The parable of the wedding feast is the last of three parables against Israel’s leaders set by Matthew in the context of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. This parable is strikingly similar to the parable preceding it, the story of the wicked tenants. The king parallels the vineyard owner, the guests refusing the invitation parallel the wicked tenants, and so on.
In both, waves of servants are sent; in both, servants are mistreated and killed; in both, severe punishment is meted out; and in both, something is expected of the newly invited guests. Both stories conform to historical events: Israel’s mistreatment of the prophets, Israel’s rejection of early Christian missionaries, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the movement of the church toward inclusion of Gentiles.
We are mystified by the behavior of the characters in this bizarre story. The setting of the parable is a marriage banquet given by a king for his son. Now a wedding feast could last for several days, so the king sent his servants to remind the guests to come. When they didn’t arrive, the king sent more servants to announce that all the preparations were complete. But the guests still refused to come and even made light of the invitation. The invited guests are apparently unimpressed, and return to business as usual.
Then the story goes off the rails. We watch in horror as the servants sent by the king to announce the party are seized, abused and murdered. And the violence is just getting started. In retaliation, the king goes to war against his own people. Enraged by their actions, he unleashes his army. Before we know it, the murderers themselves are murdered, and the city is left a pile of smoldering ash.
The weirdness of this story continues. We learn the party is still a “go.” Since the original guests are no more, the king commands his slaves to go out into the streets and invite everyone they meet to the party. So the slaves “gathered all…both the good and the bad; and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
We need to consider several things as we attempt to unpack this parable. First, in this parable, as with the parable of last week, we have a glimpse of an intense family feud. Matthew and his community of early Christians are caught up in a struggle with their Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah, and in particular, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the messiah the Hebrew prophets had promised.
At this point in history, this is not a Jewish-Christian debate but represents an intramural dispute, each part of the community trying to justify itself. Matthew and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews who had responded to God’s call to the kingdom banquet in honor of God’s messiah, Jesus. But others had rejected the great invitation, ignoring or persecuting the prophets of old and the new missionaries of the Good News.
The introduction of armies and the burning of the city seem completely out of place taken in connection with invitations to a wedding feast. But Matthew was writing his gospel sometime between 80 and 90 CE. What happened in the period between the actual life of Jesus and then? Jerusalem was destroyed by the armies of Rome in 70 CE. The temple was sacked and burned, and the city destroyed stone from stone. Complete disaster had come to those who refused to recognize the messiah when he came.
Matthew’s version of this story is dark, more violent than most and pushes our tolerance for absurdity to the edge. Why? Because at this point in the family conflict, he is willing to say that God not only rejects those cousins of his that rejected Jesus, but actually sent the Romans to destroy the temple as punishment.
This parable has been misused for centuries, and still by some Christians today, to drive a wedge between Jews and Christians, and even to justify mistreatment of Jews. But before we decide that this passage is just Matthew working out rhetorical violence against his opponents, and assuring his community that they are on the right side of salvation history, we need to read on to the end of the story. It’s a doozy.
With the party in full swing, the king enters the banquet hall and moves among the guests. To his dismay, he finds that one of them isn’t dressed properly. In the east it was a custom for the lord to send a special robe with an invitation. To arrive without this special robe was incredibly careless or ignorant. “Friend,” he says, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And not receiving a satisfactory answer, he has the guy bound and thrown out, not just outside the hall, but into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (hell). Again, we find this scene incredulous, but remember, this is allegory, not realism.
Matthew warns his community against self-satisfaction and complacency. The doors of the kingdom are thrown open, and the invitation extends to all, but there are expectations and standards of behavior. There’s a distinction between accepting all persons and condoning all behavior.
Grace is not only a gift but a responsibility. A wedding garment (kingdom talk for new life and righteous conduct) is expected. Yes, the door is open, but the door is not open for the sinner to come and remain a sinner but to be transformed. Those who wallow in grace may be startled by the king’s question, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?”
As theologian Karl Barth put it, “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore, festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”
The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party clothes and get with it. The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get on the dance floor.
Resources: Lance Pape, 2014; Fred Craddock, et al, 1985; William Barclay, 1975; Herbert O’Driscoll, 1987; David Lose, 2011,2020; Synthesis, 2017.