the TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER TRINTY
And when the King came to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding-garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding-garment? Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22.11-14)
This week, I happened to casually google, “what is a disciple of Christ?” As you would imagine, I found several interesting links, the majority of them were present day articles and blog posts which attempted to describe a disciple and explain the goal of Christian discipleship. One article in particular seemed to sum up the general consensus with the following: “So what is a disciple? Here are a three descriptors: A disciple is… rational (learner), relational (family), and missional (missionary).” I think we would all agree that yes, disciples are learners, they should be relational, and certainly missional. But in the various articles I read, I was hard pressed to find the word holiness used to describe a disciple of Jesus Christ. Sadly it appears in many of our churches today, that we hear and see a great deal of emphasis placed upon Christian leadership and mission (both important), but strangely, very little on the pursuit of personal holiness as the goal of Christian discipleship.
God’s chief concern and His great desire is that we become Holy as He is Holy. He desired this for the nation of Israel to whom he said, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev 19.2). And, He speaks the same to us the Church. St. Peter writes, But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy (1 Pt 1.15). A chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people (1 Pt 2.9; Ex 19.6). St. Paul echoes this sentiment writing to the church at Corinth, Therefore, beloved, since we have these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that defiles body and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (1 Cor 7.11); and from St. James, Allow perseverance to finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (Js 1.4). The entirety of the Apostolic witness to God’s priority of holiness is summed up in the words of Christ himself who calls His church to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Mat 5.48).
Being perfected in holiness… the great enterprise of Trinity-Tide the longest season of the Christian year spanning from Pentecost to Advent, some twenty plus weeks, emphasizing the purgation of sin, being illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and walking with God in righteousness and holiness: soberly working out our salvation in Christ, attending to the Holy Habits of daily prayer, reading God’s word, and worshipping in His church on the Lord’s day. The goal? Living each day in the closest possible proximity to Christ, with neither sin towards God or neighbor obstructing this sweet union.
In a real sense, the emphasis we put upon the rigor and disciplines of the daily spiritual life (the practicing Holy Habits) are the means used by the Holy Spirit to cultivate godly virtue, the firewall of defense against the many sins which impede relationship with Jesus Christ; our disordered passions, lusts, and proclivity to vice, obstructing any and all progress onto holiness. You see, the work of Christian Spirituality is to make oneself open to the operations of the Holy Spirit who works and wills in us that we might work for righteousness and will holy living. Virtue opens one up to the operations of God and those who are open are transformed.
In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of The Wedding Feast of the King (Mt 22.1-14), Jesus takes our focus away from the daily spiritual life and transports us to the end of the age, to the joyous marriage feast of the Lamb. But, in this parable, our Lord’s main focus isn’t on the joy and happiness of this future celebration. No, his emphasis- and it is a strong word- is upon judgment. Today Jesus reminds us of future judgment; judgment on all who will not accept the King’s invitation, and judgment upon Christian’s who having accepted, refused to live their lives according to the calling they have received.
The spiritual life is lived between two tensions, between the here and now, and that great future day of the Lord’s return, his second Advent, when (as we profess in the Creeds) Christ will come again to judge both the living and the dead. And this is why the season of Advent is so profoundly penitential because it draws our attention to both of the Lord’s Advents. During Advent we remember and celebrate God who in Christ came to save the world by His holy incarnation, and at the same time we assume a state of humility and penitence in preparation for His return.
This present moment of the spiritual life is never divorced from its future trajectory, its aim and end: future bliss; future perfection. A future and eternal union with God basking in the blinding light which is Christ who, from the center of the New Jerusalem, lights up the recreated Cosmos (the new heaven and earth), no longer barred from... but eating of the tree of life which bares twelve manner of fruits, yielding her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree are given for the healing of the nations (Rev 22.2). In that day, God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Rev 21.4).
This is euangelion, the Good News of the Kingdom, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the great hope and prize awaiting all faithful people who hear and respond in faith and charity to the King’s gracious invitation. But first, comes judgment. This is what Jesus desires to remind us of today, and again it is quite alarming: first, judgment will befall upon all who have not yet by faith believed on Him, and second, judgment awaits those who have accepted the Gospel invitation but do not live accordingly.
The first guests are likened to those who were invited and summoned to the feast several times (note how persistent, gracious, and patient the King is! He even prepared the finest food for his guests!) and yet they would not come; in fact, they actively and willfully chose not to attend. Here Jesus is speaking of the generation of Israelites who missed the day of their visitation, who with no regard, rejected their Messiah. The reason why sinners come not to Christ and salvation by Him is not because they cannot, but because they will not (John 5.40). Not only did those who were invited refuse to come, they violently took [the King’s servants], and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. In wrath, the King sent his armies and destroyed the murderers and burned up their city (Mt 22.7). Desolation and destruction.
God’s judgment fell upon unbelieving Israel. So very tragic and so very sad. Can you not hear the heart wrenching sorrow of our Lord as he mourns over His people? O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Mt 23.37). The wrath of men towards God will, in the end, be crushed by the Lord of all. Pray for the lost. Pray for sinners, pray fervently and earnestly for the salvation of all who disregard the call of the King to come! Who’s end is eternal punishment. God be merciful unto them as Thou hast been most merciful unto me!
But what of the second guest who accepted the invitation from the King but was found without the proper wedding garment? How did this man get in? And what is the marriage garment? Jesus continues, the servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests (Mt 22.19). We should note that the phrase ‘they gathered together’ literally means they ‘synagogued’ together, suggesting Jesus has the assembling of God’s new people in mind, the church, which commenced on Pentecost with the Apostolic mission. In this last portion of the parable Jesus is speaking to all who profess to be Christians.
Jesus says that both ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ were invited and attended the dinner which would precede the wedding. Note how gratuitous the Gospel is, how non-discriminating and full of grace, distinctly open to outcasts and outsiders, the nobody’s and the failures, to the unimpressive. For scripture reveals time and time again the tender heart of the Lord towards the impoverished in body and soul. All who accepted the invitation were allowed to come into the meal; both good and bad. And here we call to mind Jesus’ teaching on the Wheat And The Tares, how both grow together in the Church (often the one mistaken for the other) and are not to be separated until the end of the age, when the wheat will be gathered into the barn and the chaff cast into fire.
And when the King came to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding-garment: and he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding-garment? Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen (Mt 22.11-14).
Without the appropriate wedding robe the man stood out like a sore thumb, unable to escape the eye of the King. The man lacked the necessary garment to move from the meal to the wedding ceremony; though he ate and drank in the house of the King, he would not be a part of the blessed nuptial union about to take place. But what of this ‘garment’? What is Jesus speaking of? The garment must pertain to matters of the heart, for if it were an external garment the King would certainly have seen it. The garment in Matthew’s Gospel is holiness. It is not passive, imputed righteousness, but an active pursuit of doing God’s will; it is the evidence of repentance shown in loving obedience to Christ. It is active faith, fervent charity, and covenant fidelity.
Or as St. Paul says, it is our ‘putting on Christ’, faith worked out in love. And we’re not talking about dreary legalism either, a garment woven from our attempts to merit God’s grace! But neither is it faith alone, but woven both of faith and works; works which only come by faith in Christ and a lively faith evidenced by holy works. All who are invited are called by grace not by merit. “And having been called we are to adorn our bodies and souls with the finest linens and jewels of humble obedience and righteousness as becoming of guests of the King” (St. John Chrysostom). St James says, show me your faith apart from your works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works (Js 2.18). For a faith without works is a dead faith.
According to Jesus, the Christian life is lived between the cross and resurrection (in the past), over against the chair of judgment (in the future), and under His present commands to all who follow Him. And here is Jesus point: the story of one’s life is not over when one has accepted the gospel. There is a future divine review when we will be examined by the King. Therefore St. Paul exhorts us in today’s epistle,
See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all the things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5.15-20).
And here he gives us but one of example of what it looks like to dawn the garment of Christ, submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of the God (v. 21). What a beautiful picture of a life lived in pursuit of holiness; of a church which when gathered, speaks lovingly, sings joyfully, and offers such thankfulness to God! Pursue holiness today while you have today and experience just a taste of the future joy which awaits all those clad in the garment of Christ who willingly accept the invitation of the King to Come! Come unto the wedding feast; all has been made ready; enter into the joy of your Lord! Amen.