October 12, 2014
Today’s gospel passage probably requires a bit of translation. There’s a big difference between the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine and 21st-century America. Not only about marriage, of course – but marriage is what today’s gospel highlights.
Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a marriage feast given by a slave-owning king. Now, slave-owning kings were quite common back then. Fortunately, neither human bondage nor absolute monarchy is part of our day-to-day experience now. This isn’t to say we have wiped out oppression or tyranny on the face of the earth – far from it. But at least in this nation, we call it a crime when one person claims to own another, and we do not permit anyone to have absolute power. They weren’t quite ready for “checks and balances” in Jesus’ time.
So – in and of itself – the progress of two centuries will require us to make a kind of adjustment in order to hear and understanding this parable.
So, too, will the whole idea of marriage. There are those who insist that our modern-day, state-sanctioned unions are a sacred institution, implying that this phenomenon is of ancient provenance. One president even called marriage “one of the most fundamental, enduring institutions of our civilization.” Of course, that is not the case.
Now, marriage is a fine thing. But what do we really know about the history of marriage? What are the facts?
Scholar Kenneth Stevenson, now Bishop of Portsmouth, in England, summarizes marriage in the patriarchal tradition of ancient Judaism in his book “To Join Together”: first, negotiation of contract, then betrothal, followed by consummation.
What may be hard for us to imagine is that the contract negotiated was no Philadelphia lawyer’s prenup agreement; it was a financial contract between two men, the bride’s father and the groom. In the time of Jesus, women were exchanged like plots of land and herds of cattle – just so much property. The men owned them.
The period of betrothal, then, was not so much a time in which two persons got to know each other better and grew closer in love – but a kind of “grace period” in which the groom could cancel the contract – for some justifiable cause, but without penalty.
Remember that Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, chose not to exercise his option to wiggle out of his marriage contract. He could have, because she was pregnant, but he didn’t. And it’s a good thing, too. Had he done so, none of us Christians would exist.
And in the first century, before anything so technological as birth control, women were like human childbirth machines. They would marry at age 11 or 12 or 13, and immediately begin to have children. Typically, a child every year or so for maybe 10 years. Lots of these children died in infancy. And most of these women died by the age of 30.
So the men would remarry – another teenage bride – again and again. It was not at all uncommon for a man of 40 or 50 or even 60 to marry again: each time a child bride, bought from her father.
This, of course, is not a fundamental, enduring institution of our civilization, is it? It’s more of an oppressive mess and a muddle, out of which we humans have managed to climb. And thanks be to God for that!
Now, what of the actual church liturgy for marriage? Although there is mention of marriage celebrations here and there in ancient texts, the formal, standard, official liturgy of the church dates only to about the 12th century.
What appears to have happened is that the tradition of holding a marriage feast was appropriated into the church’s liturgy. The cultural observance became, over time, a religious one.
To say that more clearly: there is no evidence of an official religious rite for marriage in Jesus’ time. Marriage was entirely a domestic and civil affair. If you were very wealthy, you might invite a rabbi or Pharisee or even High Priest of the Temple to attend, maybe even lead some prayers – but this was unusual, not the standard. This is why there are accounts of Jesus performing miracles at wedding feasts, but no record of him preaching a wedding homily. There was no such thing.
So, a man works out a deal with a woman’s father, and she is ordered to go and live with that man – someone she may not even have met. After a period of a year or more, the man decides that this is working out, and he and his contractual partner (not his bride, her father) lays on a feast.
Remember, this was long before clocks and calendars were common household items. You didn’t send out engraved invitations in the mail, or an e-vite to your fellow bloggers. You sent out messengers – slaves, if you were fortunate to own them – to invite everyone to the marriage feast. Come to the feast; it’s happening right now, today.
And pretty much everyone would come. In those days, ordinary people owned two changes of clothing: your regular, everyday work clothes; and a festive garment, a wedding robe – something usually white, that you kept clean and unwrinkled. And most people did not own much more. When the messengers came to invite you to a marriage, or you heard that bell ring – you would just pen up your sheep, drop your weaving, whatever; run home and put on your wedding garment; and go to the party.
And what feasts these were! Not the luxurious, self-indulgent and obscenely expensive extravaganzas we know today, but festive gatherings nonetheless, frequently lasting for days on end.
Same kind of thing, for instance, as when the Prodigal Son returned: roasted fatted calf, music and merriment, giving of gifts, and lots of wine. No evidence of cake, or throwing garters or rice, or making toasts, or even an exchange of vows. And no mortgaging of the homestead to borrow money; the party simply lasted until you slaughtered your last calf and drank the last of the wine.
Much has changed in the sacred institution of marriage, and thanks be to God for that! And much will continue to change. Thanks be to God for that, too.
So, what relevance does this gospel passage hold for us, if marriage is so radically different in our culture and in our church?
This, too, may be hard for us to grasp, as we no longer live in a culture with a lot of clear implicit expectations.
This may have been true in the United States of the 1950s, and it certainly was true in the Palestine of Jesus’ time: Everybody just sort of understood what the standards were – at least with regard to the wedding garment.
If you live in Galilee or Bethlehem, you knew that to come to a wedding feast was to wear a wedding garment.
So this parable, which seems harsh – after all, someone is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for wearing the wrong clothes. But perhaps this parable is about participation, or the lack of doing it fully.
There is the first group, who simply decline the invitation. And then there is the guy without the wedding robe, who refused to participate completely.
If you were you the king, you would feel snubbed and insulted by these people, right? If you had the power, you might send those folks who offended you to the outer darkness, right? Or at least, you’d be tempted to. Come on, admit it. When someone offends you, you are tempted to retaliate. We all are.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. This is a parable, remember. An analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the way God acts in the world.
God has invited us to be partners in the building up of that kingdom, on earth as in heaven. We are invited to the greatest feast ever imagined. And how many of us fully participate all of the time? Precious few.
And this omnipotent God, who could reign down fire from heaven and smite us where we sit – this God does not act like the king in today’s story, although he could. God does not enforce the dress code or punish us for not participating fully.
Instead, our God invites us again and again, over and over. We are called to that feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. The feast at which the disgrace of the people will be taken away from the earth, when God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
You, me and every person on this planet are welcome at this table.
When God is the host, everyone is invited. Sadly, as in today’s parable, not everyone comes – but everyone is invited.
When God is the host, the food is rich beyond our imagination or understanding. Sometimes it appears to be quite simple – like bread and wine – yet we can be profoundly moved and transformed by this feast. When God is the host, we are nourished not just for the morning, but for the journey. For most of us, this sustenance lasts as long as week, for others it lasts a lifetime. And when God is the host, everyone gets the same gift: the amazingly abundant, undeserved, and inexhaustible gift of love.
— The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates is serving in interim ministry in the metropolitan New York area and as editor of church reviews for the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.