The Parable of the Wedding Feast, as told in the gospel of Matthew, calls to mind images of the vengeful God more commonly associated with the Old Testament. As an Easter people, this image doesn’t square with our understanding of God. However, if we peel back the unsavory veneer of the story to consider historical context of the gospel and how we, as humans, respond to invitations, we may find a new understanding of the story. 

Matthew 22:1-14
1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again 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.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 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.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

And I thought last week was difficult. This passage has elements of violence and retribution that do not square with the thrust of the Gospel—at least as I know it. It suggests that there is a level of rejection of the king’s invitation that invites retaliation. It suggests that we can go ‘too far’ with God and he will punish. That is a very human way to think about God. Granted, the invitees are dismissive and some do real harm—they kidnap, mistreat and kill innocents. But is that not what happened to Jesus? As Christians, is the response ever to ‘destroy those murderers and burn their cities.’ That is a human enough desire but it is precisely what Jesus stood against. I can not imagine this kind of retaliatory justice would ever be sanctioned by Jesus. But the passage says clearly that the parable describes the kingdom of heaven in some way. This is a large chasm to seek to reconcile. (And we haven’t even touched the dangers of being inappropriately dressed.)

This parable is also found in Luke 14:15-24, but Matthew’s version has a number of additions. Matthew’s primary purpose seems to be to indict the religious leaders for their failure to realize that Jesus is the fulfillment of scripture whereas Luke’s emphasis is more on the unrelenting inclusiveness of the kingdom. There are several logical inconsistencies in Matthew that make sense only in the context of his rebuke.

An invitation to the king’s son’s wedding is not an invitation anyone would decline much less need enticement to attend. But the dismissive behavior of the king’s subjects is made worse by their poor treatment and ultimate murder of the king’s messengers. Enraged the king ‘destroyed those murderers and burned their city.’ But then the king sends further invitations, to both the good and the bad; to the very city he just destroyed. Maybe there were a lot of dead men walking.

What is more likely the case is that in this gospel, having been written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Matthew conflated salvation history. He needed to explain how the ‘Holy City’ of scriptures could be destroyed. They failed God’s calling. Matthew taught that Jesus was the expected one and was the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The religious elite (the king’s subjects) were invited to join the banquet but did not realize the gift they had received. They were dismissive and ultimately killed him. Jerusalem is destroyed but the gospel goes on. Jerusalem had lost its centrality but the world would be served.

There is some good news and bad news in this kind of thinking. The good news is that God’s word will not be limited by human indifference, misunderstanding or outright rejection. The bad news is that there is the implication that ‘bad things’ (in this case, the fall of Jerusalem) are a product of human disobedience. Though this is a common premiss in the Old Testament tradition, I am convinced that this is how people think, not how God acts. It is a way to explain and even manage suffering. We would rather explain terrible disasters, diseases and great pain as a product of personal or corporate failing than struggle with the inexplicability of the terrible.

This is not to say we are ‘blameless’ or that there are not consequences for our sinfulness. But I will argue, these terrible consequences are the natural outcomes of missing the ‘good news’—not the punishment for choosing badly. We see this in the last four verses of this passage:

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Again, on first reading this poor guy was just pulled off the streets and now is being banished into outer darkness because he wasn’t dressed properly. Just a little harsh. How is it possible to see this other than a punitive king—and by short extension, a punitive God?

Invitations can be good news and/or they can be obligations. Ideally they are opportunities to share connections and to demonstrate care but in real life responding to invitations sometimes requires putting ourselves out. I commented after our ‘tour of the grandchildren’ this summer that ‘all of the visits were important and some of them were fun’. Almost everyone knew exactly what I meant. When the sense of obligation outweighs the joy of connection, we miss the whole point of the event. We can show up, do our due diligence, get credit for showing up—but we will miss the joy. And if you miss the joy, you might as well have not shown up. The theologian Karl Barth says this much better: “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.” Showing up is not sufficient. It is like pretending you are happy or that nothing is wrong when you are deeply troubled. You may fool many of the people around you but you will live alone and disconnected.

The same is true of us. Our most important invitation is the invitation to enjoy God’s promise that God loves us and wants us. That is a feast. But whether in human relationships or with God, it is surprisingly hard to deeply receive the words “I love you”. When we are told we are loved, instead of joy, it is just as common to start asking questions or start saying ‘yes, but’. We wonder if we’re enough, if our ‘secret’ faults will disqualify us, if we compare well with others. We worry about what we must do to keep such love. We wonder how long it will last. Instead of warmth and safety, there is fear and anxiety—and that is the opposite of God’s desire for us.

The image of being cast into outer darkness is the biblical way to describe living separated from God’s love. The man’s failure was not an error of etiquette. He had missed the fundamental joy of the banquet invitation. When we cannot see or accept what we have been given, it is impossible to feel connected to God. God’s care continues but we are unable to rest under his wing. Answering God’s invitation with fear, anxiety or obligation is the clearest indication that we have missed the Good News. If you persistently cannot accept God’s invitation, you will remain alone at the party. You might as well be in outer darkness.

An important caveat—Do not make this a new measure of faithfulness. In real life, all of us will be insecure with each other and with our God. In real life, we will all feel alone, anxious and unsafe. But those are occasions for confession—confession to a God who loves us.

God, grant us the courage to accept your invitation. Let it be so.