A reflection on the wedding garment

Thanks to the folks at Daily Gospel Online  here is a beautiful meditation by St. Augustine on Matthew 22:1-14.   It puts our vocation as Christians, followers of Christ, into perspective.

What is the wedding garment that the Gospel talks about? Most certainly, that garment is something that only the good have, those who are to participate in the feast… Could it be the sacraments? Baptism? Without baptism, no one comes to God, but some people receive baptism and do not come to God… Perhaps it is the altar or what a person receives at the altar? But in receiving the Lord’s body, some people eat and drink their own condemnation (1 Cor 11,29). So what is it? Fasting? The wicked also fast. Going to church often? The wicked go to church like the others…

So what is this wedding garment? The apostle Paul tells us: “What we are aiming at… is the love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Tim 1,5) That is the wedding garment. Paul is not talking about just any kind of love, for one can often see dishonest people loving others …, but one does not see among them this love “that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” Now that is the love that is the wedding garment.

The apostle Paul said: “If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal… If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13,1-2) He said that even if he had all that, without Christ “I am nothing.”… How many good things are worthless because one good alone is lacking! If I am without love I may well give away all that I have, confess the name of Christ to the point of shedding my blood (v.3), it would be to no purpose, because I can act in that way for love of glory… “If I have not love, it is of no use.” That is the wedding garment. Examine yourselves: if you have it, then come to the Lord’s banquet with confidence.

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  • Alexandra

    David,
    If love is truly the wedding garment, then, we, as a Church, are woefully underdressed. We are pushing out and away more people than we love. We judge, we discard. Even the language that is used in our readings uniformly discards half of the human race. Listening to the second reading last Sunday that we are adopted sons of God, I felt quite dismissed and unloved.
    The priest in my parish has chosen not to address the scourge of racism, because he believes that is too political a topic.
    In my parish, immigration is not addressed as a topic.
    In my parish, the leadership has refused to assist with the formation of a group focused on justice.
    And then there is the opposition of the Church to gay marriage, to the ordination of women ….
    Yes, we are undressed, indeed.

  • trellis smith

    The meditation begs the question “What is a pure heart?” Who among us but the very few are in such possession. This seems just another way to banish sinners from communion.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Interesting point. In reading this passage I took away a very different message, as I concentrated on Augustine’s repeated use of the word “love”. Augustine is trying to draw a distinction between various uses of the word “love” (does Latin lack the philios/agape/eros distinction of Greek?) and so quotes St. Paul to try to pin it down. Unlike you, I took this to be a much more hopeful passage: he is not trying to bar people from communion but getting them to examine what it means to receive it worthily.

      So the question would become: is this an on/off dichotomy: that one has a pure heart (and so can receive communion) or one does not, and so should avoid it. This sounds very much like a Calvinist understanding of Augustine, but my sense is that their reading is simplistic and misses some of Augustine’s pastoral nuance.

      When I first read this passage my thought was “what would Augustine say about communion for the divorced and remarried” and I started to frame this post in this way. For a lot of reasons I backed off, but that question is still in the back of my mind.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    Matt 22:10 The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

    The USCCB bible footnotes speak of the wedding garment as being “the repentance, change of heart and mind, that is the condition for entrance into the kingdom”. Our journey aims towards love with a pure heart, etc…but it begins with conversion.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The question then is this: at what point in our interior conversion, which is an ongoing process (see the OFS rule), should we approach the altar for communion, the tangible sign here on earth of the wedding feast in heaven? I have some ideas about this for a blog post on gradualism, which came up at the synod, that is surely related.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    Far be it for me to quibble with St. Augustine, Daily Gospel Online or you, but this meditation is tangential at best to what was intended in the original parable. While I enjoyed the Saint’s meditation, he gets off on the wrong foot by asserting that the garment was something ‘that only the good have’. Perhaps at the end of time, when all is said and done this will be so.

    My understanding is that the King in the parable, as the host would have provided the wedding garment for his guests. Everyone is invited, good and bad, but the one guest enters without displaying the proper attire he was provided. This is a sign of disrespect and an insult to the host.

    Try to imagine a contemporary wedding where a prominent official with authority invites anyone and everyone to attend the wedding of his daughter. He raises the wine glass filled with good wine (which he has provided) and offers a toast to the well being of the couple. But someone who has contempt for the official pours his wine into a flowerpot in the sight of all, thus putting his contempt on display.

    The acceptance of the wedding garment (by good and bad alike) is a symbol or respect for the King (God) which is the first step of entrance into the kingdom (repentance). The journey begins and the king takes full care of his subjects feeding and nourishing them as they continue to serve and grow into the reality of what life in the kingdom entails.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “My understanding is that the King in the parable, as the host would have provided the wedding garment for his guests. ”

      I have heard this interpretation of the parable, but it always sounded weird to me and I have never seen any historical justification for this way of reading it. Not to say that it is incorrect, but it always sounded odd that the host would provide the garments.

      • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

        …it always sounded odd that the host would provide the garments.

        I don’t see this as an issue. It seems that the audience of Jesus’ parable understood that there was some ritual or traditional element to the ‘wedding garment’. There is some custom in this that we aren’t familiar with…so what? Doesn’t a parish provide gowns to its Confirmation candidates? It’s not finery, it reusable inexpensive ritual attire. It might have been something as simple as a scarf or shawl.

        Nevertheless, there is nothing in the parable that indicates that ‘wedding garment’ signifies goodness or virtue of the guest. The parable itself states that the wedding hall was filled with ‘good and bad alike’, many of whom are presumably poor and unable to afford the equivalent of today’s wedding attire. Do you think a parable of Jesus in which people are brought in from the streets would exclude the poor and the destitute? The only requirement for attendance is to wear the ritual attire.

        And why would a king have someone who refused to wear a garment put to death? The answer is in the earlier verses where the guests who refuse the invitation turn on the kings servants, mistreat them and put the them to death. Why? Because they are opposed to the king for any number of reasons…resentment, contempt, jealousy…or the kings righteousness. It’s not important to the parable why people hate the king/God. At any rate, the one who refused to wear the garment is likened to the other murders who were dealt with earlier.

        The ones at the wedding are not the virtuous (yet), but sinners who have repented and begun their journey. The ones who commit murder and will not repent will never be allowed in the wedding hall.

  • http://turmarion.wordpress.com turmarion

    One of my favorite spiritual writers, Robert Farrar Capon, suggested the idea that the man refused an offered garment, too. That does make the reading more palatable. After all, if the man had just been dragged in out of the field or from a street corner, how could he be expected to have a wedding garment? That would make the king’s behavior seemingly unfair; whereas if the garment was offered but rejected, then the onus is on the guest.

    On the other hand, I have to join David in being skeptical of this and in noting that, in my view, at least, the text doesn’t support such a reading, even implicitly. It also smacks of the old canard about the “eye of the needle” meaning a gate in Jerusalem, and not the eye of a literal needle. That, of course, is essentially an explanation made up in the Renaissance with not a shred of evidence to support it. It seems to have been devised to soften Jesus’ statement; and I suspect the “offered and refused wedding garment” theory might be in the same territory as that.

    In the last few years I’ve come to wonder if the man’s failure to answer is significant. The king asks him why he didn’t come with a wedding garment. The man could have said, “Because your men dragged me straight here! How could I have got one?” He says nothing though. The Greek is interesting–the verb is εφιμωθη (ephimōthē), a passive form of a verb meaning literally “to muzzle” or “to silence”. Thus, the passive form here means “to become silent or speechless” or “to hold one’s peace”.

    Maybe the idea is something like this: The king brings in everyone from the “highways and byways”–he chooses everyone, just as Christ dies for everyone. However, one has to be disposed to be aware of his sinfulness and disposed to respond to that offer of salvation. Perhaps the impromptu wedding guest who “holds his peace” represents the person who, though offered redemption by Christ, is unwilling to acknowledge his sins or his need for redemption. It’s a thought, at least, and it makes king’s behavior seem less arbitrary.

    • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

      ‘Perhaps the impromptu wedding guest who “holds his peace” represents the person who, though offered redemption by Christ, is unwilling to acknowledge his sins or his need for redemption.’ Well…yes. And how is that different than the notion that the wedding garment symbolizes repentance (as opposed to virtue)?

      The ‘skepticism’ of the custom of the wedding garment per se is interesting. Dowton Abbey fans were treated to an added feature last Sunday called ‘The Manners of Dowton Abbey’ (or something resembling that title). An ‘expert’ on Edwardian rules and customs is the host and he describes a myriad of customs, rituals and manners that in the end are a representation of ‘moral order’ in this segment of society. Of course the actors must be schooled in these ‘manners’ in order to portray the period correctly. This is only a hundred years ago and yet the actors (and the audience) are almost completely ignorant of the significance attached to these issues. But enough of the picayune debate of who provides the wedding garment since this is a minor obstacle to understanding the parable.

      The real issue for modern folk is the notion that the story is ‘unpalatable’ or the king seems ‘arbitrary and unfair’. Here the concern shifts from the behavior of the kings subjects…to the behavior of the king. How unfair is he in his expectations…why does he have ‘slaves’ or servants…why does he punish so harshly? In the earlier verses the king’s subject are simply ‘minding their own businesses’ and tending to their own interests when the king interrupts all this with an invitation (which is really a command) to attend the wedding of his son. Who wants to turn his life around (repent) to face such a cruel reality? How can God be so good when Jesus portrays him so cruelly…and how can man be so bad when he behaves responsibility and with autonomy?

  • Alexandra

    All of these parables were written in a specific time and a specific place and the elements in them had specific meaning to the people who heard them. Unless we know the meanings, ie the cultural norms and beliefs and customs, we cannot fully interpret the meaning. We are then left to mediate upon them. It would seem to me that any meditation that would bring one closer to God would be fine. To discuss the meaning of the details without the underlying information seems to me to be a bit pointless.

    • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

      It would seem to me that any meditation that would bring one closer to God would be fine. I heartily agree. I am very happy to abide in the good Saint’s meditation. It seems the Spirit gives us some license to drift from one meaning to another as we are drawn closer to God.

      To discuss the meaning of the details without the underlying information seems to me to be a bit pointless. Yes, I could have left the matter alone, except that the meaning is not as obscure as people are making it out to be. Moreover, I merely ‘quibble’ because of the difficulties that can arise (and did arise in the comments above) in overlaying a secondary meaning over the parables primary intent.

      David responded to a comment above: So the question would become: is this an on/off dichotomy: that one has a pure heart (and so can receive communion) or one does not, and so should avoid it. This is where we might find ourselves when we misunderstand or misapply the Saint’s meditation. I suppose details aren’t all that important…until they cause a problem.