Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:1-14 – NRSV)
Luke has a similar parable. Though in Luke it is not a wedding feast but simply “a great supper”. There are also other variations in Luke.
This parable of the wedding feast is the third of three parables that Matthew has placed in the middle of a series of controversial moments between Jesus and the religious authorities. “Sons” feature in all three of these parables.
The theme of repentance for the sake of the kingdom is a central theme for Matthew. Those who persistently defy the call to repentance – metanoia or change of mind and heart – are the religious authorities. We this in mind, “we should understand kingdom as meaning ‘rule’ rather than ‘realm’; that is to say, the expression is dynamic: it points us to God as doing something, as actively ruling, rather than to an area or a group of people over whom he is sovereign. The kingdom is something that happens rather than something that exists” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew , Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 53).
Daniel J Harrington writes: “The distinctive motif of Matt 22:1–14 is invitation. …. For Matthew the parable of the wedding feast helped to explain the mixed reception of the gospel within Israel (as in chapter 13). God through his servants, through Jesus, and through Jesus’ disciples issued the invitation. Those to whom it was most appropriate—the Jewish leaders—not only refused it but some even did violence to the messengers. Therefore the invitation was offered to people out on the highways, and they accepted. This group may have represented the marginal people within Israel (‘tax collectors and sinners’) who accepted Jesus’ message. Or it may even explain the presence of Gentiles within the Jewish Christian community (see Rom 11:12, ‘their failure means riches for the Gentiles’). Whatever the symbolic significance of the wedding garment was, the parable ends with the warning that admission into God’s banquet is no guarantee of staying there” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 307-308).
a king: The kingdom is compared to “a king who ….”. The king takes the initiative and issues an invitation. To be invited to this wedding banquet of the son is a very significant thing. How is the king’s invitation regarded? With contempt!
Again he sent other slaves: Maybe there is a mistake? Perhaps they lost the invitation? Possibly the servants did not find the right folk? The king cannot believe what is happening. He is deeply affronted, as you would expect.
seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them: This is perhaps of a piece with Jesus’ lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matthew 23:37).
He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city: This may represent a later addition in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.
invite everyone you find: Anyone and everyone is invited. You do not get to this banquet because you have done something special, you get there simply because you are invited.
he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe: This represents a particularly troubling aspect of the parable. Daniel Harrington writes: “The absence of the wedding garment carries some symbolic significance; what it is, however, is difficult to know. A prior problem is how someone unexpectedly invited to the banquet was to be wearing clothes suitable for the wedding banquet” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 306). Some scholars argue that the original parable ended with “the wedding hall filled with guests”, omitting the drama with the man who has no garment. Leon Morris writes to the contrary: “The fact is that, as we read this Gospel, this section certainly belongs to the parable of the wedding feast. The story Matthew relates has a further point to make. Patte notes that tensions like that between verses 10 and 11 occur elsewhere in this Gospel, and ‘such tensions signal that at such places in the text Matthew conveys major points (convictions) that are surprising for the readers because they involve a view unknown to them—a view that Matthew strives to convey to them. In brief, the concluding verses, 22:11–14, should be considered an integral part of Matthew’s parable; they express its main point’ (p. 301). Jesus says that the king came in to see the guests. We know little about customs at wedding banquets in first-century Judaism, but this seems eminently reasonable, all the more so since the king would not have known whom his slaves had brought in. So he came in to make his presence known and to see for himself who had come to the feast. He found a man not wearing a wedding garment. The precise meaning of this is not known, but obviously a marriage is a time when most people would wear appropriate clothing (cf. Isa. 61:10; Ezek. 16:10). In this case, when a king took all sorts of poor people right from the streets into the banqueting hall, it is not impossible that he made available suitable clothing and that this man did not bother to make use of what the king provided (though evidence that this sort of thing was done in ancient times is lacking; Lenski, however, draws attention to Gen. 45:22; Judg. 14:12, 19; 2 Kings 5:22; 10:22; Esth. 6:8; 8:15; Rev. 19:8, 9; p. 857). Whether that was the way it was or not, the words imply that suitable clothing was available and this man had not made use of the opportunity.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 551-552.)
Today’s Gospel – the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14 – must be read in the context of the verses that immediately precede it. In Matthew 21:23 we are told that Jesus entered the temple – the temple from which he had expelled the buyers and sellers. The chief priests and the elders of the people question his authority. Jesus responds with the parable of the two sons (21:28-32) then the parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-40). At the end of that parable, he asks the chief priests and the elders, “what should be done with the wicked tenants?” They reply that the landowner “will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (21:41).
The religious authorities unwittingly have allowed themselves to admit to Jesus’ teaching: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (21:45). They want revenge: “They wanted to arrest him …” (21:46).
Against this backdrop, Jesus tells today’s parable of the wedding feast. But what are we to make of the jarring conclusion, that the man without the wedding garment is to be tied hand and foot and thrown into the darkness!
Matthew’s Gospel is written for a Jewish audience – perhaps in Antioch (Syria) – just after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70CE). Matthew draws heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures and is at pains to show that Jesus represents the culmination of God’s self-revelation on Horeb (Sinai), where there is in fact a double revelation: “I shall be with you” (Exodus 3:12) and “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). It is a declaration of mystery presence that may in fact be experienced by us as absence.
Given our deep and seemingly insatiable desire for control, this is enormously challenging. We want answers, definitions, rules, signposts, clear directions. All of which is entirely appropriate when we are children. But as we mature, we are called to something richer. There is a necessary letting go, a learning the way of unknowing, a willingness to wrestle with God. So, we go to the Sacred Scriptures, not primarily to find answers or understanding or directions. We go there to encounter the “I Am who I Am”. And like Jacob who wrestled with God – see Genesis 32:23-33 – we may leave that encounter unable to walk as we once did.
People being bound hand and foot and thrown into the darkness troubles us deeply. And rightly so. Let that distress be the beginning of a wrestling with God. Let go of the yen to know the answers! Allow yourself to be frustrated. It is not a problem to be solved but a moment of grace to be embraced. Trust the grace. Let yourself be purified by grace. Maybe, like Jacob, you also will later be able to say: “Truly, God is in this place!” (Genesis 28:16).