If you’ve ever watched one of those murder mysteries set in an English manor house, or if you followed that series, Downton Abbey, you’ll be familiar with the practice of “dressing for dinner.” When I watch something like Jeeves and Wooster, or an Agatha Christie movie, I always find it curiously charming that the hosts and the guests would all be expected to dress up for what was simply the evening meal, in gowns and in black tie and dinner jacket.
The practice comes from the idea that you are attending the lord of the manor’s feast, and so to honour him appropriately, you would dress in your finest.
I am not a member of the aristocracy, nor are most of you, but you have a sense that there are still occasions when we “dress for dinner.” The obvious one is a wedding reception, and that’s why I think we can still understand some aspects of today’s parable of the wedding feast: we are expected to dress properly for the occasion, to honour the newlywed couple, to signal to ourselves and those who see us that this is a special event in the life of the community; that celebration, thanksgiving, is to be marked by something more than our everyday dress.
Now we know that in the case of this parable, Jesus is using how we dress as an analogy, that the story is an elaborate metaphor for our spiritual state, but even knowing that, and recognizing that even today we are expected to dress up for a wedding we are faced with something quite disturbing: a man who has been invited to the feast is thrown out of the banquet because he is not dressed appropriately!
Living as we do in a culture that bangs on and on about social justice, tolerance and inclusivity, this seems very unjust, intolerant and exclusive. We know that how we dress, even today with our closets full of outfits, that what we have to wear is determined by our circumstances, by our income, our material wealth, by our social connections, and these are often beyond our control. So, what’s going on?
The short answer is this, we must be dressed properly for Christ’s wedding feast, no exceptions. For those who think Christianity is about an absolute unconditional ethic of acceptance and inclusion we must be clear: there are standards of behaviour and belief that apply absolutely and regardless of circumstance. Whether born in the lap of luxury or in the gutter, or comfortably somewhere between those extremes, the moral and spiritual obligations are the same.
The whole matter of dress is a metaphor that runs throughout our tradition.
From what we understand of the earliest of Christian baptism practice, it featured the symbolic clothing of the newly baptized in a white garment. We still do that today. When a baby, or an adult is baptized in this parish Church, I read the lines from the ritual that say:
“you have become a new creation and clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity… bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
That is drawn directly from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In his letter to the Romans, he tells us again to be clothed in Christ so as to resist the lusts of the flesh; in Ephesians, he reminds us to “put on our new self,” to cast away our old self like a shabby old dress.
So, this “clothing” metaphor has been with us from the outset of the Church’s life.
Fair enough, but how do we account for this poor man who has come to the wedding feast in his everyday clothes. The injustice of it must be apparent if we know anything of the kind of poverty and material deprivation that afflicted humanity at the time when Jesus was preaching. Most people in the first century would be lucky to have a change of clothing, let alone some magnificent robe for a special occasion like a wedding.
Jesus even talks about how “if you have a second coat” give it to another who doesn’t have one, and that indicates it’s exceptional to have a spare one. Jesus elsewhere talks about people being so poor that the surety for a loan might be your coat, and that if someone pawns his coat with you for some cash, you’re obligated to let him have it back every night so he doesn’t freeze to death!
So, we can speak of people’s circumstances that leaves them with limited options in terms of dress, but thinking metaphorically, we can also talk about their behaviour, their lifestyle, the way they are toward others: the poor, their own peer group, strangers, those in authority, and so on. We can also talk about how they are toward God. Are they people who live their life in thanksgiving for what they have, and give thanks to God; or are they marked by bitterness and resentment toward others, and especially toward God? Do they ignore God entirely?
Saint Paul himself speaks of the nature of this spiritual clothing in his letter to the Colossians (3.12) writing, “… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”
But what if you have been raised in a household where none of those things are valued, taught, lived out as an example to you? What if you are born in the barrios of Buenos Ares and life is dog-eat-dog? Or in the Beacon Hill district of Boston, and the comfortable life that brings you rarely if ever into contact with those in need of compassion, and charitable generosity?
What if you’ve been raised a “cultural Christian” but have never seriously prayed, offered a true sacrifice, been in a true state of earnest thanksgiving to God? What if God is scarcely mentioned in your home? And so, the obligations that Jesus speaks of, the virtues that he teaches and exemplifies, if these are not presented as absolutely necessary as constants in your life, not just occasionally to be put on, how would you know that you aren’t wearing the right clothes?
The message here is, if you accepted the invitation, as a good or bad person, heard the gospel and said “yes,” there is no excuse.
And the reason there is no excuse goes back to an understanding of this parable as being of its time.
So, I mentioned those t.v. and movie dramas, Downton Abbey and so on. We know that the Lord and Lady of the manor would never invite the tenant farmers on their land to a dinner party, at least not one in which other members of the upper crust were in attendance. Why? Well in part, and to be charitable to the nobility, they wouldn’t want to embarrass the farmer and his wife who simply would not possess the appropriate attire.
However, at the time Jesus is speaking, if a social better, someone of wealth and power, a king or a prince, were to invite a humble farmer, a lowly tradesman, a poor widow woman to a great feast, it was an obligation on his part to provide them with the appropriate dress. So, when we imagine this great feast and all those in attendance, know that all the guests haven’t “come as they are” but have been dressed by the master of the feast.
When we are baptized, it is God who dresses us on that day. The white garment is that outward symbol of what has happened within.
So, this parable of the man who is tossed out of the wedding feast does not show us a God who lacks charity, but speaks to us of human beings who are ungracious and refuse to receive what God has so freely and generously given. It is the baptised person who throws off her dignity, it is the confirmed Catholic who chooses to dress as he sees fit.
Now I’ve spoken here about the evil of identity politics, how people today root their personhood in the superficialities of race, sex, ethnicity, and to that I would add social class, and political ideology. You cannot frame your self-understanding in those terms because these things are not of God, but of the world. You cannot go through your life relating to people from such a narrow basis. I cannot dress, as it were, myself as male of English descent and so relate to others on that basis whether or not that leads to a display of virtue or not. I cannot help “you” because of my liberal or tory convictions tell me to, because such things always put conditions on the love, the sacrifice offered—I will love you better if you vote for the same party as I do; I will regard you as worthier because of the colour of your skin or your genitalia; I will think of you more as my neighbour according to your postal code, how nice or poor a neighbourhood you come from, and so on. And by the way, that means I have to love my fellow man of English-descent who lives on the same block no less than I love the Syrian refugee living in a crummy apartment downtown and who goes to St. Patrick’s for his lunch everyday; the preferential option for the poor does not mean disdain for the middle class and contempt for the rich; and I must do this all, not from out of obligation to a terrifying, judgemental deity, but out of thanksgiving to a generous and loving God, the Lord of hosts who prepares for all peoples a feast—this Eucharistic celebration; who through His Son has revealed to me the way to eternal life—these words of the Gospel; and provided for me the garment of my true dignity as someone made in His image and likeness; the baptismal robe put on at my rebirth—to be worn everyday.
Be sure you wear it, everyday, it goes with everything, and is appropriate to all occasions, but most especially to that great feast, the heavenly banquet, the gathering of all in the presence of God who is Lord of the eternal feast of thanksgiving.