In the movie An American President—when was it? from the early ‘90s, I think? it had Michael Douglas and Annette Benning—in this movie, a female lobbyist in Washington gets a phone call at home one evening. The caller identifies himself by name as the President of the United States. Of course, she assumes it’s a friend pulling a prank, and she hangs up on him with a sarcastic comment. But the President, who, in the movie, happens to be a widower, is not easily daunted. He persists, and calls back, and wants her to be his date for a state dinner at the White House in just a couple of days. Once she satisfies herself that the voice at the other end of the line is really that of the President, she, of course, accepts the invitation.
But what do you wear to a state dinner at the White House? How should you behave, especially when your date is the President? How will the security guards at the White House know that they’re supposed to let you in? You don’t really know what to expect, and have to just take things as they come and be quick-witted.
You’re in a position similar to those characters in Jesus’ parable about the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. All the arrangements had been made, and the party was ready to happen, but the VIP guests all sent their regrets at the last minute. The king wasn’t about to not have a proper wedding celebration for his son, so he sent his staff out with instructions to switch to the ‘B’ list, or even the ‘C’ list, if necessary—just make sure the banquet hall is filled.
So there were a bunch of people in the kingdom who, with virtually no warning, all of a sudden had a very pressing social engagement that required their attendance. They asked themselves questions about proper attire and proper behavior and what to expect. After all, they had never been to the king’s house for a wedding banquet before.
The fundamental question of biblical interpretation, of course, is “What did this parable mean to the original readers?” To the first readers of Matthew’s gospel, living roughly thirty to forty years after Jesus last walked on the earth, the symbolism in this parable would have been crystal clear. The king is God. The king’s son is Jesus. The names on the original guest list—those who sent in their last-minute regrets—represent the Jewish people, the nation of Israel—and the last-minute guests are all the other nations, the Gentiles, who now, through Christ, have access to Israel’s God.
If you are keenly observant, you will note that this is the third week in a row in which the theme of the gospel reading has been the reconfiguration of the covenant that God has with humankind. Instead of the nation of Israel—that is, the Jewish people, being the primary agent of God’s work in the world, that primary agent is now the Church, which potentially includes Israel, but which also potentially includes everyone else in the world as well. And because of that, we have always seen ourselves, in the Church, as heirs of the stories and promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. So these original early Christian readers of Matthew’s gospel would also have made a connection between the banquet in this parable and another banquet scene described in the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Isaiah, a passage which, conveniently, is appointed to be read at today’s liturgy:
On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich foods filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
Among those who study the scriptures, this is known as the “messianic banquet”, because it describes conditions at the end of history, when the work of the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, will have been brought to completion. In Chapter Nineteen of the book of Revelation, this scene is referred to as the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb”—the Lamb being Christ, who is the groom, and the bride being the Church.
Now, speaking personally, however it’s described, this is one banquet I don’t want to miss. And I give thanks that, as a member of the Church, I am among those who have received a late-in-the-day invitation to the festivities. Yet, I am at the same time in grief because I know that there are so many who have also received the same special invitation, but who are not aware of what a great honor it is, and what a great party it will be! There are those who approach the messianic banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, as an object of curiosity. “Yes, God, since you’ve invited me, and I don’t yet have anything on my calendar for the first few thousand years of eternity, I’ll come. I’ll be there. I’ll show up. But I hope you won’t mind if I’m a little late, and I hope it’s a come-as-you-are party; I don’t want to have to wear anything special. And don’t bother actually setting a place for me; I’ll probably just graze at the hors d’oeuvre table. And I don’t think I’ll actually dance at the reception; I’ll probably just hang our around the door. Actually, I’m mostly just interested in seeing what your house looks like. No offense.”
Every Sunday and holy day, we have available to us a foretaste of the messianic banquet, a sneak preview of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. It’s called the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. What an incredibly wonderful gift! Yet, how many there are who approach it out of bored curiosity. They don’t really let themselves get into it. They remain detached, observing on the margins, hanging out by the table and never sitting down to the meal or entering the dance floor. They don’t want to see themselves as particularly religious, so they sing half-heartedly, if at all, let others make the responses in the liturgy, and don’t bother with personal gestures like making the sign of the cross or bowing the head at the name of Jesus. It’s as if they have a spiritual eating disorder. They’re starving spiritually, but all they can think about is avoiding being “religious”, so they don’t take any nourishment. Spiritual food is all around them in abundance, but it goes uneaten. They enjoy watching others eat! They wouldn’t want the Church to go away. They’re glad that others sit down and have a full spiritual meal at the banquet, but the thought of doing so themselves is terrifying. The anorexic has a distorted image of her own body and its relationship to food. A spiritual anorexic has a distorted image of his or her own soul, and how religious practice relates to having peace with God.
Or maybe you find yourself at the banquet, not out of curiosity, but just because you’ve been swept along by the tide. You got the phone call saying “Come to the party”, and you don’t remember every really saying Yes, but you never said No either, and everyone around you was going, so here you are. Have you ever known anybody who gets into a line of work in his or her twenties—not as a result of a great deal of thought, but just because it was an opportunity that became available, because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time—and then twenty or thirty years later wonders, “What am I doing, I don’t even like this job, but I’m trapped because I don’t know how to do anything else.”? It’s really a sad situation. Might that be a fair description of your relationship with Christ and his church? You don’t really know why you’re here, but you’re here, and it’s a habit, and you don’t know how to do anything else? My friends, that’s better than not being here at all, but my heart goes out to you, because even though you’re at the party, you’re not having any fun. You’re there, but it’s not really a party for you. You’re not eating, you’re not dancing, you’re not drinking, you’re not socializing, you’re just there. What a drag! If you’re at the messianic banquet out of bored curiosity, if you’re at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb out of sheer unconsidered habit, if you are holding yourself back from the full commitment of your heart and soul and mind and will and abilities and time and wealth to the Lord Jesus Christ, then there’s a word to describe you, and it’s “party pooper!”
Now, lest you think that characterization to be a trifle harsh, let me go on to say that that’s the kinder and gentler way of putting it. The plain, unvarnished, non-sugar coated version is spoken by the king in our Lord’s parable. When he sees that one of the guests at the banquet is not properly clothed, he orders his servants to take that person and bind him hand and foot and cast him into outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Now, we don’t know what this poor fellow was wearing, or what he should have been wearing. The point is, the fact that he was wearing the wrong thing means that he wasn’t present at the banquet for the purpose of participating in it and celebrating what the banquet was celebrating. When we’re at the party, but we’re not there to “party”, then it’s like we’re at the wedding feast without the wedding garment. We are demonstrating our ignorance of the true meaning and significance of the occasion, and we are insulting our host! When we attend the eucharistic feast, but our intention is to hang out by the door nibbling on stuffed olives, we are demonstrating that we are clueless as to the meaning and significance of the Eucharist.
The reason we’re celebrating—I’ll give you a hint—the reason we’re celebrating has something to do with the redemption of the entire created universe, including your individual soul and mine, from the power of evil and death. It has something to do with the good guys in the white hats untying the widow from the railroad tracks just before the train arrives. It has something to do with finding meaning in suffering and coming to some resolution on the mystery of bad things happening to good people. This is, as I said, just a hint. But it is certainly reason enough to celebrate, ample justification for throwing a party. So, our invitation to the messianic banquet, our summons to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, assumes that our reason for accepting the call is that we are ready to celebrate. Please come, we are told, but realize what you’re coming to. Plan on singing, plan on dancing, plan on eating—a lot—and plan on having a bit to drink, not just nibbling and watching. There’s no need for wallflowers at this dance. And, most importantly, plan on not only seeing the king’s house, but on meeting the King. He’ll be at the party, and he wants you to get to know him. In the end, he is himself the reason for the celebration. Amen.