A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Fr. Scott Haynes
At that time, Jesus spoke to the chief priests and the Pharisees in parables, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like a king who made a marriage feast for his son. And he sent his servants to call in those invited to the marriage feast, but they would not come. Again he sent out other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatlings are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it, and went off, one to his farm, and another to his business; and the rest laid hold of his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. But when the king heard of it, he was angry; and he sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city.
Then he said to his servants, “The marriage feast indeed is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy; go therefore to the crossroads, and invite to the marriage feast whomever you shall find.” And his servants went out into the roads, and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; and the marriage feast was filled with guests.
Now the king went in to see the guests, and he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. And he said to him, “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” But he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind his hands and feet and cast him forth into the darkness outside, where there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:1-14).
In the parable of the Wedding Feast, the Fathers of the Church teach us that the King is God Himself, while the marriage is symbolic of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—the union of Christ’s divine and human natures into one Person. Further, the feast is symbolic of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which exists, in heaven and on earth, and which includes people of every tribe and nation.
St. John Chrysostom’s adds that, at first, Christ invites the people of the Old Covenant, the Jews, to join this great marriage feast, which is the Church. But they fail to respond. He invites them a second time, and they are too busy with earthly concerns, to which St. John Chrysostom states that,
“...when spiritual things call us, there is no press of business that has the power of necessity.”
When Christ persists with His invitations to the Jews, they kill Him, they crucify Him, just as they killed the Old Testament Prophets. In Homily 69 on St. Matthew's Gospel, St. John Chrysostom comments that Christ sought to win them over before His crucifixion, and even after it,
“He still urges them, striving to win them over.”
However, the majority of the Jewish people refused to accept Christ as their Messiah, and so it is then that the ordinary people of the “highways,” the Gentiles, are invited, since the wedding feast, the Church, must be filled. St John writes that,
“[When the Jews] were not willing to be present at the marriage, then He called others.”
He called you and me. First, Jesus came to His own people, but,
His own received Him not. (John 1:11).
You will remember that in the parable, when the King’s servants are killed, the King sends forth an army to destroy their city and punish them. Similarly, if we rebel against God and have set ourselves against His sovereign authority, we should expect the judgment of God, as St. Paul teaches:
"But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up to thyself wrath, against the day of wrath, and revelation of the just judgment of God." (Romans 2:5).
So it was, that less than four decades after Christ’s Ascension, Jerusalem fell to the armies of Vespasian and Titus, and it was utterly destroyed and the people there killed or dispersed to the four corners of the earth.
Christ has summoned us to His feast, that is to His Church, so that here we may partake of the Bread of Angels. He fills with God’s grace as we enter into the Holy Mysteries. Our worthy participation in this sacred feast prepares us spiritually for eternal life with Him and for life in His Mystical Body, the Church. But, for this feast we must prepare, we must attire ourselves with the proper garment or we shall be cast, like the man in the parable, into the outer darkness.
This garment is, of course, a spiritual one. Without it, without preparing ourselves for the wedding feast, we are no better than those who rejected and crucified Christ. Our failure to prepare ourselves is a form of rejection and pride—a gross insult to the King. Now, how do we apply that which we read in this Gospel lesson to our daily lives and how do we assure that our wedding garment is proper to the occasion of our meeting with our King?
St. Gregory the Great writes that the wedding garment symbolizes the virtue of charity. We prepare ourselves to meet our King and God by developing within ourselves this virtue of charity, because at the end, at its highest development, all of the other spiritual virtues come down to this, they aim towards this: those who will be saved are those who acquire selfless love, a love that does not aim at selfish ends.
St. Gregory says, referring again to the wedding garment, that cloth is woven between two beams, an upper and a lower. Any of you who have ever woven cloth, or have seen others operate a loom, know that this is true. In like fashion is our spiritual garment woven, St. Gregory tells us, with an upper beam, which is love of God, and a lower beam, which is love of our neighbor. One must love God with his whole soul, and heart, and strength. It must be total, not half-hearted.
As for love of neighbor, St. Gregory says this:
“Let no one, when he loves someone, think to himself that he now begins to possess charity, until he first examines the motives of his love. For if one loves another, but does not love him for God’s sake, he has not charity, but only thinks he has. But when we love our friend in God, and our enemy because of God, this is true charity. He loves for God’s sake, who loves those whom he knows do not love him. Charity is proved true solely by means of its opposite: hate [that is, by the absence of hate]. And so because of this the Lord Himself says to us: ‘Love thine enemies. Do good to them that hate thee’ (Luke 6:27). He [who does this] then loves securely, who for God’s sake loves him by whom he knows he is not loved. "
St. Gregory teaches that,
“[These] sublime precepts, and are to many hard to fulfill: nevertheless this is the wedding garment. Whoever sits down at the wedding feast without it, let him watch with fear, for when the King comes in, he shall be cast forth.”
We may add, by way of clarification, that the selfless love of which the Gospel speaks, and to which St. Gregory here refers, is only possible by the cultivation of all of the other Christian virtues and by obedience to all of the other Commandments of God. Men and women who come to the feast—who come to the Celestial Banquet of the Holy Eucharist—with hate in their hearts do not wear the acceptable garment.
Men and women whose faith and love are cold, who attend Church merely for social reasons, to show off their cloths and jewelry, or to visit with acquaintances or for any other reasons not consistent with love of God, are, spiritually speaking, not dressed in a wedding garment pleasing to the King, Christ Jesus.
We must come to the Heavenly Nuptial Banquet for the sake of the love of Him who invited us. We must glorify Him, not ourselves. Christ ends His parable with the dictum,
“Many are called, but few are chosen.”
St. Paul tells us that God desires that all men be saved. God loves every one of us with the same intensity of love and wishes that all may come to him. So, many are called. However, because of God’s holiness and glory, only those who have purified themselves and acquired selfless love may spend eternity with Him, may, so to speak, partake of the eternal feast. That is because only those men and women who have acquired the means to receive the boundless love that radiates from God, what the theologians call sanctifying grace (theosis), can live in eternal bliss.
He chooses only those men and women, only those who have acquired some measure of selfless love, and that number is small by comparison with the total. Few, indeed, are chosen. In St. Gregory’s discourse on this Gospel lesson, he mentions a man who had failed to prepare himself for life eternal. On his deathbed, near the end of life, this man could see the demons preparing to take him to their abode of eternal suffering, and he saw himself being literally swallowed by a hideous beast, Satan himself. But his brethren, who loved him despite his sinfulness, prayed around his deathbed for his salvation, and God, in His mercy, granted the man a brief reprieve of a few days, so that he could repent of his sins and win eternal happiness with God.
It would be presumptuous, of course, for any of us to count on such circumstances at the hour of our death, for none of us know how we shall die and whether we shall be granted sufficient time to repent, to turn around our lives. Death, as we know, takes many people in an instant. But the point here is that God’s mercy is wondrous and that it is not too late.
Whatever the circumstances of our lives, however old or young we are, however rich or poor we are, we can begin now to prepare our wedding garments for that encounter with the King that every one of us will someday experience. Let us wait no longer. How many of us will be alive tomorrow, or the next day, or next week? We do not know.
Now is the time to begin weaving our garments, to begin loving God with our whole soul, and heart, and strength, and to begin loving our neighbors as ourselves. Now is the time to seek that selfless love—to put on that spotless wedding garment—that will save us.