What is the relationship between grace and works in the Christian faith? Is the Christian faith about what God does, or about what we do, or some combination of both? Do we think of salvation primarily as the free gift of God, or do we think of it as something that we have to work for? These questions have been asked from the very earliest days of the church. They are implicit in the New Testament, especially in the letters of the Apostle Paul, and in the letter of S. James. They got their first proper theological working-through in the fifth century controversies between S. Augustine of Hippo and the British monk Pelagius. They were at the heart of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and they continue to some extent to stimulate, challenge and divide Christians to this day.
The difficulties of the question are obvious. If on the one hand you decide to emphasise what we do, if with the earnest fifth-century monk Pelagius we emphasise the ethical and ascetic demands of the Christian life, we run the risk of suggesting that we can somehow put God in our debt, the risk of suggesting that God owes us something because we are so earnest and good in our lives as Christians, and we run the risk of becoming insufferably self-righteous. We also are in danger of creating a pecking order within our churches of those who are considered to be good Christians because of all the good things that they do, and those who are seen as not making the mark; and when we consider how emphatic Jesus is that we should not judge one another, this is clearly not a good route to go down.
On the other hand, if with S. Augustine of Hippo we emphasise the free action of God in gifting us redemption, we run the risk of preaching what the great twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, we run the risk of reducing the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to nothing more than a cosmic get out-of-jail-free card on the monopoly board of life, the card which allows us to lead lives of mediocre selfishness at the same time as holding on to a sense of entitlement about our eternal destiny. To illustrate what I mean, I can do no better than to quote Bonhoeffer himself:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
How are we to chart a course between Pelagianism on the one hand, and cheap grace on the other? How can we avoid slipping into the temptation of thinking that we can work our way into God’s good books, at the same time as also avoiding the temptation to treat grace as a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card?
In today’s gospel we once again see many of S. Matthew’s characteristic touches.
The favourite phrase – “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – makes another appearance, and there is that troubling undercurrent of violence that is probably a consequence of the context in which the evangelist was writing, namely the aftermath of the devastating destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, a time of wars, bloodshed and persecutions.
The evangelist makes use of the motif of the Messianic Banquet, drawing on the rich Old Testament traditions that we find in both our passage from Isaiah and in Psalm 23: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”; “You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows”.
And we find too the characteristic interest in outsiders that surely points to the character of Jesus Himself: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone to the wedding banquet”.
“Invite everyone to the wedding banquet”.
This for me is the attractive side of the parable, and we should pay close attention to it. There is no qualification for being invited to the great wedding feast, and thank God for that. We are not invited because we are rich or noble or clever or good. We are invited because invitation is in the nature of God. We are invited because God is generous. The invitation is sheer gift, it is pure grace. It does not depend on anything that we do. God pulls us off the street and “spreads a table before us”, God makes “for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”. Here the parable is a powerful illustration of grace, of the free grace of God which is our only hope of redemption, our only hope of salvation, our only hope of eternal joy.
But then we get to the troubling part of the parable, the man who comes to the wedding without a wedding garment. The treatment of this man seems to be entirely out-of-keeping with the inclusivity of the invitation. The king’s servants have pulled all these guests off the streets, a mixed crowd of good and bad. It seems a more than a little unreasonable that this man should be thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing the right outfit.
We must not forget here that this is a parable: it is a story that points beyond its surface meaning, a story that points beyond its literal sense, to something deeper.
What, then, does the wedding garment point to? I think it has something to do with our response to the invitation, I think it has something to do with our response to God’s generosity, our response to God’s grace. The guest who turns up at the wedding feast without a wedding garment is treating the invitation lightly, he is taking it for granted. He has been pulled off the street into the king’s banqueting hall, he has been given an invitation beyond his wildest dreams, and yet he hasn’t even bothered to put on a decent robe.
So if the inclusivity of the king’s invitation points us to the abundance of God’s generosity, if the inclusivity of the king’s invitation points us to the nature of God’s grace as free gift, the man without the wedding garment reminds us that whilst the gift is free, it is not cheap.
God’s invitation to us is beyond our wildest dreams. It is a free gift, freely given. It is not something we have earned, it is not something to which we are in any sense entitled. We must rejoice that it is free, but we must never regard it as cheap. To accept the invitation means change, it means being open to being changed, it means repentance, it means transformation of life, and yes it means good works, not because we need to work our way into God’s good books, but because generosity to others is the fitting response to God’s generosity to us. This is the wedding garment.
And having understood the significance of the man without the wedding garment, who treats the priceless free gift as something cheap, we can now look back at the king’s wildly inclusive invitation, and consider the response that it requires in us. Because in our life as a church we offer a foretaste of the Messianic banquet which the Lord has prepared “for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”. In our life as a church we offer an invitation to all, we bring in from the streets a mixed crowd of good and bad and prepare a table before them.
But do we really?
And so this parable is both comforting and challenging, it is both encouraging and also frankly alarming. We rejoice that we are invited, we rejoice in the free gift, we rejoice that we do not have to pass an exam to partake in the heavenly banquet. But we are also challenged to ask ourselves whether we accept the free gift in the right spirit, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we hold the priceless invitation cheap, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we are as generous in our invitations to others as our heavenly Father is in His invitation to us.