I was once minister of a church in Salford right down by the docks before it all got gentrified – and I can remember that when I visited people in their homes they would sometimes get out their wedding photographs and show them to me. But there was something very strange about every couple’s photos. Because in almost every case there was a woman standing at the edge of the photographs wearing a head scarf – and nobody seemed to know who she was. It was a running joke at the church that if there was a wedding this ‘woman in a scarf’ would turn up and get into the photos and nobody knew who she was. She was always dressed rather dowdily, but I suppose she stood out rather less than she would now because weddings in Salford in the 1960s and 70s were not the smart affairs most weddings seem to be today.
I heard another version of this story too. Apparently Lord Lichfield was once taking the photos for a minor royal wedding and someone thought to ask ‘Who was the woman in the wheelchair at the end of the front row’? It turned out that she was nothing to do with the wedding at all, but had been left by the door and a well-meaning person, thinking she was part of the wedding group, had wheeled her into the frame. So, quite unexpectedly, she had her photograph taken with the Queen and many other European royals. I gather the Queen was most amused.
All of which is by way of introduction to this strange passage in Matthew’s Gospel about the wedding feast and the guest who was there under false pretenses, the one who was thrown out for wearing the wrong clothes. Lots of commentators point out that Matthew seems to have tagged a second parable about a wedding garment onto the parable about the banquet and that he hasn’t really done it very successfully. It even looks as though the second parable pulls against the first. The first parable – about the banquet – seems to be saying that all sorts of people, good and bad alike, will be welcomed and included in the great feast of the Kingdom of God. But then the second bit seems to suggest that there are very tight rules about who gets in and who doesn’t. Like churches which say they welcome anyone, but who would sneer at a woman if her skirt was too short or she had too many body piercings. And then it doesn’t seem to make sense – because how could someone who’s just been dragged in out of the hedgerows really be expected to be dressed for a wedding?
But I have learned that sometimes it’s important to look very hard at a story until you find the treasure within it. We needn’t expect, and we shouldn’t expect, that the Bible texts were written by Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy – they weren’t necessarily great writers in that sense. But those who gave us the gift of the gospels were skilled in the traditions of the scribes – and, they knew what they were doing. They were not simply cutting and pasting odd bits of story and tradition together any old how, but they carefully wrote down their gospels, hoping and praying that their texts would bear witness to the living Christ. So maybe there is something we have to find so that it will finally make sense.
I wonder whether the clue to understanding this passage might be found in the excuses which the various original guests give for turning down the invitation in the first place. In this version in Matthew’s Gospel – one goes off to his farm, and another to his business. They’ve turned down the invitation to a wedding banquet because they’ve got work to do. In the version of this parable in the Gospel of Thomas (a Gospel that has some earlier material than Matthew’s Gospel but didn’t make it into the New Testament), this theme is even stronger. In this Gospel no less than four guests all turn down the invitation to a dinner because they have to work. One says he has a business meeting with some merchants. One has just bought a house and has to attend to that. One has to do the catering for the wedding. And yet another has to go and collect the rent from his tenants. So, all these guest having refused the invitation, the master goes and invites those who live on the streets – who presumably have no work….
I want to suggest that the parable tells us something very significant about human life. It’s not that business and work are bad things. But maybe the point is that the work we do and the business of our lives have to be put into a proper context. They are not all that there is in life and it’s important not to refuse the most important things about life for the sake of work. This parable, is in a way, about the importance of keeping sabbath – or as we might put it – of work-life balance. The idea of the sabbath was and is central to the Jewish faith, to the tradition in which Jesus lived. It wasn’t a dour, tying the swings up on a Sunday kind of Sabbath, but a day of rest and gladness, a day to taste the joy of life with God, a day even to get a foretaste of what heaven would be like. In the traditions that Jesus knew, heaven was imagined as an ongoing Sabbath, a feast, a celebration, something joyful. An invitation to a feast was not an invitation to be turned down in the name of work, but to be accepted graciously.
Now of course we all have to work – it’s part of our calling as human beings before God – but it is not everything in life and joy and celebration are important beyond measure. Rabbi Lionel Blue told the story of a man who has just died. God asks why he should be allowed into heaven. He says that he has always kept God’s laws, worked hard and tried not to do anything wrong. ‘Yes’ says God, ‘I know that, but did you enjoy my creation?’ God has invited us to the wedding feast of human life. It’s not unalloyed happiness of course and human life is sometimes very hard and painful – but when we’re invited to joy, when the possibility of joy is before us, God hopes that we will not refuse.
So what of the poor creature who isn’t wearing a wedding garment. What on earth is that all about? Well, I found myself wondering what the man would have been wearing if he was not wearing clothes fit for a wedding. And I wonder if perhaps he was still wearing his work clothes. People in the ancient world didn’t have the vast wardrobes we have – casual, smart-casual, black tie, posh frock. They had work clothes and perhaps something special – what our grandparents would have known as ‘Sunday best’. I wonder if we might understand this parable to be saying that this guest did answer the invitation, he did come to the feast, but he was still half at work, his mind on the business he had to get back to, his heart not really in the celebration. He’s like the father who doesn’t listen to what his child is saying about school because he’s still half writing that report for the latest client. Or like the lover who can’t concentrate on the romantic meal because she’s busy on Instagram. Or like any human being who cannot for a moment leave behind the worries and the problems of life to embrace the joy which waits to fill any of us who will allow our hearts to race at the someone we love or sing an ode to joy with Beethoven or run with the wind down a green hill where the trees shake their branches in the wind… or smell that newly baked bread. Perhaps the poor soul without the right clothes stands for all of us who sometimes miss the point about life; that it’s not enough just to sign the register, just to be counted for test and trace, just to be here and half aware of what’s going on around us – life is something to be seized with both hands, something to weep with joy that we have received it, and to be lived out with relish and delight, whenever and however we can. We are strange creatures. God invites us to the feast of life, but sometimes we’d rather do something more worthy. God showers us with love and tells us we are only a little lower than the angels, and we think we’re miserable wretches and struggle to climb our way out. God invites us to dance, and we turn it all into hard graft.
Of course life will ask you to work with diligence and application. Of course God wants you to be good and to do good things in the world. But most of all God wants you to enjoy the gift of life that God gives us, never to refuse joy, and always to find in even the most burdensome day – or the most difficult season like this one – a space for love, for celebration and for that true holiness which is always on the verge of praise. Love bids you welcome. Come and join the feast. Amen.