The parable of the wedding garment is a very strange one indeed – perhaps the strangest of the parables in the Gospels. It comes only in this Gospel, in Matthew, and it’s tacked onto Matthew’s souped-up version of Luke’s parable.
I love the parable of the banquet – the way Luke tells it. I love the thought that the Kingdom of God might be like all those parties I never get invited to, might be a place where the poorest people in the world get in the door at last, where the poor man eat and the rich man’s table and the women from the scullery get to the eat the dessert… But the parable of the wedding garment – the extra bit you get in Matthew’s Gospel – is a different thing.
The story goes that, when the original guests declined, the king filled the wedding reception up with people off the streets, people who been just minding their day, getting on with life. In a moment when they expected to be at home with a sandwich they found themselves as honoured guests at Buckingham Palace. One minute they were behind the food stall or the souvenir kiosk, the soldier’s post or the beggar’s pitch and the next thing they were standing in the queue for cocktails or being seated for dinner. The celebrities and the aristocrats has sent their apologies and so the banquet was opened up to the crowds who had camped on the pavement all night to watch the wedding procession go by. The paparazzi weren’t going to get the pictures they wanted, because these were the kind of people even the Somerset County Gazette wouldn’t be interested in.. It was a day when anyone who had never been anyone was taking canapes from a tray and wine from the finest crystal. But then the king picked out one man, shouted at him for being incorrectly dressed and threw him out – and not just back onto the streets, but into outer darkness. Apparently the man was speechless, but what else could he have been? He might have had a tuxedo at home, but he’d been cleaning the municipal drains when he got pulled into the banquet, so what did anyone expect him to be wearing? Why on earth was he to blame for not being dressed for a wedding.. This has to the be the weirdest parable ever. But, you know, there’s something that rings true about it. I am that person, I know this story, I recognise what’s happening here.
I have had dreams like that – haven’t you? Dreams when I’ve found myself in a pulpit wearing the wrong thing or not having the notes I should in front of me. Dreams when I know something terrible is about to happen, but my legs just won’t work. Dreams when I’m in the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes, and being shouted at for a reason I can’t fathom. And I have days like too when I’m fully awake. The one time I did get to go to a royal banquet (well, a dinner…) at St James’ Palace I took ages choosing a dress and when I got there I realised it was wrong. I even ended up standing beside someone who belonged to a famous fashion designer family.. I looked washed out in a silver-grey tent. It was the wrong dress. I know what it’s like to be wearing the wrong clothes, and I bet you do too. And I imagine that, like you, you realise that clothes are no more than metaphors, that we all of us sometimes feel like misfits in the world, like imposters at the feast, like we don’t really belong. I remember spending the whole six years I was principal of a Cambridge college thinking that at any moment someone would come and whisper in my ear, ‘It was just a joke – it’s not really meant to be you – off you go.’ We all know what it means to be in the wrong clothes. We don’t fit the life we have, we don’t even fit in our own skin, we don’t fit. All of us, I think, feel this sometimes. Which should help all of us to have some understanding of what it feels like to be in a place like that most of the time. It should help us empathise with those who are constantly thrown out of communities, families and churches. Because, that’s us too.
Which is where Jesus comes in. He was someone who wore the wrong clothes. He didn’t fit the identikit Messiah shape, he got thrown out of the synagogue and he hung around a lot with those who didn’t fit. Even the Roman soldiers who tortured and tormented him knew he was in the wrong clothes. They dressed him in a purple cloak and a crown of thorns, mock clothes for a mock king. They didn’t see that he was more qualified than anyone who has ever lived to wear the royal purple, so they dressed him in cartoon versions and covered his body with his own blood. And when they wrapped him in the clothes of the dead, in the linen clothes of the grave, they weren’t the right clothes for him either, because he belonged and he will always belong, among the living. From his swaddling clothes to his grave clothes, Jesus never wore the clothes that he deserved. And yet, the earliest Christians saw him as even more than a great human being or as a well-dressed guest at the wedding feast. They saw him as the bridegroom, as the one who invites the people of God to be the bride at the great feast of life, the one who gives us new clothes to wear for a new life, a life in all its fullness.
When I was first a minister, I found myself needing a gown to do baptisms in – the kind of baptisms where you get right into the pool and take someone down into the water and up again. A woman in the congregation made me a long, white gown for baptisms with weights in the hem to keep it down. But in baptisms in the early church they talked about being ‘clothed with Christ’, putting on Christ. And in the early church those coming for baptism would go into the pool and then come up and put on a white garment to symbolise this putting on Christ. To put on Christ is to be clothed well. No matter if you can’t tell Primark from Posh, no matter if you make mistakes in your life, no matter if you always feel like an imposter in the wrong clothes, if you belong to Christ then you are always dressed perfectly.
You may remember that strange fairy tale about the little boy who dared to say that emperor had no clothes. We, most of us, fear that we are that emperor, and that like the man in the parable, we will be exposed and thrown out. That’s such a common experience, it’s pretty much normal. But Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of the church, is one who comes and offers all of us a new way of being that says, whoever you are you can stay. Whatever your clothes, whatever your life, whoever you love, I love you. And you are welcome. Amen.