11th October 2020

STUDENTS are having a hard time of it at present. The current situation affects all aspects of their life, perhaps more than most. It makes their studies difficult: some universities have abandoned face-to-face teaching entirely; it severely curtails their socialising, usually a major part of student life; it restricts their travel, and, in many cases, makes visits home impossible.
One must feel especially sorry for first-year students. For all their brave faces, the reality of living away from home, having to cater for themselves, attend to their own laundry, cope with loneliness, comes as a severe shock to the late teenage system.
When I started at university, we didn’t have Covid-19 to contend with, and we were looked after domestically. Even so, there was much that was strange, much that one had to adjust to. For instance, as an unsophisticated provincial boy plunged into an alien social world, I was puzzled by invitations that specified ‘black tie’. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t think it could mean that a tie was ALL that one was to wear (it wasn’t that sort of party), but nor could I understand why one should go to a party dressed for a funeral (it wasn’t a wake). I never did own my own dinner jacket, and I never learned how to tie the mandatory bow tie. In the unlikely event of an invitation to such an occasion nowadays, I understand, my clerical collar would be an acceptable substitute. But the dress code would more likely specify ‘smart casual’.
There are still special occasions, however, for which we are expected to dress up. I  hope it’s not too sexist to suggest that an invitation to a wedding quickly poses the question to the female mind, ‘What shall I wear?’ (Especially the hat.) But not just women. Men who may not even own a tie, let alone wear one, are happy to appear in a brightly coloured cravat at a wedding.
Today’s gospel tells about a wedding and the right thing to wear. It makes uncomfortable reading. Shown on television, it would surely be preceded by a warning about the amount of violence it contains: the killing of the king’s servants; his retribution in having the murderers killed and their city burned. And the violence continues with the unfortunate guest, who finds himself tied up and thrown out into the dark for being improperly dressed. Which seems terribly unfair, especially as he had not set out to go to a wedding but had found himself dragged in off the street to make up the numbers. He had had no chance to go to Moss Bros – or the equivalent in those days – so how could be blamed for not having the right clothes?
Commentators suggest that the passage may be two separate parables that have been joined together. The first is about the invitation God issues, to share with him in the life that is life indeed, pictured here (as elsewhere in the Bible) as a great party, a banquet. Jesus, above all, issued that invitation to the people of his day, and continues to issue it to us. Many, then as now, ignored the invitation, particularly the chief priests and Pharisees, to whom, we are told, Jesus addressed these parables. They thought they were already at the party, they didn’t need to be invited. They found themselves replaced by others, those who would not have believed that such a privilege was for them. The king’s anger at the refusal of those invited indicates the vital importance of the invitation. ‘The wedding invitation has gone out,’ writes one commentator. ‘The question is not whether you can manage to fit this party into your schedule. This is the invitation that changes your schedule – and your life.’ * To reject it is to reject life. So what is our response?
The second part of the passage, the parable about the man with the wrong clothes, is about how we conduct ourselves at God’s party. It is not enough to accept the invitation, or just to turn up. We have to join in. And the party spirit we need to show is the Holy Spirit.
The proper clothes at God’s party are the virtues of the Christian life. St Paul writes to Christians at Colossae: ‘Put on, then, garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Be tolerant with one another, and forgiving … ‘ (Colossians 3.12,13).
Our presence here says that we have accepted God’s invitation, thankfully and joyfully, but are we properly dressed? Dressing up in ‘Sunday best’ to go to church has now largely gone by the board, but God does still look to see what we are wearing. Not whether it’s a frock or suit, rather than T-shirt, jeans and  trainers (those are fine), but whether, in the way we live, we are wearing those Christ-like spiritual garments Paul speaks of: compassion, humility, gentleness, and the rest. God has supplied them at our Baptism and Confirmation:  ‘Baptized into union with him,’ Paul tells the Galatians, ‘you have put on Christ like a garment’ (Galatians 3.17). He continues to renew them in prayer, Bible reading and sacrament. But it is up to us to put them on each day, and to keep them in good repair.
A double message, then: accept the invitation, but remember the dress code.

* Sally Brown, Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew