The Gospel this morning recounts a parable given by our Lord not very long before His crucifixion. The image of a wedding feast for the King’s son is surely an image of the Messianic kingdom of the Christ, representing the rule of heaven on earth. Very likely the “chief priests and Pharisees” recognized themselves in those who had been invited to the wedding feast but who found other things to do with their time. Certainly, the people of Israel were those first invited to God’s kingdom. In the parable, some of the people were so insistent on not attending the feast that they even killed the king’s servants—perhaps our Lord was referring to those who had put John the Baptist to death for the supposed “crime” of preaching repentance from sin.
The people who were gathered in from roads and the crossroads represent the gentiles—those who were not originally part of God’s chosen people but who were gathered in from among the foreign nations to fill up the number of the elect in heaven. In that other parable that we hear around Epiphany time, our Lord told the Centurion (a Roman gentile) that “many will come from the east and the west and will feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be put forth into the darkness outside....” In both cases, the metaphor is of a great feast, unexpectedly sitting foreigners down with the great men of Israel in God’s eternal kingdom.
The man without the wedding garment, however might seem to be something of an enigma. Was it his own fault that one of the hastily recruited guests showed up without the right clothes?
It may help, here, to know something about the way the Jews (and others about the Mediterranean) dressed in our Lord’s time. The basic costume was much like the alb and cincture which the priest wears at Mass. It is a full length tunic, probably made of linen; very loose fitting and comfortable in the warm climate of the Palestinian summer. The tunic is rather shapeless, so it is gathered in at the waist with a piece of rope or some sort of a belt. When the man went out into the field or engaged in other work, he could pull up the skirt of the tunic, and use the cincture to hold it up out of the way. This “blousing” served to make the tunic into something like short pants, that were comfortable for work in the hot weather, and which would not get caught on things in the field.
When a man came in from the field he would let out the length of the tunic so that it again covered his ankles. And in the cool of the morning or of the evening, he would wrap an outer cloak about himself. You can get a good idea for how these garments were worn simply by looking at the pictures of our Lord which are associated with the Stations of the Cross. Many pictures of the Sacred Heart portray Jesus in the linen alb or tunic, and wearing an outer cloak of colored material. It was this cloak for which the soldiers cast lots at the crucifixion, fulfilling the prophecy of the twenty-first Psalm, “they have divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots.” The cloak would not have had much value if cut into pieces. The cloak could also be pulled up over the head when it was time for prayer.
The fellow in today’s parable was simply too lazy to observe the standard etiquette of the time and place. Here he was at a royal banquet, wearing his tunic bloused like a field hand. In a royal household there would have been cloaks available to the guests who came unprepared with their own—dressed for the heat of the day but unexpectedly invited to an evening festivity. It is not as though our man showed up in his shorts when he was expected to have rented a tuxedo—he simply didn’t care enough to rearrange his outfit or to wear what the king provided.
If we go back to the parable of the Messianic feast with God in the Kingdom of Heaven, it is not difficult to identify the man without a wedding garment as a Christian who doesn’t bother to rearrange his life according to God’s ways; a Christian who doesn’t bother to wear the cloak of sanctifying grace which God provides freely to all His guests. He is the Catholic who ignores Saint Paul’s advice today about “putting on the new man in justice and holiness of truth.” He is the one who continues in falsehood, and violence, and theft, even though he has accepted the invitation to the banquet by means of Baptism. He is the one who calls himself a Christian but gives no heed to Mass and the Sacraments, no thought to prayer, and perhaps no thought at all to the things of God.
To carry the parable one step further, we might suppose that the man without the wedding garment was in much greater trouble than those originally invited guests who merely failed to show up for the banquet. Those who did not appear were just names on the list. The man without the wedding garment, on the other hand, came into direct confrontation with the king—he not only missed the dinner, but got bound “hands and feet, and cast into the exterior darkness.” The chosen people who ignored Christ, or never even heard about Him, missed out on something of the highest importance—but even they are better off than the one who calls himself a Catholic, yet boldly confronts Christ with a life oblivious to grace and based entirely on worldly pursuits.
Our Lord is so gentle. He doesn’t directly scold us, anymore than he directly scolded the “chief priests and Pharisees.” He gives us this parable as a gentle admonition to people whom He loves. People for whom His love was so great that He laid down His life for us on the Cross.
We tell people that, while we live in the tropics, they should come to Mass dressed every bit as well as they would dress to visit the Governor in his mansion or the President at the White House. We tell people that in our culture, shorts are out of order when coming to Mass, and that veils and head coverings are appropriate for ladies. All of these things are true, for the banquet celebrated here is that of Christ the King, and God His Father. But even more important is clothing of the soul with grace—the “renewal of the spirit of the mind and the putting on of the new man ... in justice and holiness of truth.” We are gently admonished to clothe ourselves in the cloak of God’s sanctifying grace and to direct our attention and actions to the things of heaven rather than to those of earth.
The admonition is gentle—but the reality of failure is harsh: “many are called but few are chosen,” many are thrust into that “exterior darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”—all of which can be avoided by taking on the freely given mantle of sanctifying grace.