The man without a wedding garment

July 5 , 2012

Today’s Gospel reading is the one about the wedding banquet. A king prepares to celebrate the marriage of his son, and invites guests, favored ones, to the feast. But when the day came, the guests didn’t turn up. He sent his servants to remind them, but they gave excuses. I’m busy, I have other plans today. The king, enraged, tells his servants, go out into the “highways and byways” and invite anyone you see to come. Luke’s Gospel says the King says, force them to come in. But when this is done, and the banquet hall is filled, he comes in and sees a man without his wedding garment on and asks him: what are you doing here without your wedding garment? And then has him bound hand and foot, and thrown into “outer darkness”, for “many are called, but few are chosen”.

I’ve always had a problem with this story, because it has seemed to me very unfair. Of course the man wasn’t wearing a wedding garment. He was about his business, and people came and got him on the orders of the king to present himself forthwith to the banquet. I’ve heard explanations to the effect that it was “customary” for the wedding garment to be provided by the host and available at the door, so the man was at fault for not putting it on. But I suspect this is a lot of baloney, dreamt up by theologians to respond to people like me, who have been saying for years: but it’s not fair!

I think making it the man’s fault means you can talk about the individual’s responsibility in response to God’s call. You can take the burden for being logical and reasonable off the king, and put it on us. It totally ignores what Jesus himself says was the moral of the story: for “many are called, but few are chosen”. He didn’t say “few choose to come”. The burden of both call and choice is on the king.

Does this mean God is capricious, then? I know for the writer of Matthew, this passage is really about Israel, and the fact that they are chosen by God, but in his view chose not to come to belief in the Son of God. So because they chose not to come, others took their place, called or invited by the servants of the king. Despite that, it is really the king who chooses who shall be at his banquet, and who not. Maybe mistakes have been made by the servants? Not all called will meet the king’s standards?

The story in Luke doesn’t have this twist of the man without the wedding garment, so is it purely an addition, something Jesus never said at all? Maybe that’s all it was.

We want to imbue with profound meaning everything in the Gospels. But could it be that this has no meaning for our lives at all, and is simply an inside story about Jews and Gentiles, understandable to the people who first read Matthew, but not to us.

For me, it is either that, or the message is, don’t think you have any power in the relationship with God, because you don’t. You can think and sing about coming “Just as I am”, but God doesn’t have to take you. You have to really come “Just as God wants you.” Which blows the whole notion of infinite mercy and all that.

I don’t know what the right answer is. I know I don’t believe the “wedding garment was provided” explanation, and nothing more reasonable than the above comes to me. I’m open to other suggestions.

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