A few weeks back when I preached on the parable of the unforgiving servant, I pointed out that when Matthew relates a parable that appears in other gospels, there’s often more edge—more reckoning—to it. Well, tonight that’s what Matthew has given us, and he’s given it in spades. This parable of the wedding banquet has some very real parallels with one that Luke relates (Luke 14:15-24), though in Luke it is not a king who gives a wedding feast for his son, but just “someone”. And it is not a wedding feast, but simply a “great dinner”. What’s more, when the people on the guest list decline the invitation it is because they think they have better and more pressing things to do; there’s none of this blunt hostility that we heard in tonight’s story, in which a group of those invited “seized his [messenger] slaves, maltreated them, and killed them.” And in Luke there is nothing about the host becoming enraged and sending in his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. It is almost like Matthew’s is the action film version of the story, with blazing machine guns and exploding cars; about as subtle as a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
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You could conclude that Matthew has taken the gentler version preserved by Luke and just ramped it up to suit his own theological views, but that’s not the only way to approach it. Maybe like any really good teacher, Jesus wasn’t shy of telling a story more than once, and shifting around the details to better fit the context into which he was speaking. In Luke the parable is told relatively early on, and is very much a parable of grace. In Matthew, it is located in the final days before Jesus’ arrest, when the temperature is definitely rising in his ongoing debates with those in places of power in Jerusalem. In other words, here in this gospel we get a rather heated parable, told with those great big action film broad-brush strokes.
It is actually after the dust settles that the parable gets really interesting. With the troops dispatched to wreak havoc on the city of that ungrateful bunch, the king turns to his servants and says, “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.” We’ve got food, drink, and a reason to celebrate, so lets throw the doors open and just bring ‘em all in! And so the parable continues, “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.” They indiscriminately gathered them all, good, bad and presumably somewhere in-between—which is all of us, if we’re honest—and the feast is underway. Now we’ve apparently got a parable of gracious inclusion on our hands, right? The king has set aside Plan A with its prestigious invited guests and moved to Plan B, which Robert Capon notes is actually God’s Plan A all along. And how is that? Because, Capon notes,
Evil is not a problem for the kingdom: it has already been aced out by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The only thing that can possibly be a problem for the kingdom is a faithless non-acceptance of God’s having solved the problem of evil all by himself.
All you need to do is come in and take your seat at the feast; you gotta like that.
But then you realize that as is so typical in Matthew there is still a razor edge to the story, as it continues on in what seems an all but absurd way. “But when the king came in to see the guests—and remember, this is a bunch pulled in off the streets, described as “the good and the bad” so presumably including those homeless folks who beg by the gate and the poor widow who doesn’t have enough to feed her kids much less pay for a decent dress—when the king came in “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?’” Uhhhh… I was just sitting on the bench at the corner when your servants came and corralled me into this party… where was I going to get a wedding robe?
Now some scholars are of the opinion that this is an entirely separate parable that Matthew has just pasted together with the first one, but that would assume that Jesus was shy of using absurdity and incongruity in his teaching. I’m of the opinion that Jesus was quite happy to rattle the cages of his audience, and to leave them having to really wrestle down what is at stake here. Is this one man without the wedding garment so poor that he can’t lay his hands on a decent suit jacket? Or—and this to me is more likely, given how Jesus has treated the poor and the outcast—is this a decently upright person who has seen the misfits all streaming in to the party wearing all manner of mismatched and ragged robes, and who has thought to himself that while he will go and have a drink or two, he’s not about to risk soiling his good wedding clothes with that bunch.
In his comments on this parable, Lance Pape suggests that,
Within the world of the story as told, the problem with this guy is not that he is not taking things seriously enough. No, his problem is a failure to party. The kingdom of heaven is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program. The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.
And if it sounds like a stretch to say that this figure’s issue is that he comes only half-heartedly to the party, hiving off in a quiet spot and sipping his wine in his street clothes, note that no less a theologian than Karl Barth—hardly a party animal himself—says basically as much.
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.
In short, you’re all in or you’re not; trust the invitation to dine with the king—to be in relationship with the king—or don’t bother coming. The fact that the man without the wedding garment remains speechless when the king asks him where his wedding suit is bears that out. Not so much as a hint of a request for mercy or a bit of leniency or the opportunity to run to the store and pick up a decent shirt and tie, any of which would have expressed a desire to be in relationship with the king. Nope. Speechless. At some level, he still seems to think he knows better.
There’s an interesting sort of parallel to the story of the Golden Calf, by the way. In the Exodus story if you asked the average freed Hebrew slave who had led them out of Egypt they probably would have said Moses. Moses was the visible one, the one who had taken them on that unlikely route through the Red Sea, and whose prayers had produced the manna in the wilderness. No matter how often Moses had said, “no, not me. It is the Lord who is doing this,” what they saw was Moses. He’s the one they complained to, pleaded with, petitioned for help. And when he goes up Mount Sinai they go to his brother Aaron and say, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” We need something solid, familiar, and tangible, just like the gods we saw in Egypt. For all that has happened to them in their escape from Egypt, they can’t quite trust a gift given them by a God they can’t see. Like the man at the wedding feast, they hedge their bets and put their faith into something that was—at least in their world-view—easier to trust, serve, and appease.
Like them we can get bogged down with our own golden calves, get religiously devoted to all the wrong things, and convince ourselves that surely we need to do more than just trust faithfully in God’s good grace. Or we think that surely those misfits and losers should have to shape up and clean up before they can keep proper company with me at a duly respectable wedding feast. But no. Come into the feast, and dress like you’re really accepting the invitation. Dress in the mercy that has been shown you, expressing the hospitality you’ve been extended, ready to share in all the festivities with the rest of the last and the least and lost and the little. Just don’t get all speechless… because that sounds like hell.