This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:1–14:
Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.”’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.”
How many people even recall the book Dress for Success? In this era of casual workplaces and home officing, it might be tough to recall the phenomenon of this 1975 book when it hit the market. It didn’t invent power dressing, but it explained the concept to a much wider market and revamped the way people saw wardrobes in business and life. The main advice to workplace applicants and aspirants — dress like you already have the job — is still sterling to this day, even if the styles have changed dramatically since then.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, one could even say that the apostle got a 2,000-year head start on John T. Malloy. Wardrobe isn’t quite the point of Jesus’ parable, but it symbolizes the same things as wardrobe did for Molloy — preparation, intentionality, and a knowledge of place and function.
The first part of the parable to the temple leadership echoes those we have read over the last two weeks. It is another indictment of the priests and elders and how they have misled the people and mistreated the prophets. Again, Jesus warns of retribution for these sins in the form of sweeping away the previous hierarchy and offering salvation directly to the people. This time, however, Jesus has a warning for the people as well.
To grasp this, one has to remember that salvation comes in the form of a marriage — the marriage of Christ to the body of the Church. The Mass is itself a celebration of this wedding in present time and space, a re-presentation of both Christ’s sacrifice and His marriage to us. (This is well documented in the Catechism, and in books such as Coming Soon, which I highly recommend.) Jesus is explaining in almost non-parable terms what salvation actually means —the King holding the wedding feast for His Son. It is the marriage of humanity to His Word, embodied in Christ and chosen by us through free will, which allows us to enter into the Trinitarian life as sons and daughters of the Lord.
So is this warning about dress in particular? Some older and more traditional Christians might argue that it is, at least in part, and the nature of the Mass or other Christian services as a wedding celebration would tend to bolster that. That clearer understanding (after having read Coming Home) is one reason that I started dressing more nicely for Mass, although another reason is that I got drafted at the last moment once for a ministry while wearing an old flannel shirt and some jeans. Dress for success, indeed.
This parable goes well beyond the state of dress, and the wardrobe really isn’t the point. In this telling, the wardrobe is just a symbolic indicator of a lack of preparation and intentionality. This unfortunate fellow just showed up, even though he knew he’d been invited to a kingly feast, without any indication he cared about it. The king even gives the man an opportunity to explain himself. Had he pled poverty or showed some repentance for his error, the king may well have allowed him to stay or even given the man a bigger welcome. Instead, the man had nothing to say for himself; he could not plead remorse or explain how he grasped the importance of the event.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this is itself a model of judgment. “Many are invited,” Jesus warns, “but few are chosen.” We will all come to the feast, or at least close to it, at some point. None of us will be worthy of it; all of us come to the Lord with stained garments, dirt under our nails, and the aroma of sin in some way. We will all hear those words in some form: “My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?”
How do we prepare ourselves for that moment? We do so through formation in the Word and in repentance for our sins. If we wish to attend and participate in salvation, we must do so with intentionality, with preparation, and an understanding of the place and event. We can’t simply “come as you are,” so to speak. The only way in which we can truly dress for success in salvation is to put on Christ. That is the only wardrobe that matters in salvation.
The front-page image is a detail from “Guest Without Wedding Attire” by Vincent Adriaenssen, 17th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.