I was recently emailed with a question about the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1–14. My correspondent comments,
The parable works on several levels, but one is how the prophecy of Isaiah [25:6–10] is fulfilled now, with Jesus the Bridegroom coming as the Bread of Life, and in the future, at the end of time, when the heavenly wedding feast takes place, as portrayed in Revelation 19:7–10.
Needless to say this correspondent is a Roman Catholic. He continues:
A curious detail in the story in Matthew is that of the wedding guest who had no wedding garment and was kicked out. I would be interested to know what your interpretation of this is.
All right—here goes.
The larger context
Matthew 22:1–14 comes at the end of a number of previous parables and events which explicate the Jews’ rejection of the kingdom of heaven—their rightful inheritance as God’s chosen people:
In Matthew 20:1–16 the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a vineyard who hires laborers at various times throughout the day, but pays them all the same amount at sundown. This demonstrates firstly the generosity of God toward those who formerly were not his people, and secondly the presumption of the Jews in believing their own perseverance and works to be meritorious. In verses 17–19, Jesus foretells his death at their hands, laying a contextual foundation for the parables to come. In verses 20–28 Mother Zebedee asks him that her sons may sit beside him in his kingdom—which culminates in Jesus declaring his purpose in coming to give his life as a ransom for many. All these parables and events serve to highlight the theme that the first will be made last, and the last will be made first—a principle exemplified in Jesus himself. Finally, he heals two blind men, leading into the triumphal entry in Matthew 21:1–11.
The triumphal entry poignantly re-emphasizes the fact that Jesus himself is not excluded from the repeated statement that the first shall be last, but rather is its ultimate exemplar. Entering Jerusalem, he is regarded as the first among a people who are themselves regarded as the first before God. Yet later he was to be handed over by them for execution as the lowest criminal among a people regarded as the lowest criminals before God.
To lay the narrative foundation for this, Matthew turns in chapter 21 to emphasizing particularly the apostasy of the Jews. Verses 12–17 show how the temple has become “a den of robbers;” verses 18–22 recall the cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit, as Israel will be made to wither for the same reason; and verses 23–27 describe the unbelief and malice of Israel’s spiritual leaders toward the authority of God.
This leads into three parables which build upon each other. The first is of the two sons. Jesus uses it to explain to the Scribes and Pharisees that they are less righteous than the worst sinners, because of their rejection of God through John the Baptist. The second is of the murderous tenants, where the rejection of God’s prophets is built upon to emphasize the rejection of his own son—the most recent and despicable of Israel’s acts of apostasy. Therefore, Jesus tells them, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone [that is Jesus] will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (vv 43–44).
The parable of the wedding feast
This all leads into our passage in Matthew 22:1–14. Jesus expands on what he has said about the kingdom being taken away from the Jews and given to a people producing fruits. Israel’s apostasy is again described, but now the emphasis shifts from what was required of them, and toward what God will give to others:
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.”
The motif of a feast is a common and natural metaphor in Scripture for God’s provision, for his delight in his people—and for their reciprocal delight in him. Isaiah 25:6 is a good example. Here in Matthew, Jesus also alludes to the metaphor of Israel as God’s bride. Most importantly, he names the wedding as being for the king’s son—thus explicitly identifying himself as God, who is king over Israel.
This marriage feast metaphor appears again in Revelation 19:6–10 to describe the glorified church rejoicing in its savior. Here in Matthew 22, however, the context is not glory in the eschaton, but rather the kingdom of heaven firstly as a past and future temporal reality (verses 3–6 and 7–10 respectively); extending secondly into the eschaton (verses 11–14).
Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, ‘See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.'” 5But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.
Preparing a feast in biblical times was not as exact a science as it is today. There were no industrialized meat or vegetable farms, no combine harvesters or abattoirs, no packing plants or storage facilities, no trucks or trains, no supermarkets or cornershops, no cars or vans, and no fridges or freezers. Subsequently, when a patron wished to organize a feast or a banquet, he would send out an invitation well in advance, informing invitees of the intended time. Then, when the food was actually prepared and the banquet finally set, a second invitation was sent so that the waiting guests could come immediately (cf Luke 14:17). Jesus uses this custom to allude to the repetition with which God has called the Jews through the prophets. Yet despite these repeated invitations, they chose the world over the kingdom of heaven, while some even persecuted and murdered the messengers God sent. Thus they not merely ignored God’s invitation; they actively despised it. As he says in another place, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Even more than today, one could not reasonably refuse an invitation like this. Attendance at a feast was a serious social obligation—especially for the invited dependents of a patron, and most especially for the invited subjects of a king. It was highly incumbent upon such guests that they come punctually when summoned. Refusal constituted a deliberate insult to the dignity and grace of the host. A unanimous refusal implies a conspiratorial effort on the part of the guests to greatly shame and insult their king. In return, he would be socially obliged to save face by avenging his honor and executing justice. The graciousness of the invitation also had to be upheld by extending it to prior non-invitees. Here, the extreme, concerted actions of the guests in refusing in toto to attend, and in further murdering the king’s messengers, would have constituted treason. Capital punishment would have been the only appropriate response.
The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
An appropriate response to treasonous guests. This certainly alludes to historical occasions on which God punished Israel’s disobedience with military conquest. Isaiah again comes to mind, where in 10:5–6 the armies of Assyria are prophesied to bring God’s wrath upon Israel:
Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
However, while these historical judgments are certainly in view, they in turn merely foreshadow the final judgment wherein God rejects the Jews utterly forever, and gives their inheritance to others. This is particularly the focus of the parable; Jesus does not merely recall what God has done, but also prophesies what God will do. Rome was shortly to destroy the temple and put the Jews to the sword, scattering them abroad and preventing them gathering in the presence of God, as his people, ever again. There is a comparison here to Luke 14:16–24, which also emphasizes that “none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (verse 24).
Then he said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” 10And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Here the parable turns from what was commanded by God to what will be given by God. Jesus expands on his previous comment in Matthew 21:43: that, having taken his kingdom from the Jews, he will give it to a people producing fruits. This alludes to the spread of God’s kingdom throughout the world as prophesied in Genesis 18:18, wherein “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’ ” (Galatians 3:8). This coming grafting of the Gentiles into God’s people is progressively revealed in Psalm 22:27, Micah 4:1–4, Isaiah 49:6, Hosea 2:23, and many other places—and fulfilled in Luke 24:47, John 4:22, Acts 17:30, and Matthew 28:19, where Jesus says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The servants of God—that is, in the church age, ourselves—go out into the world and gather as many as we find: “both bad and good” (verse 10). So we indiscriminately preach the gospel, and draw into our number all those who profess faith—both sincerely and not. We know that in the church there are many who are outwardly Christians, but who have not inwardly clothed themselves with the righteousness of Jesus. But we are commanded to invite all without exception, even if some who come are insincere.
But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
When our King arrives, on that final day, “the angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous” (Matthew 13:49). So God will take these wolves in sheep’s clothing and demand an account from them. But “every mouth will be stopped” (Romans 3:19), and he will cast them out, for
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23)
Normally, guests at a wedding were expected to attend in fresh and clean clothes in honor of the occasion. Wearing your dirty work-clothes would insult the host by demeaning the value of the event. Thus, the wedding garments in the parable at least refer to unsoiled, clean clothes. Given that the guests were gathered from the highways, we can infer they had no such clothes available. Wedding garments must therefore have been provided for them when they entered. Obviously this is an allusion to justification: our own garments are as polluted menstrual cloths (Isaiah 64:6)—wearing them to the wedding feast, the kingdom of heaven, is to bring upon ourselves the wrath of our host the King. Without clean garments he will throw us out into the darkness. However, because we have no such garments, he has graciously provided them for us; as in Isaiah 61:10—
I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
Or Ephesians 2:4–9—
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Professing Christians who presume upon God’s grace while remaining inwardly unconverted, though they may appear very pious, will be thrown into hell along with all those who rejected God openly. “For we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16); so even the holiest of people, performing all outward observances and good deeds and acts of contrition, will never be saved by them, but only by faith—”for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Only those who have, by faith, put on the foreign righteousness of Jesus are actually justified (Romans 5:1); so only they will remain in the kingdom of heaven after the final judgment. Of the others, God will ask, “How did you get here?” A man without a wedding garment must not have come in through the front door; and “he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way—that man is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).
For many are called, but few are chosen.
Finally, Jesus adds a brief summation—an explanation of God’s purposes in redemption. Many are called by the gospel, but few are chosen to receive it. So the gospel is extended to all, even though all are not elect. Yet as many as are appointed to eternal life will believe (cf Acts 13:48), for “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4; cf 2 Thessalonians 13–14). In this way, the parable is drawn to a close with a summary affirmation of all that it teaches: that God, the sovereign king of salvation, freely chooses who to give it to, and who to withhold it from.