Proper 23 • Matthew 22:1–14 • October 9, 2011
By Timothy Dost
The Parable of the Great Banquet
This text can be challenging because it not only presents the issues of the place of God’s work and our own works in the lives of believers, and the right and wrong ways of attempting to enter the kingdom, but also because the text has been frequently misused to blame certain groups (Jewish religious leaders) while missing the more general application to all who ignore the Christ. Jesus introduces this parable as one about the kingdom of heaven, probably meaning the judgment and afterlife, but also referring to the way people act in this life. One would do well to mention the possible separation within the parable of parts having to do with what happens in this life (the ability to not respond to the message and the messengers of God who are ignored), from the section on the banquet where people are already in the kingdom—largely about the time following the judgment.
The antagonist in the first part of the parable is often taken for granted and frequently presented as either the Jews or the Pharisees, and the chief priests representing those invited and those rejected. This is a limited interpretation of the immediate issue, and not at the depth Jesus is really proposing. While it is certain that the Pharisees and chief priests are the most recently mentioned people (Mt 21:45) who also perceived that he was referring to them, it is their rejection of the teaching of the Christ that is at the core of the issue here, not their specific status among the people of Israel. It is the fact that they thought of themselves as the elect, as the righteous and holy, as too good to be damned, and yet had little love for those “worse” than them, nor any ability to listen to Christ that provides motive for our current parable. It is also the fact that they were too right to listen to the Christ that placed them in the line of their fathers and ancestors, as Jesus would also later indict them for building the tombs of the prophets and so consenting to their murders (Mt 23:29–36). So the law in this first part refers to those who know better (whoever they are), but refuse the emissaries of God, be they prophets (the ones ignored) or the Christ, who in this case places himself among the prophets.
It is equally noteworthy that the excuses given by the subjects actually carry some weight according to the law of Moses, as they were similar to the four reasons that allowed a soldier not to go to war (recently married, yoke of oxen, new vineyard, afraid to fight, [Dt 20:1–9]). Here field is substituted for vineyard and yoke of oxen for business, but it was about the same thing (see also Luke 14:16–24 for a clearer parallel). These excuses do not, however, carry any weight when it comes to ignoring the Christ, and the result for all who ignore him is the same: “The king destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” So the law of the judgment of the kingdom is one that cannot be ignored, any more than death can be ignored, for the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23).
Moving on to the second part of the text, the invitation of the king is extended to anyone his inviters could find, the not “special people” if you will. The text is clear that this invitation had nothing to do with the goodness of the recipients of the invitation for they were “both bad and good.” This is also highlighted in the reason for the change of invitation—for “those invited were not worthy.” The worthiness, therefore, is not in the hands of the recipients, but is due to the invitation itself. It is the king that makes one worthy by his invitation whether one is “good or bad.” All are invited to the feast, but not all have faith. To put it in Jesus’s own words, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Now we come to the most difficult part of the parable because it is easy to miss the point. Jesus is clear that this man has no wedding garment, and many commentators have tried to make something out of this text by suggesting that the king himself provided the wedding clothes. There is no specific indication of this from the text, although it remains a cultural possibility. In fact, the text says that the question asked of the man is, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” implying that the man should have been stopped at the gate. One possible explanation for this part of the text then is that it has to do with whether the person has not only put on Christ in terms of words, but also in terms of works. The man who is underdressed knew the password (the proper words). He came in with the invited crowd, but he either willfully ignored the dress code (representing following the Christ in deed and in truth) or was simply ignorant of it. Another possibility, which the question itself implies, is that he did not come in by the gate at all, and so he was not inspected. This would imply that he was like the one who did not enter through the gate but climbed over the wall. If you will, he crashed the party (see also John 10). In either case, that he was “cast into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” speaks to us about the severity of the matter. This is not simply a matter of proper dress but of having the wrong kind of righteousness before God. It is about being actually unclean, entering the kingdom in one’s own garments or by one’s own route, rather than in the garments of and by way of Christ. Perhaps this text provides a clue to the meaning of another difficult text where Jesus talks about men taking the kingdom of God by force (Mt 11:12).
This appears terribly confusing, and I know someone out there will be thinking about the Majoristic Controversy in the Formula of Concord, and its teaching that good works are not necessary for salvation. We must be careful what we mean by “necessary,” and Jesus (whose words and person define such matters anyway, as he is the very word) answers that question here. Although works are not necessary to become saved, and actually often stand in the way, by making one feel righteous and not in need of salvation, they are the absolute and necessary consequence of being saved. In other words, although we can contribute nothing to our salvation and must depend on Christ’s merits alone, once we have his salvation and enjoy his merits we cannot merely live in the unloving ways of our sinful nature. As a necessary consequence of that salvation, we live out his love and forgiveness in spirit and in truth (simul iustus et peccator). While we are not perfect in ourselves (both good and bad are saved), the king comes and sees Christ’s righteousness on us and loves us, and the world sees this as well and hates the Christian for it, just as the Pharisees and chief priests hated the Christ. Those, who by God’s gift of faith receive the invitation and come, are clothed in that new righteousness of Christ. And those who God has chosen out of the world see both the Christ and the Christian and rejoice in the coming wedding banquet. So “many are called, but few are chosen,” refers not only to the immediate problem of the person without the proper dress, who also enters by the improper way (I’m good enough), but also to those who were too good for the banquet and kept themselves busy doing their own things. Finally, it refers to all who will, by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, enjoy eternal forgiveness and love, both here in time, and in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.