Gospel: Matt. 22:1-14 (§89)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel reading follows on immediately from the parable of the Good Householder and the wicked tenants that we were exploring together last week. Today we also hear a similar parable about a King calling His servants to a wedding feast. This parable rehearses some of the same themes from last week but also expands and develops it in some important respects. Let us try to understand it further with the help of our father among the saints, St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica.
Our Lord begins his parable –
‘ The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son’
The King here is God the Father, and the Son is, of course, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But what then does it mean to talk of the marriage of the Son, for we know that our Lord never married? The use of nuptial imagery is well established in the Holy Scriptures. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah (54:5-8 and 62:5). as well as in the books of Jeremiah (2:2, 3:14, 3:32) and Ezekiel (16:8) we see marital imagery used to characterise the intimate relationship between the people of Israel and God. Then within the Song of Solomon we see this nuptial imagery interiorised to characterise the relationship between God and an individual soul. Within the New Testament, our Lord picks up on this imagery and metaphor and directly refers to Himself as the Bridegroom – for example, earlier in St Matthew’s Gospel our Lord prophesises about himself – ‘the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast’. St Paul uses the same imagery in his letter to the Ephesians when describing the relationship between Christ and the Church and in the Book of Revelation, in terms deeply relevant to our parable today, St John the Theologian talks of ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’. As a great defender of the Athonite hesychasts, those who through asceticism and in particular the Prayer of the Heart, had come to directly experience the Uncreated Energies of God, in his homily St Gregory elucidates that, ‘the wedding here means the union of the Son of God with man’s nature, and hence with our Church’. It is a mystical union of Christ with the individual soul and with Christ with His Body, the Church.
Our Saviour then says that the King,
sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.
As with the parable of last week, the servants sent out by the King are His holy prophets, the righteous forefathers of the Old Covenant. Interestingly, though the reaction of the people of Israel includes a different response, one of simply refusing and ignoring the invitation expressed by the prophets. Whereas in the last parable, the response to the servants was essentially physical and violent, here the response initially is one which is more mental, attitudinal and volitional. As St Gregory glosses in his homily, ‘they were unwilling to come, in other words, to believe and share in the indescribable communion and grace, even though they had been invited many times beforehand as well as now’. Here we see in full view the perversity of our fallen human nature, we receive this invitation to share in the Divine Life, and yet, when it comes, we ignore it, we refuse it, we turn our backs.
Despite this outrageous and impudent rejection, as St Gregory exclaims whilst demonstrating ‘extraordinary patience’ we hear that the God the King –
sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.
Here again we see the full extent of Divine Mercy, Compassion and Patience. In his homily St Gregory sees this final plea towards the people of Israel – ‘come unto the marriage’ to have occurred only after the passion and resurrection of Christ, when ‘all things are ready’. It was then, St Gregory says, ‘that all the prerequisites for our salvation were ready: the complete divine plan for the Son of God in the flesh’
What was the reaction then to this further and final expression of Divine Mercy after the Incarnation, Life, preaching, miracles, death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ?
But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.
St Gregory interprets this passage both literally and spiritually and even addresses the lay Christians listening to his sermon in his Cathedral in Thessalonica. We see that the Jews did not take our Lord, or his servants, the Holy Apostles who were sent out during his life and immediately after it to preach the glad tidings, seriously at all. So many ignored the preaching, ignored the miracles, and simply and sinfully became distracted by various worldly cares – ‘one to his farm, another to his merchandise’. Yet St Gregory sees in the attitudes of ‘so-called’ Christians today a direct parallel of the unworthy reaction of the Jews – Are those who use excuse for harvests, vineyards, and problems with their business as an excuse for missing church services, and who are reluctant to listen to the holy psalmody and teaching, and different from them?’ Here is a pointed reference which is bound to make, and should make, all of us uncomfortable. Not only when it comes to prioritising our work, our leisure pursuits, our family, our friends above attendance of church services, but also, and just as importantly, how we all waste away our time on any and every trivial thing, and neglect prayer and our spiritual communion with God. As to the reference to the ‘remnant’ of the Jews, that is the Elders of the People of Israel, the leaders of the Synagogue and the Temple, we hear again how they would mock, ridicule, harm and ultimately murder the King’s servants – the holy apostles. Again, St Gregory is also attentive to the spiritual interpretation of these words and addresses them to his contemporary listeners in medieval Thessaloniki. Referring to the people of Israel who would insult and kill the King’s servants, St Gregory says, ‘not far removed from the latter are those who, in the present day, disobey Church leaders and sometimes speak against them with hostility’.
But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.
As has been already heard through this parable, the King, our God is compassionate, long-suffering and merciful. See the way in which He sent wave after wave of servants to ask, beg and implore the people of Israel to come to their senses and to come to the ‘marriage Feast of the Lamb’. However, when the time had come, when the ancient prophesies were finally fulfilled and God had taken Flesh, had revealed Himself to the world, had preached openly and worked signs and wonders and then been killed by the people He had come to save, the unbelief and hardness of heart of the people of Israel had real and catastrophic consequences. In 70AD, during the time of the preaching of the Apostles, when many of the Apostles and the Faithful had already been martyred for their faith in Christ, the Romans came to crush a revolt of the Jews in Jerusalem which, after a long siege, led to the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem along with its monumental Temple, so that the Lord’s words, ‘and burned up their city’ were fully and dreadfully realised.
Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.
Just as in last week’s parable the vineyard owner threw-out the old tenants and replaced them with new ones, so too, in our parable today, after finding the guests unworthy, the King instead tells his servants to go out ‘into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage’. This reference to actively searching beyond the initial enclosure, is a direct reference to the calling of the Gentiles. As St Gregory says, ‘Those outside were Gentiles, who were like people flung out into many different streets, for they had numerous and varied beliefs’. These Gentiles were then invited to come into the Church and to share in the joy of the Mystical and Sacramental Life in Christ.
We then come to the final section of today’s reading which is where we see a further development from the form and content of last week’s similar parable of the Wicked Tenants.
And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:
And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechlessThen said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
St Gregory helpfully clarifies that the reference to the king coming to see the guests, refers to ‘His appearing at the time of the future Judgment’. Unlike weddings today, in these times, the wedding garment would have been provided by the host. Not wearing the provided garment was therefore a sign of stubbornness and ingratitude. St Gregory adds a spiritual interpretation seeing the reference to the wedding garment, as symbolising a person’s virtues and spiritual deeds. At the Last Judgment, therefore, when the King comes to Judge the world, those who are found without worthy garments, that is, without virtuous deeds and spiritual works, will be cast out of the Divine Bridal chamber into the Outer darkness, away and apart from God.
For many are called, but few are chosen.
The chosen are the elect, those who at the Last Judgment will be granted to come into the Kingdom. St Gregory, in his sermon, actually starts with an exegesis of this final punch-line of the parable and unpicks several weighty theological questions which it prompts? Firstly, why does our Lord say that ‘many’ are called and not ‘all’? In the Orthodox Study Bible, it states that the expression “for many” is an Aramaic idiom meaning the same as “for all”. St Gregory agrees with this interpretation, and refers to our Saviour’s words at His Ascension where he clearly blesses his apostles to ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’. In this sense, through the preaching of the apostles, the whole world has been called to come to the Divine Marriage supper. St Gregory then explores the deeper question as to why our Lord does not say “all are called, and all chosen?” – for surely, this would be better, as then no one will be cast out and refused the Kingdom. St Gregory sees though that this would involve a denial of the reality of human freedom and rational choice. How can, St Gregory asks, ‘someone have the freedom to choose and the power to act freely, unless he were able to be evil, should he so wish?’. This would be a world without real moral freedom at all. Our Good and Gracious God does not coerce or force anything upon us, He meekly asks and invites and allows us to decide whether we choose Him or reject Him. And that choice is a real one, with real consequences.
Dear Father, brothers and sisters, today’s parable makes for uncomfortable reading and hearing. All of us know the temptation, to make ‘light’ of the spiritual life and instead to prioritise anything and everything above our salvation, above our union and communion with God. Brethren, let this not be. Let us strive to be receptive to God’s call and not ignore Him when He speaks to us. Let us come to meet Him in His church, through partaking of Holy Communion as well as at home in our Ikon corner. Let us make our union and communion with God, our participation in the Mystical Marriage Supper the centre of our Lives. Let us, in St Gregory’s words – ‘take off the garment torn to shreds by drunkenness … and stained by the flesh and its excesses, and let us clothe ourselves, as Isaiah says ‘with the garment of salvation and the robe of joy’.