Talk about weddings these days. Not only because the month of May has its due share of them, but because the term “royal wedding” doesn’t spontaneously evoke Biblical, but rather “Windsorian” imagery. When Kate and William took their wedding vows, my family and I were on holiday in a remote place, without a TV or a broadband connection and my futile attempts to capture some live images on an Iphone resulted in much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” from my wife. If there is universal imagery, it surely is that of weddings, albeit royal ones. While wedding mores and customs might vary in time and place, the common denominator is always the same. It’s what Prince Harry apparently whispered to his brother after having turned around for a sneak preview of the bride: she is here, and she’s got a bridal robe, too.
Now the parable of the wedding banquet that Jesus tells leaves us speechless from the word go. And it’s unfortunately not because of the beauty of the bride. He starts out with a bombshell statement: ... but they refused to come (V. 3). Let’s translate this unheard-of reaction to the recent royal wedding, just for kicks. Imagine the “yellow” press’s headlines: Elton John, David and Victoria Beckham, the Earl Spencer and the Archbishop of Canterbury refuse to be part of Kate and William’s wedding! In Jesus’ story the invitees’ refusal to be part of the event is shocking to the point of being ridiculous and I figure that with all due earnestness in regard to the story’s subject of judgment, Jesus’ audience when hearing this couldn’t help but laugh, or at least smile. Celebrities, nobility and rich folks would pay a fortune; let’s say it frankly, they would kill to be part of it.
If we want to understand the story, we must understand – better yet – sense the introduction’s impact of it, personally. Before we point our fingers at those we (or Jesus) would like to identify with the first set of invitees, we had better hear the tragedy behind the humor: people are invited to be part of God’s wedding feast – and they refuse! The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, the narrative starts out joyfully. No one would possibly want to miss that. To be among the guests is to be honored by the king. And honor (more than righteousness) is the central thought of the parable.
Now honor is part of many cultures, to different degrees. In many parts of the world, just as in the time of Jesus, honor and shame played important roles. By being invited, you were honored. And you would return the honor by attending. To break these unwritten rules will necessarily result in shame. One scholar comments: to reject the invitation was tantamount to rebellion.
I am still feeling shame when I remember one wedding that my brother and I busted by thinking that the old custom of “kidnapping” the bride would be funny in that country (we were young). We overdid it thoroughly and when we came back with her around midnight, after chasing the groom through town, half of the guests had left. Shame doesn’t wear off easily. It cuts through to the bone, for it exposes us either for what we are or for what we are not.
In the parable, the king Himself – God – is put to shame. One of Adventism’s contributions to Christian theology is the notion of the vindication of God in the Great Controversy: God as not only the judge but also the accused. Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet could be interpreted as the cosmic perspective on the history of salvation of our planet - the unheard-of possibility of refusing to be part of the Divine realm. And the resulting shame that needs to be dealt with.
Enter the wedding garment, the second part of the parable. One that puzzles many commentators who prefer to see Matthew throw together different chunks of narratives. It is here that the story takes another unexpected turn. Quite frankly: if you hear the term wedding garment or wedding robe, whom would you think of first? Right, the bride. She is coming and wearing a bridal robe, too. This wedding banquet parable doesn’t feature a bride, or a bridal robe. Even the son, the bridegroom, is only mentioned en passant. In its second part the parable zooms in on one nameless individual, one of the lucky last-minute invitees without a wedding garment. While Jesus alludes to the religious leadership in the first part of the story, the mesmerized bystander and listener, tempted to revel sarcastically in the obnoxious refusal of the invited guests, is caught red-handed in the second part. It is as if Jesus turns away from the Pharisees (whom we always like to watch getting a solid beating), and looks straight at me, saying: without the wedding garment, you will put God to shame too.
While the refusal to be part of a royal wedding could be called the impossible possibility No. 1, this individual’s audacity to pitch up anyhow is the equally unheard-of impossible possibility No. 2. Which leaves us with two questions. The first is: who would do something so impudent as to reject attendance at a royal wedding? And who would possibly show up at a wedding completely unprepared? And the shocking spiritual answer is: That is what we humans do to God. The judgment mentioned (the burning of the city etc.) is self-evident for the listener. It is perfectly justified and warranted.
The second question is equally self-evident and compelling: what does Jesus mean with the wedding garment? Some commentators believe that this was a robe that was provided for by the king himself (for which there is some but slight evidence in history, but no mention in the text). Others compare this parable to a rabbinic one where invitees arrive with garments stained and soiled by the work of the day. The text itself doesn’t explain it. Why? Because it didn’t need explanation. The garment is the expression of appropriateness. Now let’s twist back to our introductory piece of fiction, the royal wedding: If you had been invited to Westminster Cathedral and to the subsequent banquet, how would you have felt? I would have felt deep gratitude and honor. And I would have wanted to express it somehow. And that’s all God is waiting for. For in the face of grace, thank you are the only appropriate words, gratefulness is the fitting attire.
And then my second thought would have certainly been interjected by my wife: gosh, what on earth shall I wear?