Not counting the Feast of All Saints on November 1st, which falls on a Sunday this year, there are five Sundays left in this Season after Pentecost before we celebrate the Reign of Christ the King and begin our church year anew in Advent. We are in that deep place in the season after Pentecost where the narrative of the Gospel slows to a crawl and we spend a lot of time diving into one or two moments in the life and ministry of Jesus. As we come to today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, I’m starting to feel like a television narrator whose voice comes on at the beginning of an episode to say, “Previously on the Gospel of Matthew.”
But, we are still in the same scene that we have spent the last two weeks hearing and considering. Jesus is still in the Temple on Monday, and he is still in a standoff with the chief priests and elders who have challenged his authority to teach, or for that matter flip over tables. In this tense exchange, Jesus fires off parable after parable at them, and ends with a pretty strong indictment with today’s final parable. This is the end of this encounter, and Jesus finishes strong. He once again rebukes the arrogance of the temple elite, and warns them of turning their back on God.
To understand this parable, we need to first understand a bit more about the cultural norms that are assumed in this parable. The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to or perhaps the essence of what it’s like to exist in the kingdom of God is similar to a wedding feast put on by a king for his son. The basic parallels are obvious, God is the King, Jesus is the Son, and the kingdom of God is this eternal wedding banquet. But what we often misunderstand, using our modern, whimsical notions of kings and banquets is that this isn’t the sort of invitation you take the time to ponder your availability for.
In the culture and time that Jesus is speaking, this is the sort of invitation you wouldn’t dare refuse. One did not say no to a king’s request for your attendance. It was definitely a huge honor to be invited; absolutely a blessing on your status, but it also carried the weight of ruin, if not death for refusing to attend. One did not refuse the king. You could think of this in terms of Herod, an insane ruler who thought everyone, including his own family, was plotting against him. He wouldn’t think twice about having someone killed.
But in general, you did not refuse, whether it was Herod or not. You never wanted to be perceived as insulting the king. Interestingly the king sends out slaves to tell the invitees that no expense has been spared, that the fatted calves have been slaughtered, that a wonderful feast is prepared for them. And yet still they refuse, and worse, mistreat or kill the slaves the king has sent. For the context of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is alluding to the maltreatment of the prophets God has sent to the people of Israel. In response to the prophets being ignored, beating, and killed, the king sends soldiers and destroys the city. This is alluding to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people.
So now the king sends servants out again, this time to invite everyone they find. This is no longer just for certain guests but for everyone. Much like last week’s parable, this is another one of those misused pieces of scripture that have been leveraged to justify anti-Semitism. To say that the first guests refused and so now they are no longer invited. But I wonder, when the king says to go out into the streets and invite everyone, if that original crowd isn’t also part of the group. I think it is a human reading, not God’s intent to justify excluding anyone from the invitation to the Kingdom. It is important to remember verse 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.” Both good and bad. God’s arms are stretched wide to welcome everyone.
Then we come to that slightly jarring conclusion of this parable. When the king is mingling with the guests, he sees someone not in wedding robes. I think a lot of people hear this parable and think, “That’s unfair! This guy was dragged in off the street! How could he possibly be expected to be wearing the correct attire?” But this is another one of the cultural competency things that we have to know to better understand Jesus’ meaning behind the parable. The king is not expecting that everyone on the street has a spare wedding robe packed with them, nor would anyone necessarily expect to own their own wedding robes.
The practice was rather that when you arrived at a splendid affair such as a wedding banquet for the king’s son, you would be given an appropriate wedding robe to put on at the door. It was the graciousness and generosity of the host to hand them out, and it was the respect of the guest to wear the robe. But here the king notices someone who isn’t wearing the wedding attire and he asks the guest how he got in without getting a robe.
This question may not be accusatory, but rather even embarrassed that a guest was slighted by not being given a robe. But the guest does not answer; he remains silent, unable to provide a good reason for not having it. The guest thinks he can be there because he deserves to be there, not because he has been invited by the king. Warren Carter writes, ““The absence of the wedding garment suggests a failure to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king. He is one of the ‘bad’ who has failed to behave or live in a manner appropriate to the status of being invited by the king… This guest, though inside the wedding banquet is guilty in the same sorts of offenses as the elite leaders who did not honor the invitation, and suffers the same fate.”
I recently stumbled across the writings of J.C. Ryle, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, from 1880 to his death in 1900. He had a lot to say about the church of his time that I find equally applicable to us today, and a lot of it is, as the kids say, spicy. He doesn’t really hold back in his criticism of what cheap grace, and you’re probably going to be hearing from him now at times as I find something that resonates with our scripture readings. The first quote I ever read of his, this last week, is one that I think helps us consider the parable that Jesus is teaching here to the chief priests and elders. Bishop Ryle once wrote in his commentary on Matthew 16, “It would have been well for the church of Christ, if the warnings of the Gospel had been as much studied as its promises.”
How I think that applies here to this parable is in our nature to shy away from things that make God sound like a temperamental king and then in turn we also fail to spend time pondering how we often act as ungrateful guests. All three of the parables we have heard over the last couple of weeks have been warnings about listening to God and not turning your back on the prophets he sends. They have been warnings about the many generations who have failed over and over to live according to the law of God, to love your neighbor as yourself.
To turn away from the kind of life Christ teaches us is to turn our back on the Kingdom of God, to arrogantly stroll around the banquet after refusing the gift of a wedding robe. This isn’t about guilt or fear or coercing someone into a Christian life. God’s grace and forgiveness are always available to us. This is about our sin and our own egos clouding our vision of God’s kingdom. We actively ignore the invitation. Every day we make choices that turn our back on the values of that Kingdom, and Jesus is trying to help us, and to help his contemporaries see that. It’s sort of like when someone tells you that they aren’t mad at you for something you’ve done wrong, they’re just disappointed. That’s so much worse.
Our faith, our religion, must not be just a thoughtless act of self-indulgence. It cannot be for our own edification or done out of simple ease of repetition. We are called to follow Christ and his teaching, to tirelessly live out the values of the Kingdom of God and to turn again towards God when we have fallen and failed. When the king asks us where our wedding robe is, it is a mistake to think we can shrug and wonder who the king is for asking us such a question. Instead we must recognize the grace and good will and be ready to accept the garments of God’s kingdom. If we want to be a part of the wedding banquet, we need to start acting like it.