Robes of Righteousness
“My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
The Holy Scriptures often use clothes as a metaphor of the inner soul. They describe a sinner as one who’s clothed in rags that are filthy and stained, but the righteous man as someone wearing a robe both pure and majestic. Holiness, in this way of talking, is the act of taking off what is ugly and putting on what is beautiful.
It isn’t something that we can conjure up on our own. Rather, it’s a gift given us. But it remains up to us whether or not we’ll take that gift or abandon it.
When Isaiah, so long ago referenced this garment of salvation, he speaking in mere shadows. The true garments of beauty and holiness are given us in a life in Christ. But what we learn in the scriptures is that this act of clothing ourselves with holiness is an on-going journey. It wasn’t a done deal for Isaiah and it isn’t for us, but it’s a lifetime of “putting on” the robe of Christ.
Today, we heard a parable of a King preparing a wedding banquet for his son, and this parable illustrates for us this journey of holiness.
First, the King invites men and women far and wide to the wedding, telling them “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But this first group isn’t interested. “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.” Then the king in his wrath sends out his army and destroys them.
We have to stop here and reflect for a moment. Who is this first group?
It says, “they made light of it.” Oἱ δὲ aμελήσαντες (in Greek): they were indifferent to the wedding; they were so concerned with worldly things, that they didn’t deem the banquet worth any thoughts, as though it were just fluff or vapor. When we read in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity and a chasing after wind, we’re reminded here how easily we can fall in the trap of chasing this mist and wind as though it were real, so much so that when we finally come into contact with the true stuff, we aren’t interested. The King’s judgment of this group of people seems harsh, but if you really think about it, you can’t help but realize how very just it is after all. We aren’t invited to any mere banquet, but God’s banquet table is the only source of true life. The world outside of this banquet is just a desert, the desert of nihilism, and though you can survive there for a time, eventually you’ll die of thirst.
At times, we picture hell as some dungeon with people clinging to a gate, desperately trying to get out. But as C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.” No one is in hell that doesn’t want to be there. Rather, hell is the place set aside for all who prefer their own mist and vanity to the Banquet of God. It’s the place people choice because they’d rather have it their way then the Lord’s. Our parable today, though it sounds harsh on first impressions, is really about God’s far-reaching compassion, calling us to leave the desert and to come to the feast.
But the story gets better and better.
After this first group turns down the invitation, God says to 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.”
For some of us, the first thing that might come to mind is that old tune, “In the highways, in the edgeways,” though I think this song has a different meaning.
In their commentaries on this passage, a number of Church Fathers take note of this word ‘highways’. Tὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν. A literal translation renders it: “the thoroughfares of the highways,” or the “outlets/exits from the roads.” The servants of the king didn’t just go anywhere. They went to the places where the people were pulling away from the traffic, taking an exit from a worldly road. St. Gregory explains, “By the exits of the roads we understand the failure of [our] actions: for they whose earthly activities have failed, more readily come to God.” It’s a beautiful little detail. We wonder why the roads we take may come to a dead end, or why God allows something in our lives to fail, when all along, he allows these dead ends so that we pull away from the rat race of life, and follow Him to the Kingdom.
These men and women, good and bad, are brought to the banquet feast. “The wedding was furnished with guests,” it says, and then, at last, the King walks in the room to see His guests.
The parable gets deeper.
This feast of the fatted calf, the saints explain, is a reference to the Body and Blood of Christ, which we eat and drink at the altar. The people who were gathered from the streets and highways are you and me, living a life in the parish, sharing the blessed Eucharist on Sundays. But all of this and it’s joy is still just the beginning, a foreshadowing of what’s to come. First, there is the invitation. Next, there is the wedding feast, and after that comes the consummation of the marriage.
There’s no mystery here about this wedding. Who is the bride of the bridegroom?
Christ is the bridegroom. The Church is the bride. We’ve been invited to the banquet for one end, to spend eternity united with God.
But this is where we have to step back and pay special attention to the man without the wedding garment.
As we were saying, the people were feasting when the King walks in to see his guests. This is the final judgment. The English translations don’t always do a word justice, for in Greek, the word parousia means both “appearance” and “judgment.” All God has to do is to step through the doors, and like the sun shining over the horizon, everything is revealed.
We’re gathered at the table. When the King comes, will He find us in our wedding garments?
In the corner of the room, the King noticed one man without a wedding garment. When he asked why, the man was silent, and was thrown out into darkness.
In those days, it was understood that everyone coming to a feast was given a garment by the host of the feast. The problem wasn’t that this poor guy couldn’t afford a garment. He was given one when he entered, but he threw it off afterwards. He wanted the master’s goods, but he didn’t want the master himself. He came in and ate from the table, but he didn’t want to be part of the marriage.
What is it that God asks of us when we become Christians?
“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,” St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, and “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24).
It’s easy to forget why it is that we’re Christians. We can loose our first love, how easily, when we were so infatuated with Christ that we were willing to abandon the old garments, and the ego-worship that came with them, and we fell down in adoration of our God. After receiving so much grace and so much love, we can fall back to our old habits. Things at church might become difficult. Perhaps a season comes when we don’t enjoy praying as much, or when church doesn’t bring the comfort that it did before. But then what? Did we walk through the doors of the Church to become comfortable? Or did we throw off those old clothes and take up the new ones because we wanted a marriage with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
The Psalmist prays, “Surely, I will not enter my house, Nor lie on my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for the Mighty One” (Psalm 132:3-4). This is what holiness is about – the willingness to let go of our own hurts, to brush aside the distractions that keep us from what really matters, to push through dry seasons, to remember what it is that we have as Christians, what it is that we’ve been handed freely in the Orthodox Church, the pure faith passed down by the apostles for two thousand years and lit here in this tiny parish in Wichita Falls. As Christians we must continually remind ourselves what life is all about, and desire with everything we’ve got that Jesus Christ will find a dwelling place right here in our hearts.
The robe of ego and worldly pursuits is nothing but dust. The robe of holiness is more beautiful than the world.
The King came to the feast to see what He would see, and he found a man who had cast aside his wedding garment. Now, when he confronted that guest, the man remained silent. His silence is what cast him into the darkness. If he had only been brave enough to confess, “Yes Lord, I have cast off the garment. Please help me to take it up again,” then all would be right. And that is the mercy of our loving savior. For what do we do when we’ve lost our first love? Quite simply, come to confession and repent. Then the banquet begins afresh, far sweeter than ever before.
O Christ our Lord and our Savior. Have mercy on us, your sons and daughters. Give us the desire to put on the robe of holiness, and when we fail to keep our robe pure, grant us the strength to turn to you so that you can make it white once again. Amen.