Sermon on Matthew 22:1-10 (and Isaiah 61:10), for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Robe of Righteousness"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our Introit today says: my God has “clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Keep this image of a “robe of righteousness” in mind as we discuss the parable of the Wedding Banquet from Matthew 22. A key point in the parable is when a guest without wedding garments is thrown out of the feast. Continuing our Reformation theme of “righteousness”, from last week, let’s see how that “robe of righteousness” and the wedding garment are connected. Last week we talked about two very different claims: claiming our own righteousness or claiming Christ’s righteousness. Only Christ’s righteousness gives legal standing in God’s courts. Putting clothes on that same abstract idea, Jesus’ parable pictures worthy clothes for a wedding banquet.
First you may have noticed how drastic everything is in this parable. Without explanation the king’s wedding invitation is violently rejected; they abuse and murder the messengers; the king killing those who rejected the invitation and burns of their city; the casting out of the guest with no wedding garment—this is no ordinary wedding feast. What do we make of all this? It helps to know that last week’s parable of the wicked tenants is closely related. Both feature a father and son rejected by evil men who kill the servants, and in the vineyard parable, they even kill the son. Jesus taught these last parables just before He, the Father’s Son, was arrested, beaten and crucified. He was the last of the rejected messengers, the Son who carried the gracious invitation to God’s heavenly wedding feast but was killed.
Both parables portray Israel’s treatment of their prophets and their failed stewardship of God’s kingdom. The drastic actions in the parable picture the religious leaders’ drastic rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. Their violent rejection of Jesus would not go unpunished. They saw themselves that justice was due in these parables, and even spoke their own judgment. The burning of their city in Jesus’ parable foreshadows the Divine Judgment of Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. The drastic details tell of Jerusalem’s sad and tragic history—truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. No other invitation is so despised and rudely rejected than the call to believe in Jesus Christ—all out of proportion to God’s kindness and goodness. Nevertheless, hatred for God and His church continues today as always.
But back to the wedding garment and robe of righteousness. Everyone in town is invited—bad and good people alike—until the banqueting hall is full. The wedding celebration can begin! But a man is found without a wedding garment, and no explanation. Everyone else apparently has theirs. Bible commentators debate this idea—but I am going to stick with what I’ve been taught here—that the custom was for a king or nobleman to provide the wedding garments for the guests. So, you arrive at the party and get a wedding garment to wear. This explains why anybody and everybody off the street is covered except this lone guy; and why the King is so taken aback. However strong the evidence as an ancient wedding custom, the Bible definitely has strong themes, like our Introit verse, where God clothes His people. Isaiah describes God dressing His church for a wedding and calls it the “garment of salvation” or the “robe of righteousness.” This is worthy clothing for God’s heavenly wedding feast.
This “robe of righteousness” is a concrete description of our legal standing before God, dressed in the righteousness of Christ. His robe covers our sin and guilt. Fresh off the street; not on the original guest list; bad or good—these all are nevertheless are clothed with Christ’s righteousness by God. Undeserving, but welcomed by the Father’s grace. We’re first clothed in Baptism as Galatians 3:27 says: “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on (been clothed in) Christ”. To “put on Christ” is to be clothed in His righteousness. Last week we heard His righteousness is the only claim to stand on in heaven’s courts. Same today: the invitation and the wedding garment makes guests worthy for the banquet. The original guests were unworthy because they rejected the Gospel, the invitation, and abused the King’s servants. Neither were the later guests worthy—however they responded to God’s providence and accepted the invitation. God made them worthy by His invitation and His robe.
This robe of righteousness is a wonderful comfort when we reflect on where we came from or who we are. Undoubtedly, beggars and strangers fresh off the street were out of place when others had rejected the king’s invitation. Notice when someone doesn’t feel welcome in the kingdom of God. Explain how none of us deserve to be here—it’s all by God’s grace. Only God’s grace properly dresses you in His robe of righteousness. And what a celebration we enter! Wedding feasts are a favorite image in the Bible of the end of times celebration in heaven, because in Bible times, a wedding feast was a massive party, a seven-day long celebration. Nothing like our one-evening parties. You could say they really knew how to party! But this is a party of joy and holiness and celebrating goodness and life. No wild or depraved behavior is in sight.
In contrast to the robe of Christ’s righteousness, you could imagine the man thrown out of the banquet deciding to wear his own clothes. What else would he be wearing to deserve the king’s disapproval? It would be a snub to the King’s freely given robe to wear your own clothes. That would surely explain his speechlessness before the King. Likewise, our own righteousness is a filthy garment, spoiled with our sins, and not fit for a wedding banquet. Rather, we should strip it off in repentance and take up the new clothes of baptism. We wouldn’t come in from the fields or work with sweaty, stained clothing to attend this highest feast. So also we do not come to Christ wearing our sin-stained garments, unless to have them stripped off in repentance, to be properly clothed in His clean robe of righteousness.
If you were baptized in the early Christian church, they actually stripped you naked before walking fully immersed into the water. They dramatically pictured the throwing away of your old sinful clothing and rising up in baptism to receive a new clean robe of righteousness. This is the origin of our modified tradition of giving a white cloth at a person’s baptism. We recite these words: “Receive this white garment to show that you have been clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin. So shall you stand without fear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This robe is our confidence and our acceptance without fear before God’s judgment.
Inside the wedding banquet is great joy and feasting! A rich meal for all the nations, where God destroys death and wipes away the tears from our eyes (Isaiah 25). Christ has gathered us into His church for this great goodness and joy. He calls and gathers the unworthy and makes them to be worthy guests, by receiving His gifts and being clothed in His righteousness. Outside the wedding banquet is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We know that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their way and live. So we know that it’s not from spite or vindictiveness by God, that those outside the banquet suffer. Rather, we must understand that there is no peace, no joy, no blessing, and no goodness to be enjoyed, apart from God. If one rejects the invitation to eternal life, if one chooses to sit out the wedding feast, because they have better things to do, if one says no to Christ and violently rejects Him or His messengers, there is no joy or peace to be shared outside in that lamentable darkness. They have driven away the source of gladness and joy to have their own way. The weeping and gnashing of teeth could either be rage and anger against God, or it could be just the misery and sadness of so foolishly opting out of God’s goodness and feast.
Either way, it’s a sober warning, and an almost nightmarish parable to warn us against forsaking God’s goodness and love. God is light and life and joy and peace. Hell is none of these good things. Malice, hatred, bitterness, despair, darkness, violence, and all other evil are found apart from God’s light and life. Jesus’ somber warning is that we would joyfully accept the invitation and be glad to stand in the feast and celebrate with His Son. Choosing exclusion is choosing to leave behind every good.
And what does this wedding portray? Christ is pictured in Scripture as the Groom, or husband, and His people, the Church, as the bride. The church is the bride of Christ. So the wedding celebration at the end of times is Christ being joined with His church, His people, from all the troubles of sin and death out of which He rescued us. And the celebration and feasting will not last for seven days, but as our post-communion prayer says: “Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son's body and blood. Keep us firm in the true faith throughout our days of pilgrimage that, on the day of His coming, we may, together with all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
We now prepare for that foretaste of the wedding feast in our Lord’s Supper. “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress…” clothed in Your righteousness, we come O Savior to Thy Table. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.