Today in the lessons from Scripture we’ve heard two stories – one that the Book of Exodus gives us as a true story from the history of our ancestors in the faith of Yahweh, the other a parable told by Jesus to instruct the followers of that faith.
The historical tale tells us that when Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Tablets with the Ten Best Ways (as Mother Kay referred to the Ten Commandments last week), the people left down at the base camp got a little anxious and decided they needed some sort of focus object for their worship, an idol (in other words). So they appealed to Moses’ brother Aaron to “make us a god”.
Now they hadn’t yet heard the Law that God had given to Moses, the Law in which God had said, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” the Law in which God specifically commanded, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” They hadn’t yet heard it, but they broke it in ignorance because that is exactly what Aaron and these Hebrews did!
Aaron took their golden jewelry, melted it down, and cast it into the form of a Golden Calf, and then the people “offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being,” they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” In other words, they threw a party.
The parable is also about a party. Jesus tells his audience that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding reception hosted by a king for his son. Those who were initially invited made light of the occasions and killed the messengers who brought their invitations, so the king sent his army to wipe them out. That, as you remember is what God had threatened to do with the revelers back at Mt. Sinai. As we might expect, that story in Exodus tells us that God got mighty angry about the Golden Calf and threatened to wipe out the Hebrews whom he had just saved from the Egyptians and start over. If not for Moses’ pleas on their behalf, that’s what God would have done.
The king in Jesus’ parable doesn’t exercise the same restraint, however. “His troops destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Then the king sends his servants out into the highways and byways to bring in whomever they can find to fill the banqueting hall so there can be a party. They “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
Now if the parable ended there, we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Two stories of God’s mercy and compassion. In the historical tale, God relented and “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” In the parable, the king, who clearly represents God, (although he justly condemns the murderers) eventually extends welcome to all sorts and conditions of human beings, the good and the bad. Everybody is welcome; nobody is excluded. We like this! It makes us feel good; it’s warm and fuzzy.
Unfortunately for those good feelings, however, the parable doesn’t stay with that warm and fuzzy ending. Jesus adds a post-script: “When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘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.'” Not so warm and fuzzy anymore…. In fact, we’re confused!
There is a tradition of exegesis going back centuries that argues that it was an ancient wedding tradition that the groom’s father would host the nuptial feast and provide everything necessary: the food, the wine, the place, the decorations, and the festal garments for the guests. Unlike today’s weddings, you wouldn’t have to rent your own tuxedo or buy your party dress; the host would supply it for you. Thus, the guests from the streets, including the one who eventually gets thrown out, would have had the opportunity to dress appropriately as they arrived. This one fellow, however, failed to honor his host’s generosity by failing to put on the proffered garment. Apparently, it was St. Augustine, the early Fifth Century bishop of Hippo, who first made this assertion, but modern scholars have failed to turn up any historical evidence to support it.
Another typical interpretation of this parable and the unhappy guest’s failure to put on a wedding garment it is analogous to putting on righteousness, to our obligation to change our life to one of penitent joyfulness as Susan Pendleton Jones, director of special programs at Duke Divinity School, argues in her fairly standard exegesis of this parable:
Jesus is issuing the invitation for all to join him as God’s guests in a banquet feast called the kingdom of heaven.
Life in the kingdom is a party where God is the host and all of us have received a royal invitation. Yet some of us come unprepared, as a second parable reminds us. One guest is improperly dressed, and is thrown out of the banquet – quite a contrast to the inclusive tone of the previous parable. To wear a wedding garment is to know the significance of the occasion, to allow God’s gracious invitation to change our lives, and to live accordingly. The dinner guest has received a gift from the king – the invitation to a joyous, elaborate feast – to which he has not responded appropriately. When we receive a gift such as salvation or forgiveness, we are called to lives of penitent joyfulness.
All are invited to feast at the table, but not every response is acceptable. We are called to repent in preparation or the party, not because we have to but because we know we are entering into the presence of a gracious, forgiving God. We will be left out if we think that God’s love carries with it no desire for response from us. Though we are often tempted to play the host, these parables together confirm that we need God to be the host – not only for the grace-filled invitation to the banquet, but also for the expectation of holy living that God presumes of those in attendance. Grace is amazing, but so God’s desire for our response. (Party Time, The Christian Century, Sept. 22-29, l999, p. 897)
All of that is certainly valid commentary and there is much for us to think about there, but let me stretch our understanding here just a little by taking a different approach, one suggested by the Reformer John Calvin. It seems to me that there’s someone left out of this parable … Where’s the bridal couple? More specifically, where’s the groom? I think we have to hear and understand this parable through the lens of Scripture, not through the lens of a questionable assertion about historical wedding practices, and I think we can’t escape the verse from the Book of Revelation that tells us, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9) We know who the groom is, but we still have to ask, in the context of the parable, where is the groom?
In the lesson from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi today, the apostle asks his readers “stand firm in the Lord” and to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” In other letters, he expresses this same thought in a different way – in the letter to the Romans he admonished his readers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ;” in the letter to the Ephesians, he encouraged his readers to clothe themselves with the likeness of God; and in his letter to the Galatians, he reminds all Christians that when “you were baptized into Christ [you] clothed yourselves with Christ.” John Calvin asserted that when we seek to understand this parable and meaning of putting on the wedding garment, we should look to these verses for guidance. If we do, we find that the unhappy thrown-out guest isn’t us at all! We are already clothed in our wedding garment.
We who are baptized have already clothed ourselves with Christ; we have already put on the likeness of the Lamb of God who is the groom at this wedding. So again I ask, when the one guest is tossed “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” where is the groom?
Well, we know the answer.
Open your Prayer Books, if you would please, to page 53. At the bottom of the page is the beginning of the Apostle’s Creed; I chose to look at this Rite I version because it’s rather more graphic and direct than the modern translation. Look at the last line on page 53. In the Apostle’s Creed we assert about Jesus Christ that “He descended into hell.” Perhaps you’ve just glossed over that statement in the Creed. Perhaps you’ve never had a satisfactory explanation of what Jesus was doing in hell between his death and resurrection.
Our faith teaches us that before he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to the place of the dead to retrieve those who had not heard the Gospel and to break open the iron bars of the gates of hell. In Peter’s first letter we are told that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey,” (1 Pet. 3:18-20) and that “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” (1 Pet. 4:6)
A few years ago it was fashionable in some circles to ask “What would Jesus do?” That’s what I’m getting at asking where is the groom in the parable. The Creed and the First Letter of Peter tell where Jesus the Groom is in this parable. They tell us what he would do, what he was doing! He went to get the ones cast into outer darkness and bring them into the kingdom, to the wedding banquet with him. And that is where we, who are already clothed in Christ through baptism, are called to go as well.
I don’t know, to be honest, whether this is a “right” interpretation of this parable, or any better an interpretation of it than the more traditional exegesis of Ms. Jones from Duke or the host-provides-the-garment story from Bishop Augustine. It has been said parables work best when we stop working so hard to interpret them and instead allow them to interpret us. That’s true also of the historical stories of the Bible, stories like today’s tale of the Golden Calf.
These stories challenge us to take our clothing in Christ seriously. They encourage us not to understood ourselves as saved and going to heaven, as the guests wearing the proper tuxedo at the wedding feast, but rather, clothed in Christ, putting on the likeness of the Groom, to stand in the place of the Groom, to plead like Moses on behalf of the other, to be the one who goes into the outer darkness to retrieve and to protect the other. Isn’t that where the Groom is? Isn’t that what Jesus did and what Jesus would do? Isn’t that what we who have been clothed with Christ in our baptism should do? Then and only then can we, in the words of the Psalm, see the prosperity of God’s elect and be glad with the gladness of God’s people, only then will we glory in God’s inheritance.
Let us pray:
O God of all the nations of the earth: Remember the multitudes who have been created in your image but have not known the redeeming work of our Savior Jesus Christ, especially those who are our neighbors and friends, or the members of our own families; and grant that we, having clothed ourselves in Christ, by our prayers and our labors may bring them to know and worship you as you have been revealed in your Son; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.