A man flips lazily through the television channels and stops for a few minutes to look at a religious program. He then turns the set off, gets up, and walks into the hall where he encounters his wife. "Will you," he asks her, "be ready when the Bridegroom comes?" "Yes," she responds quickly, "I have my outfit all picked out."
This is, of course, comedy. It works as such because in this context it follows a formula similar to the one used in making puns. It replaces the symbolic, scriptural meaning of "Bridegroom" with the literal meaning of the word. In making light of the parable, the couple block out the light of understanding. Nothing is more corrosive to symbolic understanding than the literal. Recall how, during the 1960s, Timothy Leary declared LSD (lysergic acid), with which he was experimenting, to be a "sacrament." Remember how corrosive an idea that was, not just to brain cells but to the understanding of some people as to what a sacrament really was. It reduced the idea of "sacrament" to being a mere thing.
Jesus did not do standup comedy. Parables are puzzles, and Jesus, we are told, always spoke in parables. Today's Gospel incorporates one of his best-known parables. He didn't use them to entertain or to perplex his audiences, or to give them games to play. His parables were like pieces of string that had to be rolled up into a ball. Like poetry, they were stories at whose heart lay a metaphor. He was not trying to be difficult. He used the language of parable because he was speaking of something that was intangible. He was speaking of something unseen. And like the poet, he had the difficult task of making the unseen, seen.
Often the meanings contained in the parables were left, for the moment, unseen. Even the disciples had difficulty understanding, and more than once asked Jesus to explain them. Scripture can be difficult. It takes work. The prophet Sirach praised those people who "penetrate the subtleties of parables," those who are "at home with their obscurities."
A minister once wrote, "Only the poetic imagination can understand the Bible. Like unsolved puzzles, the meaning of parables can lie hidden in the mind. Hindrances to our understanding abound-like bars on a door or locks on a gate. But one does remain curious about what lies on the other side.
One of the things that bars us from entrance through the door of meaning is our attempt to interpret the meaning of the parables as though the stories are meant to be understood literally. As with our initial scene, such a response flattens out the meaning, makes it comic or banal. Simply put, then, the meaning of today's Gospel story of the marriage feast might be: "You had better get your costume ready if you want to go to the wedding feast or you will be booted out; or, worse, you might be thrown to the dogs!" We leave deeper meaning behind and take off for the mall. The better we look when we go into church for the wedding, the more likely we are of being able to pass into heaven. But for those people with a bit of training in interpreting metaphor (and few could be dull enough to take this parable literally) there would be fewer trips to the mall. There is no section at the mall for symbolic wedding garb, or for symbolic brides. Let's leave the literal and try doing the work of seeing through different lenses, in a way that will give us a new heart.
If literal interpretations of the parables bring us to a dead end, what will symbolic interpretation open for us. In today's Gospel, Jesus is using the image of a wedding feast, a favorite of his, to speak of his Kingdom of God. There is little mention of the bride in the story. It is not because she is not there. Rather, it is because she is everywhere, for she can be compared to the entire body of Christ's people. Jesus was really talking about a sacred marriage between God and man; between the bridegroom who is the Word and human nature. Jesus himself is the bridegroom and the bride is every one of us. We are being given a picture, Jesus' vision, of the "married land." As in Revelations, the Bridegroom has come. It is heaven where, as we know, there is no marriage in the earthly sense; no human beings split into halves that have to get together. For in heaven all are married. The divine and human in heaven have been united in our minds.
And when he comes, will we be ready? Will we be foolish enough to say that as there is a sale this week we will certainly be able to look our best for the wedding in church? No, the costume in the story is to be understood metaphorically. It is our lives we must change, the contents of our consciousness, our hearts, our vision -- not our clothes! These are the intangible garments that concern Jesus. When we wear them -- then he will come, bringing his Kingdom of Heaven. Right here. Right now. As we are told in Revelations:
For the marriage of the Lamb has come
And his bride has made herself ready.
To her it has been granted to be clothed
With fine linen, bright and pure-
For the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
Or we will be thrown out where there will be fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Does this fate sound familiar? It should to anyone who has looked at the parables. The same language is used in other parables recorded by Matthew. It is a harvest metaphor. Literally, it is the weeds that are thrown out from the gathering and the bad fish from the net. And is it a mean Father God who will throw us out if we show up without the proper gown?
No. The purpose of a parable is to make one point and the point here is to get ready, to stitch together for ourselves the garments of truth, of the Way, so we will be open to God.
There are many people who will remain well armored against the piercing truths today's parable conveys. They will refuse the challenge. It is easier, like the couple in our opening story, to protect ourselves from the real meaning of the parable by turning it into comedy. It is easier to limit our Vision, to wear a garment of armor. "The kingdom of God is spread on the earth and men don't see it," we read. Jesus' kingdom cannot be stormed. It must descend upon us like light.
In today's parable, Jesus has given us all a key. For God's sake, for Heaven's sake (heaven was used as a synonym for God), we must prepare, make our garments, clothe ourselves in understanding. Only by preparing such a robe are we to gain entrance into his Kingdom.