In the parable we’ve just heard, we may be wondering – as Christians have wondered for centuries – “What is the wedding robe?” We want to know, because whatever the wedding robe is, we want to be wearing it lest we be thrown into the outer darkness and weep and gnash our teeth. Shortly, I will “answer” that question – “answer” in quotes because who really knows what is the wedding robe? But first I want to move beyond the “answer” to the question and get to what is going on inside of us when we ask the question.
I suspect that our question, “What is the wedding robe?” is at root a fear-based question; we ask about the wedding robe because we are afraid of being judged and falling short. But I wonder if it’s possible to shift our questioning away from a place of fear because when we think of this parable from a place of fear – when we think of anything from a place of fear – we’re never at our best. Fear tends to freeze us, to make us defensive, to narrow down our vision and sense of possibility. If we wonder about the wedding garment from a place of fear, chances are good that we will – like the citizens of the city in the parable – miss hearing an invitation.
We may know that a good way to counter a nebulous fear, like the fear of final judgment – who knows when it will be, or how God will judge? – is to go instead to a place of curiosity. If we can get curious about something, curiosity does the opposite of fear: curiosity opens us up, engages us with others, and increases our sense of possibility. And we may know that a good way to get curious is to ask questions, e.g.,“I wonder, what is the wedding robe?” or, “But he only just came off the street. How could we reasonably expect him to have a wedding robe?” But I suggest that if we are afraid of being judged by Jesus, that we not only get curious and ask questions, but that we ask questions directly of the Lord. For when we become curious with and engage the Lord, we cannot help but develop a relationship with him, and that concrete relationship can begin to dispel the amorphous fear of being judged by him. So, for example, we might not only say, “Gosh, I wonder what the wedding robe is?” but also, “Lord, I’m curious about the wedding robe. Can you please tell me about the wedding robe?” Or we might not only say, “He had just come in off the street; how could he be expected to have a wedding robe?” but also, “Lord, why would you throw somebody into the outer darkness just because he didn’t have a wedding robe?” For if we can ask questions, and not only ask questions but ask them of God, then we have a chance of opening the door to a place of freedom, where we can more fully enter into relationship with God.
So often when we relate to God – perhaps especially when we relate to God in fear of final judgment – we tend to relate to God as would a servant to an authority figure or as a child to a parent. But the kind of relationship we can develop with God as we question and engage him is more of a relationship of one adult to another. Which is just the kind of relationship God desires with us.
Maybe you’re familiar with the psychologist Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play. The cover of the original edition introduces Berne’s theory of “transactional analysis.” You may remember (or not – the book came out in the 60’s!) the two columns of three circles. The top two circles Berne labels “parent,” the middle circles he labels “adult,” and the bottom circles “child,” and he draws lines between the two columns. Berne theorizes that in relating to others we adults tend to relate either as we or they are a parent or adult or child. If we relate to other adults as we believe them to be a parent and we act as children, our relationship with them is going to have some challenges. Or if we relate to other adults as we see them as children and we act as parents, our relationship is likewise going to be difficult. The healthiest way for adults to relate to other adults is to relate to them as an adult to another adult.
This is exactly the kind of relationship that God desires with us: an adult – adult relationship. Remember that Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends“ (John 15:15)? Jesus does not desire to relate to us as parent – child: “I do not call you servants any longer,” he said. Jesus desires a mutual, adult – adult relationship: “But I have called you friends.” And note why Jesus says we can have an adult – adult relationship with us: “Because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father” — because Jesus has communicated to us as adults. “I have been transparent, I have disclosed all that I know. I have not been paternalistic and kept things from you. But I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”
One of the reasons for the title of the book, Games People Play, is that an adult – adult relationship leaves room for playfulness, or – to use a Biblical word that is similar – for joy. Indeed, in the same place in John’s gospel that Jesus says, “I have called you friends,” he also says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus would prefer not to “play games” with us in a parent – child sort of relationship, but would rather be play-full with us in a relationship of joy.
So when we hear passages in scripture about judgment and find ourselves going to a place of fear, if we would like to encounter God differently and with freedom, the way to a healthier and more satisfying relationship with God is to get curious and engage God. The more we are able to be curious and to talk to God, the more we are free to enter into an adult – adult relationship with God. Which is the most satisfying way – both for God and for us – of relating.
Oh, and what was the “answer” to the question, “What is the wedding robe?” Going back to the early Church, commentators generally say that the “robe” is “charity,” or good works. But not just any charity or good works for – as Augustine notes – even the wicked can seem to show love and do good works. The “wedding robe,” Augustine says, is charity that comes from “a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim 1:5).
A pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith are hard to come by if we relate to Jesus as he is the master or the parent. The “wedding garment” of charity that arises from a pure heart, and a good conscience and a sincere faith is most readily had in the freedom, the playfulness, the mutuality, the joy that comes from relating to Jesus as an adult.
What kind of relationship would you say you have with Jesus? What kind of relationship would you like with Jesus? Why not engage him and ask him about it, and see what happens?