowardice of those who ultimately believe they are little gods.
If we take nothing else from Christ’s parable today, let us take this: we were made for more than what this fallen world has to offer. In fact, as rational humans made in the image and likeness of God we possess a divinely given meaning within which we were created to live and thrive and conquer mortality itself. There is no hope and life in the miserable existence of the great consuming ape man. There is only hope and life in the humble following of our Lord as He leads us into the meaning we were born to live.
And there is so much hope and life and meaning in today’ parable, particularly as our Lord compares the eternal kingdom He is establishing with a triumphant kingly feast given in honor of a prince’s marriage. Jesus, of course, is speaking metaphorically, but we should find the greatest comfort in hearing the new world to come described as the greatest feast imaginable. The glory of this in-breaking kingdom has no exact parallels within our fallen existence, but Jesus graciously accommodates our fallen imaginations through this bountiful imagery. Notice that a feast has material goods and actions within it: there will be eating and drinking in the new world to come just as there will be inventing and exploring. This new world will be a physical place because the physical world, along with the physical beings within it, will be fully redeemed and restored.
We see this restorative action symbolized in the wedding the feast is celebrating. Weddings within royal families signified the peaceful transfer of power, and the celebrations at these events were real expressions of thanks to God, for the assumption was that the prince and princess would sire an heir, thus safeguarding the peace of the land for one more generation. Packed into this seemingly simple metaphor is the entire picture of the end of this world and the beginning of the next. In this parable, the king is God the Father, his son is Jesus—the Prince of Peace—who is preparing to inherit the royal authority He claims at the culmination of St. Matthew’s gospel: ‘And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”’ (St. Matthew 28:16). Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is vindicated by His resurrection and sits upon the throne of the universe. Further, as St. John tells us, the bride at the last wedding feast is the Church, made spotless and white by the Holy Spirit, and from that marriage come the children of God—the heirs of promise—for whom, as St. Paul reveals to us, the whole creation has been longing. The purpose of existence, why we are here, is bound up in an identity we can’t yet fully understand in a future too glorious for our imaginations to populate. On this still mean and silly planet, our only access to this kingdom is through the Word of God: wherein the kingdom is gloriously presented, and the sacraments: wherein the kingdom is truly experienced. In this life, we encounter a kingdom and meaning beyond our imagination when we are united to Christ through the Communion feast, when we are united with the Forever Man Who breaks down the barriers of time and space to bring us into communion with Himself—the Universe’s promised Lord and Savior.
And so, it is God who gives and gives and gives, but it should be no surprise that so many look at Him and scoff. God has been searching for us ever since He first called out to Adam, saying, ‘Where are you?’ The king in this parable sends his servants out to tell the chosen people that the feast is ready, the bride groom is here, all they need to do is come and enjoy, but this gracious invitation is met with two reactions: indifference and violence. We should mark well that these excuses of the invited guests are both evil. The first group does not abandon the feast to carouse or do violence to their neighbor; rather, they refuse to join the feast because they have work to do. These people let the good work of their hands become their idol—an idol being anything we live for instead of God—and it costs them everything: it costs them the meaning of life. The second group take the servants of God, the prophets and disciples of the Old and New Testament, and they abuse and murder them. This unjust violence leads to justice as the king destroys them and their cities.
Here, the parable splits into two important and distinct meanings. First, the generation which refused to believe Jesus was the Christ and murdered Him on a cross would feel the full wrath of God as Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Roman Army in A.D. 70, but this temporal judgment brought against those whose pride told them they could kill God serves as a concrete warning to the entire world that a greater judgment is coming for all those still in rebellion against God when the final wedding feast is prepared.
After this cleansing fire, the gracious king who simply wants to celebrate with his people, sends his servants to find the strangers and outcasts who are now invited to the wedding. These outcasts are the former Gentiles and the holy remnant of Jews who know their Savior when they hear his voice. These people, by the way are us, we are the strangers and outcasts called into God’s wedding hall to feast and make ready for the new world to come. Notice the promiscuity of the call—it includes the ‘bad and the good.’ This means that under our roof we welcome those the world labels as bad and good. Now, this doesn’t mean that as your pastor it isn’t my duty to alert you to evil, nor does it preclude the loving correction of members to other members, but it does mean that the call of God goes out to all mankind. Remember, Jesus in his earthly ministry welcomes the prostitutes and traitors, just as he welcomes the blind and the lame, and just as he heals the blind and the lame, he heals the prostitutes and traitors. One doesn’t follow Jesus and continue to define oneself as a prostitute or a traitor or a thief or an adulterer or all the other sins St. Paul tells us Christ has freed us from worshipping. We can try to be a double agent for the devil, but the next part of the parable tells us our fate.
‘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. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen’ (St. Matthew 22:11-14). Isn’t it interesting how God addresses the man without a wedding garment: He calls him ‘friend.’ Isn’t it interesting that you can seem to be God’s friend and be cast into outer darkness. We can be in the wedding hall, saying all the right words, and still be recognized for who we really are by the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. There isn’t malice or evil in the king’s declaration to bind this man and throw him out of the wedding feast; no, it was simply impossible for this man to enter the feast just as it will be impossible for those who have not been saved by Christ to enter into the Kingdom of God. The man was dressed for outer darkness and outer darkness is where he ended up, just as those who wear the garment of iniquity through a life lived for themselves rather than God will have no place in God’s kingdom. How could they? Their entire lives have been a novel whose every line reads ‘I don’t need God.’ Remember, at this point, Jesus is not talking about the men who will soon murder Him. Jesus is talking about the people who enter the church and mock the sacrifice of Christ by sacrificing nothing for Him. At this point in the parable, Jesus is not looking into the eyes of the Pharisees; no, he’s staring directly at us—looking to see what garment we are wearing.
This wedding garment then, this sign that we are ready to enter the feast today, and at the beginning of the new world, is not something for which we can buy or barter; no guru or life coach has it; no pretty face or wise heart can whisper it into our ears. There is no earning it; there is no selling it; there is only the gracious gift of the Lord who was bound for our sake and cast into the outer darkness for our sins only to shine His light even in the pit of hell and break the chains of death forever. We are either in the darkness, or we are with the king who defeated it. Just as God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve with a sacrifice after the first sin of man, God covers our nakedness in the righteousness of the victorious victim, Our King and Savior Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells us, again and again, we must cast aside the old garment of our wickedness and clasp tightly the garment of Christ. The internal rebirth of our heart, soul, and mind cannot but be seen by the fruit we bear for the Kingdom of God. Our outward life, seen by God and man, is the outward sign of the new heart death cannot silence. It is not our riveting testimony or emotional conversion or whatever other markers we use to designate ourselves as saved that reveals what garment we wear; it isn’t our identification on a form as Christian or even the number of years we have attended church that shows our true colors; no, it is the lively faith which cannot but express itself in faithful prayer and sacrificial love.
So, I’m not going to ask anyone to close his eyes and raise his hand if he’s just accepted Jesus; no one’s joining a club today; no one’s changing his voter registration. That isn’t how any of this works. You have already heard the call, that’s why you are here. God has sent his slaves, of whom I am one, to bring you the good news of Christ’s victory over death and that Word has drawn you into His wedding hall. My concern, really Christ’s concern, is what uniform you put on every day. Do you wear the dead colors of the enemy or do you wear the wedding garment of white washed in the blood of the lamb? This is not a question which can be answered in one emotional moment or one hour or one day. The life to which every Christ follower is called is one in which we daily put that garment on and war against the darkness with love and prayer. If that doesn’t describe you, if you wear the masks of this world and think you can hide your true face from God, then you are still one of the many called but not chosen; repent and pray for grace. But, if by the power of the Holy Spirit, any king or slave can look at your words and deeds and see the beating heart of new creation then rejoice and feast and prepare for the beginning of the new world; prepare for the meaning of life.