Are we worthy of the garment of righteousness?

Father John A. Kiley

This Sunday’s Gospel account of the guests invited to the wedding feast following so closely after last Sunday’s Gospel passage on the vine grower and his inhospitable workers might seem to be a variation on the common theme of Gospel rejection. Certainly for St. Matthew, both parables share a sad tale of refusal.

Last week, the vineyard workers rebuffed the advances of the owner’s agents and even those of his Son. Surely, the sad refusal of the Gospel message by many of Jesus’ fellow countrymen was the clear allusion. Again this week, those invited to the wedding feast have their excuses — business duties, occupational obligations. For a second time, rejection of Christ’s invitation to the Kingdom is the sad and obvious reference. And once more, just as the vineyard last week was handed over to more willing prospects, so the invitation to the wedding feast is extended to the public out on the street, even to the marginalized and disenfranchised who might be found there.

St. Luke, in his version of the parable of the wedding feast, characteristically emphasizes the late admission of the poor and the needy to the banquet: “…bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.” St. Matthew, on the other hand, is more morally alert than socially attuned and offers the late invitation to “the good and the bad.” It is important to note that in both Gospel accounts the Kingdom is eventually offered not only to the general public (symbolizing the Gentile world) but more importantly to the neglected public, those on the fringes of society (symbolizing sinners). The two Gospel writers agree upon the universality of salvation. Even the poor and the bad, the economically deprived and the spiritually deprived, are offered a place at the wedding banquet.

But the universality of salvation is not the only lesson to be learned from this parable. St. Matthew especially has a couple of additional ideas that should not be overlooked. St. Matthew was writing perhaps forty years after the death of Christ. By this time, the Church consisted not only of adult converts, as in Christianity’s first decade, but also persons who were born into Christian families, persons who married into Christian families and even a few friends and relatives who resided with Christian families. After a couple of generations, the Church perhaps did not display the original ardor and initial fervor of Pentecost Sunday.

The lukewarm and the half-hearted began to show up in Christian ranks. And no doubt there were a few apostates who questioned the faith altogether.

St. Matthew realized that this religious indifference could indeed be a cause of scandal within the young Church. If Christianity and the kingdom of God were all they claimed to be, then how were apathy and inconstancy within the Christian community explained? St. Matthew’s reference to “the good and the bad alike” being invited to the wedding feast is an attempt to ease his community’s misgivings. God extends an invitation to attend the banquet of salvation to everyone, the moral and the immoral, the saint and the sinner alike. Recall the comparison of the Kingdom to a dragnet in which “all sorts of things” are drawn up by the net into the boat to be dealt with by the angels at the end of time. The presence of evil within the Christian community should be an occasion for patience and perseverance, not shock or scandal.

St. Matthew wisely reassures his Church community when they are confronted with less than committed members, but he also reminds his religious constituents that each of them has to look to their own standing before the Lord and make sure that they were indeed arrayed in the worthy garment of righteousness. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?” The man was speechless.

Then, the king said to his attendants, “Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” God is quite generous with his invitation to the banquet of eternal life but God is also quite insistent that believers respond effectively and realistically to God’s kindness.

The Christian community should well be forbearing toward St. Luke’s “poor” and toward St. Matthew’s “bad,” but mercy toward others should not become an excuse for one’s own careless embrace of Christian duties.