The Chosen Few - A Homily on the Parable of the Marriage Feast (2020)

September 13, 2020

The Chosen Few - A Homily on the Parable of the Marriage Feast (2020)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We hear today the Parable of the Marriage Feast. In the Gospel narrative, it follows immediately after the Parable of the Vineyard, which was read last Sunday. This other parable is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels, as Christ teaches in the Temple in the days leading up to His Passion, whereas the present parable is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. It closely resembles another parable recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, though the Lukan version—spoken by the Lord as he was dining with a group of lawyers, scribes, and Pharisees—differs in certain details and thus reflects the different situation in which it was uttered.

We know that Matthew’s Gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience, and the parable as it is found in his Gospel has particular relevance for them. It forms a kind of sequel to the Parable of the Vineyard that directly precedes it. There, we see an image of the Jewish nation’s repeated rejection of God’s prophets, culminating in their most heinous act of ingratitude and blindness—the murder of the Son of God. In return for this crime, Christ predicts the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the calling of the Gentiles into the Church of the living God.

Thus we find these very things suitably depicted in today’s parable. The king is God the Father; the son is Christ; the supper is the holy Eucharist which unites the Lamb of God with His bride, the Church, and mysteriously makes them “one flesh”; the servants in this case are not the prophets but the apostles, who were sent first to preach to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea, then later to Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the earth.

In the parable thus understood, we see God’s longsuffering and mercy clearly portrayed, inasmuch as, even after the Jews paid no heed to the prophets, and then despised, and cast out, and slew the Son of God, God still deigned to call them first unto the marriage supper of His Son; even as Peter once preached to a crowd in Jerusalem not long after Pentecost, saying, I know that through ignorance ye [killed the Prince of life], as did also your rulers… Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord… Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities… and it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear [him] shall be destroyed from among the people, (Acts 3:17, 19, 26, 23).

Just as Christ asked His Father to forgive His own crucifiers because of their ignorance, so the longsuffering Lord heard Him and overlooked the gravest of all sins—deicide—and sent the apostles to preach Christ’s Resurrection to those who had murdered Him. And likewise, just as during Christ’s earthly life, many of the simple people heard them gladly and repented, and even among the priests, not a few. But the rulers of the people largely remained stubborn and stiff-necked. Those who were supposed to be the stewards of the wisdom and knowledge of God proved to be entirely ignorant of their charge, for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), nor would they have persecuted His apostles after the Resurrection.

But instead, they beat and imprisoned some, while others they killed—Stephen by stoning, James the son of Zebedee by the sword, James the brother of the Lord by casting him from a pinnacle of the Temple. Only when they had proved their own recalcitrance beyond any shadow of a doubt, then did the Lord fulfill the prophecy contained in the parable, and sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city (Mt. 22:7). This came to pass in the year 70 AD, almost 40 years after the Lord’s Crucifixion—Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans, the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Jews were scattered among the nations. Christ calls the Romans “His armies” in the same way that Nebuchadnezzar is called “the Lord’s Anointed.” All sovereignty is from the most High (Wis. 6:3), and God uses all things, even unwitting pagan kings and their armies, to accomplish His providential purposes.

The parable goes on to depict the calling of the Gentiles. The king commands his servants, 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 (Mt. 22:9-10). Here we see that the Church is comprised of both bad and good. Her ranks are pulled not just from those who, like the first pagan convert Cornelius, lived a pious and godly life before they heard the Gospel, but just as much are they pulled from those mired in sin—harlots, fornicators, drunkards, thieves, adulterers, and the like. Such a past sinful life is no impediment for entry into the marriage feast, for just as with an actual wedding in the ancient Near East, all of the guests are furnished with a splendid wedding garment—namely, the robe of incorruption that we put on in holy Baptism, the pledge of our eternal inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.

But as the ending of the parable makes clear, it is up to us to preserve that wedding garment spotless for the feast. If we allow it to unravel through our negligence, or let it be stripped from us by our spiritual enemies, then we will have to give account for it to Him who invited us to the marriage. The host’s questioning and punishment may seem harsh to us, but the truth is that the hapless guest had no excuse for his rude appearance; when he was questioned by the king, the Gospel says that he was speechless (Mt. 22:12). He could make no answer for himself, for there was none to make. Thus, his lack of a wedding garment was entirely his own fault.

We see then that the chosen few mentioned by the Lord are in a sense chosen of themselves. Everyone mentioned in the parable was given ample opportunity to attend the wedding feast, to eat and drink in the kingdom of God—many, or more accurately, all are called. If so few are chosen, it is because they themselves choose poorly and respond with indifference or even open hostility to the king’s summons. Even those who manage to enter the feast can only do so in fitting attire—that is, a clear conscience and a pure life—and this depends in large measure on themselves.

How then do we keep our garments unspotted and sparkling white? By keeping our minds and affections on the things above; by seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; by laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven, since where our treasure is, there too will our heart be. Such dispossession and freedom from earthly care is incumbent upon all Christians, yet it is the special province of monastics. And so St. John Chrysostom associates the wedding garment especially with the hairshirt commonly worn by the ascetics of his day. He reminds us that the monastic life—indeed, the Christian life—properly lived, is nothing other than a perpetual participation in the marriage supper of the Lamb, and he presents us with this lofty ascetic ideal.

In contrast to the monk’s plain outward appearance, his spiritual wedding garment ought to shine brightly within:

If you were able to open the doors of [their] mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely you would fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience… [T]hey have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him… [I]n nothing are their lodging-places in a condition inferior to the heavens; for the angels lodge with them, and the Lord of the angels. For if they came to Abraham, a man having a wife, and bringing up children, because they saw him hospitable; when they find much more abundant virtue, and a man delivered from the body, and in the flesh disregarding the flesh, much more do they tarry there, and celebrate the choral feast that becomes them. For there is moreover a table among them pure from all covetousness, and full of self-denial.

No streams of blood are among them, nor cutting up of flesh, nor heaviness of head, nor dainty cooking, neither are there unpleasing smells of meat among them, nor disagreeable smoke, neither runnings and tumults, and disturbances, and wearisome clamors; but bread and water, the latter from a pure fountain, the former from honest labor. But if any time they should be minded to feast more sumptuously, their sumptuousness consists of fruits, and greater is the pleasure there than at royal tables. There is no fear there, or trembling; no ruler accuses, no wife provokes, no child casts into sadness, no disorderly mirth dissipates, no multitude of flatterers puffs up; but the table is an angel’s table free from all such turmoil…

This table even angels from heaven beholding are delighted and pleased. For if over one sinner that repents they rejoice, over so many just men imitating them, what will they not do? There are not master and slave; all are slaves, all free men. And do not think the saying to be a dark proverb, for they are indeed slaves one of another, and masters one of another.

They have no occasion to be in sadness when evening has overtaken them, as many men feel, revolving the anxious thoughts that spring from the evils of the day. They have no occasion after their supper to be careful about robbers, and to shut the doors, and to put bars against them, neither to dread the other ills of which many are afraid, extinguishing their candles with strict care, lest a spark anywhere should set the house on fire.

And their conversation again is full of the same calm. For they talk not of these things whereof we discourse, that [mean] nothing to us—such a one is made governor, such a one has ceased to be governor; such a one is dead, and another has succeeded to the inheritance, and all such like—but always about the things to come do they speak and seek wisdom; and as though dwelling in another world, as though they had migrated unto heaven itself, as living there, even so all their conversation is about the things there, about Abraham’s bosom, about the crowns of the saints, about the choiring with Christ; and of things present they have neither any memory nor thought, but like as we should not deign to speak at all of what the ants do in their holes and clefts; so neither do they [speak] of what [those living in the world] do; but about the King that is above, about the war in which they are engaged, about the devil’s crafts, about the good deeds which the saints have achieved…

What then? Shall we not go over unto blessedness so great? Shall we not come unto these angels; shall we not receive clean garments, and join in the ceremonies of this wedding feast?[1]

Shortly, we will lay aside all earthly care and celebrate the bloodless Sacrifice, the sacred Mystery of the holy Eucharist, the consummation of the mystical marriage of our monastic life. Christ comes down to us and deigns to give Himself to us as food. These are things that even the angels desire to look into, and they ever assist invisibly in this ministry; they worship all around us, unseen to us. Shall we then be less eager than the angels to lay hold of this mystery, seeing it is given for our salvation and not theirs? Shall we not choose to place Christ above all else, as at the head of our joy, both today and for evermore? For if we don’t choose Christ, we will not be found among His chosen few.

Knowing then these things, let us lay aside all covetousness, and covet the things above, with great earnestness taking the kingdom by force (Mt. 11:12). For it cannot be, it cannot be that any one who is remiss should enter therein.

But God grant that we all having become earnest, and watchful, may attain thereto, by the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be honour and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.

 

[1] St John Chrysostom. “Homily 69 on Matthew.” CHURCH FATHERS: Homily 69 on Matthew (Chrysostom). Accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200169.htm. The closing doxology has been slightly altered to conform to Orthodox liturgical usage.




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