It started with an unexpected party, and lead away from home and into danger.They were on a journey they never expected to take, in a dark place that seemed to go on forever. Frodo despaired for his mission, his future which was seeming to be swallowed in the darkness of Moria. He told Gandalf that he why he’d been born in at time, when the world was in the midst of such a gigantic upheaval, saying: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf gave him a thoughtful reply: “So do I,…and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This thought was probably born in the trenches of the Somme almost a hundred years ago, when Tolkien was an officer in the English army. It was written when the world was at war again. There is a challenge to be someplace we haven’t expected to be, and be able true to who we are and present to the time we live in. It calls us to be present not only to impossible circumstances of suffering, but impossible circumstances of celebration as well.
The parable of the Great Banquet has many layers. It is a summary of what happened to the chief priests and scribes Jesus made a point to irritate during Holy Week: soldiers came (the Romans) and destroyed their city in 70 AD. It is about the boundaries of the Kingdom of God being expanded to include people who were unexpected guests, people outside the 12 tribes of the original Chosen People, who were almost dragged in to fill the hall for a celebration they probably felt they weren’t worthy of. It is about God’s universal love for all creation, and His wish to bring everyone together, as on the mountain from Isaiah 25, in a great banquet feast.
The man without a wedding garment gives us pause, and is a temptation to pass judgement on those we think aren’t ready or unworthy. It’s a man who seems to condemn himself, and his punishment is harsh and immediate. We can say the garment is about having the right spiritual attitude, and that’s a fair interpretation, but we can look down on people who don’t have the right attitude. The temptation is to sign off on people who condemn themselves in our eyes, shudder at their lot, and feel righteous that it’s not us. However, people in those days generally had two sets of clothes, one everyday for work and another for the Sabbath/Weddings/other formal occasions. It doesn’t make sense that someone who knows he’s coming to a banquet wouldn’t prepare properly. On the surface, this man seems incredibly dumb.
The banquet isn’t just about food. If the King wanted to get rid of all surplus food he prepared for the guests who insulted him by saying they would come and then refused the final invitation, he could have sold it in the market, or invited the mob in to carry it away. A banquet is about community, engaging others at the banquet, joining the spirit of the evening, being part of a community. Not wearing the garment means the man isn’t taking part, keeping himself apart from the community, rejecting the possibility of being part of the larger whole. Jesus said that just being in His presence isn’t enough, just as when He pronounced woes on Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida, places he spent a lot of time and was well known. Jesus doesn’t come by osmosis, by just being physically present.
That’s where I would go with this. Our call is to live in our times and be present to them fully, good and bad. When someone pipes a tune we need to dance, and when someone sings a dirge we need to wail. When we’re sent to a dangerous, unfamiliar place, we need to know our fear and respect it, but pull together, support each other, and do what we can to make things right. When we’re at a banquet, we need to enter the feast, wearing our best attitude, and celebrate the joyful event with those around us. Christianity isn’t just about seeing the paradise to come and long for it, and using it to keep us going through tough times. It’s about living in the here and now, finding the banquet in our midst, which the promise of paradise gives us the freedom to embrace.
We come to the banquet hall, the wedding feast. There’s still time to consider the state of our garments, time to mend the rips and patch the holes. Sharing the body and blood of Christ is about sharing, entering the spirit with those around us at the time, people chosen seemingly at random, and finding community together. When we reach God’s holy mountain, we will probably be amazed at who else is there. We need to get ready, because when we get to God’s holy mountain, we will be there together.