Howard Jacobson writes about fashion for a British newspaper. This is from a recent column of his:

At the opera the other day, I was suddenly struck by my conspicuousness: I was the only man there wearing a suit and tie. Or at least the only man in my row wearing a suit and tie. I checked out the other men during the [intermission] and, yep, only me.

Just so there’s no confusion, this was an evening performance (not a rehearsal) at a major opera house (not the back of a pub) of a major opera – Mozart, for God’s sake! – in early autumn. So, no special pleading on the grounds of heat. … What excuse did they have for not wearing suits?

I accept that I happen to like wearing suits … but this is about more than what a man happens to like himself in. This is about the efforts one should make to commemorate the specialness of an occasion, to ensure that every hour of the day is not like every other. Dressing up, we call it. Up. The preposition tells you all you need to know. We dress up not to succumb to down.

The curse that’s fallen on men’s tailoring is leisurewear. I won’t lie: I didn’t see a single man wearing a tracksuit, exactly, but I did see several wearing [sneakers]. So here’s a question: why, where the men were companioned by women, hadn’t the women forbidden them to leave home until they’d changed into something more celebratory both of the occasion and of them? For the women hadn’t come to the opera looking as though they’d just rolled in from losing again at the [soccer match]. No, they strutted in their feather shrugs, glimmered in their silky maxi dresses, towered on their killer heels. They were perfumed. They were bejewelled. They quivered in every sequin to the music. The only bum fashion note they struck was the man on their arm.[1]

Jacobson suggested they take a lesson from Lysistrata and withhold certain pleasures from the man on their arm. He didn’t suggest that the ushers bind the t-shirt-wearing offenders hand and foot and throw them into the outer darkness where there’s no Mozart, only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches,

Do not worry about your body, what you will wear. Is not the body more than clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?[2]

Jesus teaches us of little faith not to worry but to trust God who knows us and loves us to provide for us. I don’t know how to square that with the question from chapter 22, where the king turns to one of the guests at the wedding banquet and says, “Friend” — and it doesn’t sound friendly at all — “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” What happened to “consider the lilies”? Are the guests supposed to come to the king’s banquet dressed like Solomon in all his glory after all? “Do not worry about your body, what you will wear…” — I don’t know, I’m a little bit worried, I’m as speechless as the underdressed fellow at the wedding. In the parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a wedding hall full of people, and then the king comes in and notices one guest who is not wearing the proper attire – how can you hear that and not worry, “That poor fellow, why wouldn’t that be me?” And could somebody please tell me what I’m supposed to wear to the wedding banquet of the king’s son?

I love the part of the story where the servants go out on the streets, all the way to the ends of the realm, and they invite everyone to come, good and bad, and I love the king’s generosity in inviting people like us, people who had never dreamed of being included in this kind of a party — but whereas before we never had to worry about how to get in, now we fret and agonize over what to wear so as not to get thrown out! Instead of trusting God who will clothe those of little faith, we worry about the dress code for the great kingdom banquet. What could it be? The hairshirt of penance? The mantle of prophecy? The robe of righteousness? The sweaty T-shirt from last year’s mission trip? The servant’s towel, still wet from washing feet, wrapped around the waist? You are looking at a closet full of options, but you don’t know what to wear.

Perhaps you heard the story about 9-year-old Cady Mansell from St. John, Indiana. Like Howard Jacobson, she likes suits, and she proudly wears her them, complete with suspenders and a bow tie, for school pictures, daddy-daughter dances, and to mass every Sunday. But when it was time for her first Holy Communion, the priest told her parents that Cady could not participate if she wore a suit. Cady’s mom felt the newly issued dress code requiring all girls to wear long sleeve white dresses was created to single her daughter out. “He said we’re raising our daughter wrong for not making her dress in a feminine way,” Mansell said. “Cady just wants to wear pants while worshipping the Lord and receiving the Eucharist with her classmates.” But when the first communion ceremony began, Cady was not allowed to participate.[3] She was excluded for not wearing the right kind of outfit — but at least she knew exactly what the dress code was, wrong as it was.

Some readers of Matthew have suggested that the wedding robe is a metaphor for acts of justice and compassion in which the faith of those who have been called to enter the kingdom becomes visible and tangible. They point to passages like Matthew 7:21 where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But that doesn’t change the fact that in the story we heard today worries threaten to overshadow the joy of having been invited to the great banquet.

We’re just three weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Luther famously was worried sick about how there could ever be enough cloth to cover himself, let alone dress up, if the material of the wedding robe were his own deeds of righteousness. In his worries, the shadows of the outer darkness eclipsed the light of joyful expectation. The happy shout from Psalm 30, “You have clothed me with joy!” — no longer remembered. Forgotten the joyful assurance in the words of the prophet, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for [you have] clothed me with the garments of salvation, [you have] covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

Perhaps you noticed that one key character in the story remains entirely invisible and silent. The story is about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, but the son never makes an appearance. Matthew tells us the good news of Jesus Christ as the story of Immanuel, God is with us, but in the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus Immanuel is nowhere to be seen.[5] Where is Jesus in this frightful story? If the Jesus we know from the gospel of Matthew showed up at this wedding banquet, where would you look for him? You know he’s not at the bar with his friends, blissfully unaware of what is going on or just not interested – that’s not the Jesus we know. You know he’s not sitting at the head table, smiling, chatting with the in-laws, and waiting for the guests to take their seats and the banquet to begin. There is only one place in this story where the Jesus we know would be found: by the side of the poor bloke who was seriously underdressed and didn’t know what to say. We would find Jesus right next to him, so close that you could barely tell the two apart. And Jesus would take off his own robe and place it on the shoulders of the speechless guest. The Jesus we know is the one who was himself stripped and thrown into the outer darkness while the soldiers cast lots for his clothes at the foot of the cross.[6]

The truth is, we all stand naked before the living God. But just as God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them before they had to leave the garden, so God has provided a robe for us to wear as we enter the kingdom. We are not called to the closet to choose the outfit that is just right for the occasion. We are chosen to wear the precious robe Christ has woven for us with his life, with grace and truth, forgiveness, freedom, and the challenge of ever wider, fearless love. We are called and chosen to come to the feast dressed in Christ, head to toe. Paul says it quite concisely in his letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”[7] And in the letter to the Colossians the fabric is described with great love for detail,

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meakness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other (…) Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.[8]

We come to the great banquet, dressed in the love of Christ.

Nothing less will do, nothing more is needed.


[1] Howard Jacobson https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/14/howard-jacobson-suits-leisurewear-curse-opera-dressing-up

[2] See Matthew 6:25-29

[3] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/indiana-church-denies-first-communion-little-girl-who-wore-suit-n810496

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] See Matthew 1:23

[6] Matthew 27:27-37

[7] Galatians 3:27

[8] Colossians 3:12-14

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