This is the parable of a wedding–and let’s be honest, everyone loves a wedding.
Speaking from experience, I know that weddings can get pretty ugly, pretty quickly (at least in the planning stages).
Although I have yet to be a bride, I’ve been a flower girl, a bridesmaid, an impromptu maid-of-honor, and a groomsmaid (for those of you who are fortunate enough not to quite know what that is, a groomsmaid is a woman who stands up for the groom, as opposed to a bridesmaid; the opposite is a bridesman – a man who stands up for the bride).
I even performed my first wedding ceremony at the age of five and stood on a toilet for a makeshift altar. My brother was the groom and a friend of ours, Elspeth, his bride. I am happy to say (as is, I’m sure, everyone involved) that this marriage was not remotely legal as we were all children.
However, wedding practices and bridal traditions in modern America are very different than they were at the time of Jesus. For one thing, brides now almost exclusively wear a white gown or outfit because Queen Victoria daringly did so and it caught on like wildfire in the English-speaking world.
When Jesus told this parable, however, not only did brides not wear white but various other practices were extremely different.
Marriage Practices in about AD 90
Jesus of Nazareth, we may remember, was born in about 4 BC and died roughly around AD 30. The Gospel of Matthew, however, wasn’t written down until AD 80 to 90. As such, the marriage practices within it are most likely almost identical to those of Jesus’s times, but may also reflect Matthew’s audience.
If they didn’t know what was happening, if they didn’t understand Jesus’s parable in AD 90, then the Gospel of Matthew was failing at what it set out to do.
When a wedding was announced, invitations were sent out to all the guests. A set time was not specified, unlike today. The wedding would take place when all the preparations were ready and then servants would go to the guests and tell them to come. In this way, there was a double invitation, the formal and the informal. This parable begins with the second invitation, when the feast has been prepared and the guests only need to be summoned.
Now, when the slaves arrive, they would expect to be met with joy. Who doesn’t love a good wedding?
At the very least it’s free food, free alcohol, and often the chance to make an ex jealous. There’s dancing, flirting, and an excuse to make a fool of yourself. If you’re feeling miserable (and who hasn’t been at a wedding at some point when you just feel rotten and self-pitying?) then there’s more than enough of that to go around as well, often enough.
So, when the king sends is slaves, he’s expecting everyone to be happy and to check their calendars (even if there is no set date). What he and is slaves are not expecting is for his slaves to be dashed across the rocks and are killed. The hospitality of the wedding giver, the King himself, is spurned even though his guests had already accepted his invitation.
To add insult to injury, the potential guests don’t just refuse, they make their hatred and their disrespect known in the form of violence against the slaves.
Quickly: What did Jesus Mean (so far)?
This is a metaphor for Israel.
God (who is literally the King of Heaven) is the one giving the wedding. He is preparing a feast, preparing a time for the Messiah to come. He has sent out the invitations and they have been accepted (the first wave, at any rate). However, Jesus–the Messiah–has come now, under the reign of Caesar Augustus, and so God sends out his servants, only to have them be rebuked and killed.
A famous example is John the Baptist, whose head is given as a gift to Salome (Matthew 14:8-10).
Moreover, the Gospel of Matthew was written in approximately AD 90, several decades after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The destruction of the temple was seen as God’s retribution for Christ’s death. Matthew knew of this interpretation and some commentators view it as an editorial remark in Matthew 14, verse 7: “The King was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”
Jesus is not only foretelling what is to happen once he is crucified–the destruction of the temple–but the Gospel of Matthew is certainly reaffirming it.
Within this parable, we have a clear allegory: the Jews were invited to the message of Christ and yet they did not accept it. Pretty open and shut case.
But the parable continues.
Moving back to Matthew 22, after the slaves are murdered, the King does not give up. Now, everyone from the street is invited—meaning the Gentiles or the Greeks who lived in the “civilized world,” and in later generations the entire planet. This includes all of us–yourself included.
The new guests accept the invitation (who wouldn’t, after all?) and come in their wedding garb per tradition. These are clothes appropriate for a wedding, they wouldn’t be clothes you wear on the street or in your day to day life, but your “fancy clothes” or “Sunday best.”
Everyone does this—all except one.
The king–the host–God the Father–reacts very badly. He has the inappropriately dressed guest thrown out “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Needless to say, this seems harsh. It’s also a traditional description of gehenna or hell. This man, for failing to wear the right shoes and cufflinks, is getting cast out of the party (and out of heaven) and directly into eternal damnation.
The king specifically justifies himself with the words, “For many are invited but few are chosen.”
How are we to take that?
This can seem like a major overreaction on the part of the king, but God rarely does something without a reason.
Is this some form of predestination?—we are all invited to the table, but God picks and chooses whom he will allow to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Our religious forefathers believed this. This was, after all, a core belief of Calvinism.
Calvinists believed that no matter how many good works you performed, whether or not you were a good person, before your birth your name was written in the Book of Life and there was nothing you could do to change it.
Then what of all these conversions to our faith? Do they mean nothing? Are they predestined? Is there no free will?
I choose to believe that there is free will in every single one of us. We choose to be good, we choose to be bad. We choose to live in the shades of gray.
If we look back into the garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but Eve chose to follow the serpent’s advice and eat it anyway. She had a will. She had a choice. She could follow God’s instructions or she could disobey them. Is this not evidence of free will from the earliest chapters of the Bible that predestination is not necessarily what Jesus meant?
A Potential Interpretation
Then what did the king mean if this is not a blatant example of predestination?
A commentator I favor, Barclay, suggests that the wearing of improper garments to a wedding suggests that his heart was not pure and ready for the message of God. He came to the feast under false pretenses. “The bad as well as the good” entered the banquet hall and this particular guest is the latter.
He was not a good person. He was not a believer in Christ. Because of this—because of his free will to not be a believer, to not be a good and moral person—he was turned away. His outer vestments merely betrayed his heart in the parable. He was as unready and as unwilling as the original invitation guests to celebrate the wedding the King had so meticulously prepared.
The idea of wedding garments, apparently, made people in previous generations “dress up” for church. Men would wear suits and ties. Women would wear dresses, hats, and gloves. Many of you know I grew up in this tradition. This doesn’t make it right or wrong. It was simply a tradition that sometimes is no longer as valid in many traditions as it once was. Our “Sunday Best” isn’t necessarily required to go to church.
While we may choose to wear our nicer clothes, our “Sunday Best” isn’t our clothing. Instead, it’s what’s in our hearts.
This parable, however, shows that isn’t the actual real point.
It’s not about the fact that the man didn’t wear the proper garments for the wedding and the feast. It’s about how he disrespected his host. “Dressing up” means putting on our “Sunday best” in terms of how we think and how our thoughts affect our behavior. It means opening our hearts to Christ and being a good person.
And that’s why we believe in Christ. It’s why we read these sermons when they arrive in our mailbox. It’s why we might watch our weekly worship service of youtube, or participate (if we can) on zoom. We desire to be part of Christ’s community–and we’ve chosen Florence Congregational as our means to do this.
An All-Seeing God
In the Spanish missions to the Americas, an eye was placed on the ceiling to show the ever seeing power of God. Here in our parable the king, as God, can see through this man, as portrayed by his garments. God has a powerful reaction, one that perhaps we cannot understand, but one that shows that he will not tolerate unbelievers and those who do not show true repentance in his Kingdom of Heaven.
But we must think of ourselves. We want to get to the banquet and we want to stay there. We are believers in Christ and we must humble ourselves. It’s partially a question of spiritual attitude. We need to be (first) open, (second) tolerant, (third) respectful, and (fourth, or finally) engaging.
I. First and foremost: have an open mind
We must have open minds. We must not be closed to prejudice in others and we must not be judgmental. We also can’t believe ourselves so morally superior to others that we shut ourselves off to different ways of thinking.
We don’t have to be like each other. In fact, we should be individuals.
God made us who we are. He made you to be the person you are today, not the person sitting beside you. Despite this, we all need to be like Christ. We all have different talents to praise him. You might be able to sing. You might be able to lead people at work. You might be meticulous at details. You might be great at organizing. You may have the work ethic needed to clean.
Who is to say what is more important than another?
The Answer: No one.
Your talent is your talent and it was given to you by the Lord God.
This reminds me of a commercial for rocket auto insurance. It shows a young teacher who is great with connecting with her students and creating monster robots, but frankly couldn’t figure out home owners insurance for her life. It wasn’t her talent. She could make her students understand math and writing, she was good with mechanics, but numbers and algorithms to protect her house? Not so much.
At the end of the commercial, she just clicks a few simple steps on her phone, and goes back to her remote controlled lawn mower. It’s cute and funny. But she has her talents in life, just like you have your talents in yours.
II. Secondly there is Tolerance
This goes hand in hand with being open minded.
Be tolerant of your fellow human beings. Forgive when forgiveness is needed. Do not accept cruelty and ignorance where it is present. Don’t be a pushover, but understand others have their flaws.
Next time Sally is at the water cooler talking about her favorite daytime soap opera that you can’t bear to hear about for yet another day, be tolerant. This is her. It’s what makes her tick. She’s sick of wearing masks and social distancing, and at the water cooler she can just relax, albeit with six feet between her and teh guy upstairs.
The long and the short of it: be Christian and try to be loving toward her.
III. Third is Respect
I know you all remember Aretha Franklin. I think I saw that Netflix or Hulu is making a movie about her, but don’t quote me on that.
Still, Aretha’s most well known song goes: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.
Remember the ten commandments (for those who missed you, you can see my zoom sermon on it just this past week: “The Ten Ultimatums”).
Honor thy mother and thy father. Traditionally, this also meant to respect the “elders” of the church, your teachers, even the clergy.
However, it’s much broader than that. Respect your fellow human beings. We were all created in God’s image. Be kind. You don’t know what a person is going through, what albatross they carry. Although it’s not exactly the New England way, look at a person you’re passing on the sidewalk and lift your hand in greeting. It could change an entire person’s day.
IV. Fourth and Final – Be Engaging
This final imperative has to do with hospitality of spirit if not in person (we all, unfortunately, are living under a health crisis–and we all know hospitality in any form can be difficult).
Simply, be kind to others.
Be open minded, tolerant, respectful, and you will find that you have more in common with people than you previously believed. Little niceties go a long way. A simple text message to say “hello.” Stopping by a friend’s house just to wave through the window before leaving again.
Always be a good Christian in whatever small way you can.
Be a good person.
You will find yourself invited to the king’s feast and welcomed there with open arms. You will not be flung out for being without righteousness and tolerance of your fellow humankind.
You will be accepted and have a place there—a place in heaven.