Frankly, there are people today who don’t like Jesus’ parable. They reject the universalism caught up in the word ‘everyone’. That the kings slaves filled the wedding hall with all whom they found, both good and bad just seems like a bad practice. Both good and bad gathered in the King’s banquet hall – no separation, no good people with table service on the inside and the bad people served outside through walk up windows.
It’s interesting to me how many of what we call Jesus’ parables are actually sermon illustrations based in texts from the prophets, principally Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of a grand banquet in chapter 25:.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.
This is a powerful statement of hope, no finer provisions offered anywhere – but what is provided is more than just good things to eat. God destroys the shroud – the pall – the death wrap that is cast over all peoples and offers life. God wipes away tears, a line that John in writing Revelation couldn’t resist repeating. And the people’s disgrace will be removed.
In Matthew 22 and Luke 14 we find Jesus drawing on this passage in his message to those who had gathered around him. It’s evident the those gathered around Jesus were familiar with the Isaiah imagery. Luke’s version may be a bit more familiar to us than Matthew’s. It starts with a person saying “Happy is the man who shall sit at the feast in the Kingdom.” It was a naturally starting place for what follows. Were you among the common people Jesus included you in the invitation. However, if you imagined yourself among the elite, well, they were the first to be invited to celebrate the royal nuptials Jesus mentions in his parable and, as Jesus tells the story, they chose not to participate.
Let’s take apart Matthew’s version. 22:2-14
Jesus establishes a context: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. In Jesus’ day a royal wedding banquet was beyond anything we could experience today. Recently, the whole world watched as William and Kate were married on T.V. Despite the extravagance, the opulence exhibited, it was nothing in comparison to what a royal wedding used to be. Initial invitations went out months in advance. Back then such affairs could last for weeks. Were you the king and you wanted to emphasize to your potential allies and adversaries your wealth and position and you threw such a party you wouldn’t want your guests to travel on rough foot paths, you would want them to experience good roads to travel in your kingdom. Historians say that is how the system of roads were created, especially during the Roman Republic. From the moment the guests arrived their every need was cared for. Servants catered to them. Along with food, entertainment and shelter they were provide with royal garments to wear. Just before the great event a second call would to out and dignitaries and other royal families, and officials would come from great distances.
In verse three Jesus tells of this second call to come to the banquet: 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,… This is where Jesus takes off on his own. Instead of the invited guests coming to the long anticipated banquet he said: but they would not come. This was an affront, it was scandalous. Such an insult would have great consequences and possibly start a war. So, hopefully, there was some mistake – maybe something happened and the slaves didn’t deliver the message. So Jesus says: 4Again 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.’5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. See what I mean.
There was no refrigeration. The feast that had been months in planning and finally prepared would go to waste. So 8Then he (the king) said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Luke tells a very similar story, up to this point. And what a great story it is. It was clearly aimed at the religious leaders, the priests and elders. The point: what God offered to his chosen people has been rejected by them. And, in response the doors of the banquet hall with unimagined delicacies were flung open and everyone is invited in. Can you imagine what this would be like to you? Think how people who never were able to afford anything beyond a vegetarian meal would react. Frankly, there are people today who don’t like Jesus’ parable. They reject the universalism caught up in the word ‘everyone’. That the kings slaves filled the wedding hall with all whom they found, both good and bad just seems like a bad practice. Both good and bad gathered in the King’s banquet hall – no separation, no good people with table service on the inside and the bad people served outside through walk up windows. Luke seems pleased with such a model for the kingdom. Not so Matthew. Matthew includes a few extra verses.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.13Then 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.’14For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Amid all that rabble the host spots one person inappropriately dressed. Reading this passage stops every Quaker cold: “Friend, the king asks, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” I find it fascinating that Jesus describes the man as speechless – “What? Me? I didn’t ask to come here, I was herded in here by your servants.” Evidently that didn’t cut it with the King and the fellow was tossed out on his ear. That causes us some consternation doesn’t it? ‘Well, So much for the universality of the Kingdom! Another point for the pre-destinarians. Of course it could be that Matthew is trying to make another point. Is it that Matthew’s version tells us that Jesus maintains the freedom for a common person to opt out of full participation in the banquet? Is it the way, years after the fact, Matthew provides a rationale for Judas’ defection from the community? We really need to remember that at events of this kind in Jesus’ day to each person who entered the banquet hall, along with the food and entertainment, the host also provided garments. For someone to partake of the king’s fare and not wear the king’s robe was a personal affront. By refusing to wear the garment provided by the king one person said that it was beneath his dignity. What I’m suggesting is that as a piece of self examination we might want to look at ourselves and ask how comfortable are we in donning the apparel of the kingdom. Is identifying with the values of the kingdom commensurate with the values by which we choose to live our lives?
There is a yet another class of people essential to this story. They look much like us. They are the slaves of the king. They were involved in the planning, preparation and were charged by the King with welcoming all to the feast. We can get caught up in trying to identify those who rejected the initial invitation or maybe think that we are those who were gathered in at the last minute to fill the hall and enjoy the fare. We might even see our self or another as one who comes to feast for the goodies but fails to become one with the celebration. But, those of us gathered here in Meeting for Worship are, in fact, the slaves of the King. Don’t you think that the disciples saw themselves in the role of the king’s servants. We are honored to be called to do the thankless job of preparing the feast and the work of inviting everybody. It is probably important to remind ourselves that one job we do not have is identifying the one for whom kingdom wear is beneath them. That’s evidently a task the King delegates to the king’s own self. Our job is to treat everybody the same and say ‘ya’ll come now, ya’ hear’.