When the Best News Seems Like the Worst News (Sermon for Sunday, October 15, 2023)
Sometimes, the best news seems like the worst news. If you are one of those people who gets really attached to your own plans, you likely know the feeling of receiving an invitation, and seeing at first not the joy that will come from taking part in a great event, but of the hassle and bother it will create to break your routine, get out of the house, and do something different.
The people in the Lord’s parable today receive the best invitation possible: to a wedding. In the ancient world, there was no party better than a wedding. Jewish weddings lasted several days and were filled with food, dancing, and generally having the time of your life. In a world where six days of each week were filled with the drudgery of subsistence farming or constant work, and in which there was no notion at all of a vacation, a wedding invitation was the best news you could possibly receive.
But the way you receive a gift is usually determined more by your than by the gift itself. You’ve seen the small child who is more interested in the box or the packaging than the present she’s received, or can imagine the elation of the children who receive a simple gift in the Boxes of Joy. But even the best invitations, the best news, can seem a threat to our happiness. I remember when we were kids, my brother and sister and I were incredibly disappointed when our parents took us on a trip to the Smoky Mountains over Halloween, because it meant missing out on candy. A trip to the mountains is way better than Trick-or-treating, but we were too short-sighted to realize it.
Likewise, the invitation to the wedding of the King’s son seems a threat to the happiness of his subjects who are too concerned with their farms or businesses. Some ignore the invitation, and some even violently reject it, mistreating (which could mean violence or particularly shameful acts) and killing the messengers. These latter receive a harsh response when the king’s soldiers burn their city (a presaging of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. as retribution for Israel’s rejection of the Messiah).
We see one other guest who does respond to the invitation, but wants to have it both ways. The king finds a guest who lacks a wedding garment. Historians tell us that there was most likely not actually a custom of having different clothes for different occasions in this part of the world at that time, so the Lord is more likely referring to the fact that the man is dirty. He has come directly from the field, the workshop, or so forth.
So why does he receive such a harsh treatment from the king, when his only crime seems to be to have responded right away to the invitation? This man is an image of the effects of sin upon the soul. He is so used to not bathing, that he shows up at a royal wedding smelly and dirty. This is what habitual sin does to the soul: It makes us incapable of realizing our own condition.
We can see the man without a wedding garment as someone who wants to have it both ways. He wants to attend the great party, but he does not want to make the appropriate preparation. Maybe he has a problem with greed – just one more row of corn to harvest, just one more job in the blacksmith shop to finish instead of taking the time to prepare himself well. Whatever it is, he doesn’t really want discipleship, doesn’t really want to bear the cost – even a rather small cost – to participate in the feast.
How do you know which of these people is you? Are you the one who ignores the invitation, violently rejects it, accepts the invitation with joy and follows through with the appropriate preparation for the feast, or are you the one who wants to have it both ways? You can know based on the choices that you make. Desire resides in the will. That is, what you desire is more present in the choices that you make than in the ideas in your head. When we think of desire as being only an idea in our head, we might think that the man without a wedding garment desires to be a good participant at the wedding feast, but just doesn’t put it into practice. But this is a wish, not a desire. Because desire resides in the will, and because he freely chooses not to prepare himself for the wedding feast, we can say with confidence that he does not desire to be a proper guest at the wedding feast of the King’s son. In short, he does not desire the kingdom.
This is why the King’s response is entirely justified. It seems harsh to “bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” But the King is merely giving the man what he himself desires, as expressed by his actions. And this is why those who likewise experience God’s condemnation when they arrive at the particular judgement at the end of their lives concur completely with God’s justice and wisdom when His judgement is revealed. No one goes kicking and screaming into Hell. The damned recognize the justice of their punishment, even though they hate it as they hate themselves.
The man without a wedding garment stands for those who have accepted Christ’s invitation, who have come to his banquet, but have not come with the adequate preparation. This is the case both for the banquet of Heaven, and for the foretaste of the banquet of Heaven here on earth, the Eucharist, when it is approached with unconfessed mortal sins. And mortal sin, contrary to popular opinion, is a lot broader of a category than just murdering innocent people. It includes occult practices, rejecting Church teaching, blasphemy, false oaths, missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, neglect of one’s duties towards ones parents or children, supporting euthanasia or assisted suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, hatred, bribery, all sexual activity outside of marriage, using contraception, theft, cheating, paying unfair wages, taking advantage of the poor, encouraging others to perform evil actions, lying about serious matters, speech that does significant harm to another’s reputation, voluntary doubts regarding revealed articles of faith, greed that leads to harm of another – to name a few.
You might live with the clawing doubt – especially after hearing that long list of mortal sins – that you could be the man with the dirty wedding garment. When I was in college, one of my friends who adhered to the “once saved always saved,” Calvinist version of salvation, trying to explain why people might do really bad things even after they have accepted Christ as their personal Lord and savior, told me that such people apparently never really accepted Christ. But then how do you know? How can you be sure if you really accepted Christ or not, were really saved, if you might turn out to do something really bad and then apparently never have been saved at all?
Now, it would be unfair to make a 19 year-old the representative of a centuries-long theological tradition, but many people do live with this doubt. Even Catholics who do not have a firm grasp on how salvation is actually mediated through the Sacraments live with the doubt that they might arrive at that final judgement and not be found worthy. Fortunately, while we never should be presumptions, we get some really good indications as to whether or not we have that proper wedding garment.
These indications are contained in the moral teachings of Christ’s Church, which, guided by the Holy Spirit through the apostolic office of the Bishops and the Pope, in continuity with centuries of Sacred Tradition, guides us into a life of holiness by teaching us how to respond to the King’s invitation. The world would question that there could be anything that could send a soul into the final outer darkness, basing itself on a misconception of mercy and a misconception of love. But Christ is teaching here in earnest, with a setting as dramatic as His content. We are in the Temple, the most sacred place in the world for Judaism – really, the only truly holy place for Judaism, the only place that acceptable sacrifice can be offered to God, in the midst of Holy Week, following the Lord’s triumphant, kingly entrance on Palm Sunday, as He prepares to make the new sacrifice that will wipe the cult of the Temple away.
In this holy place, Christ publically debates the Pharisees, accusing them of killing the messengers sent by God to them, telling them that the Kingdom will be taken away from them, and teaching that belonging to His new Kingdom will come with high standards. It is little wonder that they put Him to death.
The Pharisees clearly do not receive this good news of a new Kingdom as good news, so it should surprise us little that many today likewise see God’s law as limiting human possibilities, as restricting our horizons. But living according to Christ’s teachings, as taught by His Church, helps us not only to be good wedding guests, but even to be Kings in His Kingdom. At Baptism, we were anointed with Sacred Chrism on the crowns of our heads, marked as kings who are meant to reign with the Lord not only in Heaven but here and now as well. By following Christ’s moral teachings, especially the ones that we find the most difficult, you can find the freedom of reigning over yourself. It is only when you reign over the wayward appetites and passions of fallen human nature that you can hope to be a king with Him in His Kingdom.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXVIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII