Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dressing for Dinner: The Great Feast, and the Wedding Robe


Jan Luyken,
The Man Without a Wedding Garment
[from a sermon given at All Saints', Margaret Street, London, October 12th 2014]

A remarkable amount of material in the Gospels concerns meals; stories of Jesus eating and drinking, feeding others, or telling stories about people doing the same. There are arguments about what you can eat, with whom you ought to eat it, and how your seats ought to be arranged; there are stories about when to kill fatted calves, of underperforming fig trees and hungry Messiahs - and these of course culminate in the story of a last meal and a command, which we observe today, to keep eating and drinking together in memory of him.

In this age of molecular gastronomy, fast and slow food, and nose-to-tail eating, we might seem particularly well-equipped to engage this eating Jesus. Yet today's parable about a marriage feast may disappoint the foodie in us, because it focuses not on the cuisine, but on a problem just as perennial at dinner as what to eat, or whom to invite - namely, what to wear.

'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' (Matt 22:11-12). The aftermath is well known, dramatic, and definitive, and involves weeping and gnashing of teeth.

What is this wedding robe, on whose presence or absence our place at the king’s meal of all meals depends? Are you mentally checking labels now, or wishing you’d worn something else?

Now Jesus was attacked for being a "glutton and a drunkard" who accepted the hospitality of the wrong people. The problem of what actually to wear to dinner does not appear in any of the Gospel controversies about Jesus’ own meals, nor was he ever attacked for his dress sense.

What to wear to dinner turns out, however, to be a New Testament issue beyond this parable. The Letter of James warns early Christians of risks related to dressing for dinner, or perhaps for Church: “if a man with golden rings in fine clothes comes into your assembly, but also a poor man in filthy clothes, and if you honor the one in fine clothes and say…"sit here in a good place," and to the poor man “stand over there” or “sit here under my feet", are you not discriminating, and haven’t you become judges with perverse thoughts?” (2:2-4)

This apostolic lecture on etiquette seems, at first glance, to take the opposite position from that of the parable, dismissing the value of fine clothing as a basis for judging those who appear at the Lord's banquet. Despite the contrast however, I suggest the two passages are closer than they appear; and this demand from James to treat others with openness and charity actually gives us a clue to the meaning of the Gospel.

The Gospel story is a parable, and parables are not models for etiquette any more than for agriculture; what kings may do at weddings is, thankfully, not exactly prescriptive for what God does with our inadequacies. Nor for that matter is it about literal clothes.

So what is the wedding robe required of us, if not obtainable from Liberty or on Jermyn Street?

St Augustine of Hippo mused with his own congregation about this parable something like 1600 years ago. They apparently wondered what the wedding robe was too. Was it perhaps baptism? Or Eucharist? No, he says, for even in Church among the regulars there are those who are “called but not chosen”. But neither, Augustine argues, is the robe some charismatic gift of spiritual power, nor even faith itself - but love. By “love” he means not the love that virtually anyone has for those to whom they are already bound by family or friendship, let alone the “love” that involves control or manipulation of others for our own ends.

"Ask yourselves" he says, "if you have it, you can be at the Lord's banquet without fear." But Augustine goes on to suggest that "it" - self-giving love - is both the wedding garment but also functions as a kind of infectious invitation to the feast:
First, love God. Extend yourselves out to God; and whomsoever you can, draw them on to God. There is your enemy: let him be drawn to God. There is a son, a wife, a servant; let them be all drawn to God. There is a stranger; let him be drawn to God... So let love be advanced, so be it fed, that being fed it may be perfected; so let "the wedding garment" put on (Sermon 90).
I said earlier that there is no Gospel narrative suggesting that what Jesus himself wore was ever part of the controversy in relation to his fulsome dining practice. But I should qualify that. At the culmination of the Gospel, Jesus' clothes do become a matter of contention, when Roman soldiers cast lots for them.

Jesus himself was stripped bare in preparation for death; bare, that is, of all but love itself. This was event of course not a meal; but his invitation, arms open wide on the cross, draws the world to himself and to this sacred banquet, regardless of wealth or clothing, not because of our resources, but because of his generosity. This indicates how little and how much it matters what we wear as we approach him today.

What then is the wedding robe? It is the love that we cannot claim to have, or find anywhere else to obtain, nor to know or share, unless he gives it himself. He offers us this wedding robe that we need to come in and eat with him; this Eucharist is our present foretaste, binding us to one another and to him, but also to the world that needs his gift so much. Let us celebrate the feast at peace with one another, and as we go out take Jesus' prized and immoderate invitation to the rich and ragged alike, wearing the clothes he provides.

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