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The Parable of the Wedding Feast

A Homily on St. Matt. 22:1-14

by Father James Thornton

The verses that we heard this morning, from the twenty-second chapter of St. Matthew, are comprised of one of Christ's parables, that in which He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a great marriage feast. Christ says that "The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a certain King, which made a marriage for his son.;

The King, we are told, sent forth his servants to invite certain people to the wedding feast, but none responded at all. The King sent his servants a second time, and this time the servants told those invited of the wonderful things that had been prepared for the feast. Again, however, no one came, but instead the people gave excuses that they were too busy with the farm and with business to attend the feast. Then some of these men even seized hold of the servants and murdered them. The infuriated King, quite understandably, sent his army to punish and destroy the murderers. The King then sent his servants out into the highways to bring in strangers, so that there would be guests for the wedding and the feast. 

Finally, the King saw a man at the feast who had failed to wear the proper garments, and challenged by the King as to why he was there without a wedding garment, the man remained silent. The King had him bound up and thrown into the outer darkness. 

What lessons are we to draw from this parable? 

St Gregory the Dialogist writes that the King is God Himself, and the marriage is symbolic of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the union of Christ's divine and human natures into one Person. The feast is symbolic of Christ's Church, the Orthodox Church, which exists, we remember, in heaven and on earth. St. John Chrysostomos' commentary is similar to this interpretation. He 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 Chrysostomos 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. St. John 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, they refused Him, 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. 

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. So it was, St. John writes, 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. 

Now, Christ, as I said, has summoned us to His feast, that is to His Church, so that here we may partake of His sacred foods, those that are filled with Grace—the Holy Mysteries—and that prepare us spiritually for eternal life with Him, for life in that eternal aspect of 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—NO BETTER—than those who rejected and crucified Christ, since failure to prepare ourselves is a form of rejection—it is a gross insult to the King—and therefore our ultimate fate too, in the life to come, will be no better. 

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? 

We are blest by God to be members of His Church. We have been invited to partake of the feast and we have accepted the invitation. When we attend Divine Liturgy, we share in the feast that the King, Christ Jesus, has readied for us and doing this we prepare ourselves for an eternal feast in the life to come.   

St. Gregory the Dialogist, whom I mentioned earlier and who was also a bishop of Rome during that time that the Church of Rome was still part of Orthodoxy, 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, in other words. 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' (St.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. These are great precepts," exclaims St. Gregory, "sublime precepts, and are to many hard to fulfill: nevertheless this is the wedding garment. And 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 Divine Liturgy—with hate in their hearts do not wear the acceptable garment. Men and women whose faith and love are cold, who attend Church for social reasons, to show off their cloths and jewellery, or to visit with acquaintances or for any of a myriad of 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 feast, to Divine Liturgy, for the sake of the Glory of Him who invited us, not for our own glory. 

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 human being with the same intensity of love, and wishes that all may come to him. So, many are called. However, it is in the very nature of God's Glory that 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 God's Energies, 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 THE 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 a mistake, 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. 

Fr James Thornton
August 23/September 5, 1999
Protection of the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church
Los Angeles, California