I ONCE HAD THE PRIVILEGE AND JOY of teaching a high school class on medieval literature. We studied some beautiful but often complex pieces, such as Beowulf and the Song of Roland. We read from Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Dante, and my favorite, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are quite fun, especially if you speak Middle English for fun as I do. “Virginitee is greet prefeccion, And continence eek with devocion” (105-106), I often hum around the home.
My favorite tale is the Pardoner’s Tale. As these religious pilgrims are on pilgrimage to Canterbury, the Physician has finished has tragic tale. The Host then turns to the Pardoner and asks him to tell a more upbeat or happy tale. Others disagree and ask for a moral tale. The Pardoner agrees to tell a moral tale only after he has his fill of food and drink. (Chaucer was ahead of Luther on teasing the gluttonous, greedy clerics who trekked throughout Europe tricking people into buying pardons, fake relics, and the like.)
So this immoral man tells this moral story. In his drunken stupor he reveals the trick of his trade—how he cheats people of their money by preaching on money being the root of all evil. His tale is this: Three lawless young men go on a search for Death. They think if they can find Death, they will be able to kill him. As they are searching, they meet an old man who tells them that Death can be found at the foot of an oak tree. Off they go to the tree. There instead of finding Death, they find eight bushels of gold. With Death now out of mind and greed in mind, they decide to sleep there that night and sneak away with the treasure in the morning.
Meanwhile, the youngest goes into town to buy some food and drink. He also buys some rat poison and poisons the wine. He wants the gold all to himself. Ah, but the other two want the gold for themselves. So they plot to kill him when he returns. Sure enough that is what they do. When the man returns, they stab him to death. To celebrate, they lift their cups and drink the poisoned wine.
They too die. The old man was right. All three greedy men found Death under that tree.
Like the Pardoner’s Tale, Jesus’ parables are full of surprises, surprises that usually come (as they do in any good story) at the end. That is what we find in his Parable of the Wedding Feast. It is a wedding reception that somehow ends with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 13).
Israel's Burned City
Before we get there, let’s walk through this short story. Thankfully, this anything-but-nice parable divides rather nicely. There are two parts in which two main groups are addressed during two distinct time periods. And then there is only one main point—that poignant point—to both parts, and that point is made at the very end.
The first part is verses 1-7. This part of the parable is a prophecy to and about Israel, particularly the Jews of Jesus’ day. Here our Lord speaks symbolically about the time after his resurrection until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (so roughly AD 33 to AD 70).
I’ll explain all that by explaining the characters and the story. Look with me at verses 1-7. Verse 1 simply sets the stage: "And again Jesus spoke to them in parables.” This sentence introduces the genre and the original audience. The genre is parable. That tells us not to look for precise definitions and not to be worried about unrealistic actions, like a king burning a city on his son’s wedding day. The original audience (the “them” here) is the Jewish religious leaders, as made clear in the context—21:23, 24, 27b, 31 b, 42a, and especially 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them." As we start in 22:1, we are to perceive the same thing. He is still talking to (literally, “answering”) them.
To them some of the symbolism here might conceal the truth, but to us— those who hear and see (and especially see from a mile-high, two-thousand-year vantage point) the symbolism reveals the truth. The characters, plot, and climax are not hard to decipher. Let’s read it and then crack the code:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast ["invite the already invited,” is the sense], but they would not come. [Imagine that!] Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, ‘See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered [this king is not a vegetarian], and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”' But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (vv. 2-7)
Nice family-friendly story. Jesus meek and mild? Meek? Yes. Mild? My foot. Okay, let’s crack the code. Let’s start with the easiest character for Brethren to identify. Who is the “son,” mentioned only in verse 2? Jesus. When in doubt, as in Sunday school, so in the Ecclesia, always say “Jesus.” He is the answer. The bridegroom son is Jesus. Who then is the king? God. God the Father, if we want to be more specific. Note that the king is the central figure of this parable. He is the protagonist throughout verses 2-13. In verses 2-7 he hosts the wedding feast, he invites people to it, he sends out his servants, and he eventually sends out his troops. He is also the only one who talks (whose words are recorded, to be more accurate).
So the “king” is God, the “son” is Jesus, and the “wedding feast” is the messianic banquet, a celebration centered on the Messiah (Jesus), which the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus himself (8:11; 26:29), and later the apostles talked about. In the language of Revelation 19:9, it is “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Jesus) and his bride (the Ecclesia). “Eternal life with God in the Kingdom” is how we might commonly talk of it, as long as we don’t view the Kingdom as our invisible bodies floating through the clouds as we eye harp-plucking angels. The Kingdom of Heaven has some meat (and wine) to it.
The king’s servants (“servants” are mentioned five times) represent those who offered the gospel invitation, including the prophets, but especially the apostles and their first ministry teammates and successors. From Jesus’ resurrection to the destruction of the temple, this lot had endured quite a lot of persecution. Think of the shameful treatment of Peter and Paul. Think of the stoning of Stephen and the beheading (“killed... with the sword,” Acts 12:2) of James.
“Those who were invited” (vv. 3,4) symbolize Israel in general and their religious leaders in particular. Not all the Jews of Jesus’ generation rejected him (for example, the Twelve were all Jewish), but many did. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).
Finally, the “troops” mentioned in verse 7 symbolize the Roman army under Titus, who was ultimately, like Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, under the sovereign control of God (it is “his” troops). God the Father’s troops came into “their city” (Jerusalem) and Battened it.
Those are the characters, and with their identities revealed the story is almost told. But in case you don’t yet see it, the story is simply this (I’ll divide it into three sections): First, God patiently and persistently invited Israel to the messianic banquet. He sent his own Son, which is not the emphasis here. Jesus did invite. Jesus did woo by word and deed. But the emphasis here is that God sent his prophets; then God sent his apostles. God sent his servants to Israel and to Israel alone. They shouted, “The feast is ready. Come to the feast.” They invited Israel to a wedding, not to a wake (the word “wedding” is used eight times), a feast, not a famine.
So, first, God patiently and persistently invited Israel to the messianic banquet. But, second, most Israelites rejected the invitation. Verses 5,6 reveal the two basic types of rude rejections. One rejection was busy indifference, and the other was violent indignation.
The first group was indifferent. They “paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business” (v. 5). Here think of the Parable of the Sower and the choking power of “the cares of the world” (13:22)—not only money but also job, family, and possessions (cp. Luke 14:18-20). Or think of the average unbeliever today. Fill in his or her name. They don’t necessarily want the churches’ doors or the preachers’ mouths closed, they just don’t want their ears opened. They pay no attention and go about their more “important” business.
They remind me of the clever Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. The rabbit is so busy. His mantra is “I’m late. I’m late for a very important date. No time to say ‘Hello, goodbye.’ I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.” We live in a world where people are so busy that they simply find no time to stop and listen to the generous invitation, no time to see the Mad Hatter’s tea party (I mean, the Messiah’s banquet) set before them.
I thought about this recently on a flight from Calgary to Chicago. People are too busy traveling from Calgary to Chicago and Chicago to Calgary and Calgary to Chicago and Chicago to Calgary to look out the plane window in awe at the glories of the heavens and earth and he who made them. “Good” people are doing their “good” work but are ignoring the good news of their great God, and that might possibly be the most damning influence in the world today. Don’t let your occupation preoccupy your soul. Don’t lose your life by making a living.
That’s one group. The other group is hostile. Look at verse 6. This group seizes God’s servants, treats them shamefully, and then kills them. Now you might say, “What an absurdly exaggerated response,” and yet one that sadly corresponds with the inexplicably monstrous behavior of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the chief priests in the Gospels and Acts. Ironically, then as it has been throughout Ecclesial history religious leaders are the most antagonistic toward the gospel. I don’t worry when Mel Gibson or Uma Thurman come on Larry King to talk religion. I worry when Reverend So-and-So and Mr. Celebrity Evangelical do.
First, God patiently and persistently invited Israel to the messianic banquet. Second, most Israelites rejected the invitation. Third and finally, God justifiably and justly judges. That’s the picture given in verse 7. God has been gracious. He is throwing a party for them. God has been patient. Twice he has invited them. But even God’s patience has its limit. Reject the king, reject the king’s son, reject the king’s servants, reject the king’s invitation to the table, and all that is left is righteous anger and wrath: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (v. 7).
Those first listening to Jesus’ words in verse 7 may not have known what he was talking about, but the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel certainly did. This is, as I said, only a thinly veiled allusion to the Roman Empire’s destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem. You can read Josephus for a fuller account. But don’t go there and miss what is here. In Jesus’ short account he claims that God is the ultimate actor. God orders the destruction of the city. More shockingly, God orders the destruction of the temple and those thieves and “murderers” hiding out in it.
We live in a culture that gets so angry with the notion of an angry God, who thinks a God of justice to be unjust, who hates the idea of a loving God being wrathful. Our kinder, gentler culture (so they think—the murder capital of world is just thirty miles down the road from me [i.e., Chicago])—thinks they want, as C. S. Lewis put it, “not so much a father in Heaven as a grandfather in Heaven—a senile benevolence.” But let me tell you, they don't really want that God any more than they want a President who would refuse to give the orders to attack and kill an enemy like Osama Bin Laden. We didn’t praise the President of the United States or the elite Navy Seals for planning and executing the murder of a man but for planning and executing the murder of a madman. We praise justice when we see it, and I’m telling you verse 7 is reason for praise. Do you think Yahweh unjust or Christ's party parable cruel? I hope not but fear so. It is high time the Ecclesia stops getting squeamish around Jesus’ strong stories. It’s time we put down our over sensitivity spectacles and see the Lord for who he is.
Now there are lots of lessons we might glean from verses 1-7 as we move toward the poignant point at the end of verses 11-14, but the one lesson I want us all to understand is something of the nature of God. Jesus doesn’t cram the whole doctrine of God into seven verses, but he does push in quite a bit. God is a king. He is sovereign ruler. God has a son. How’s that for Christology? God is gracious and generous. He invites people to a wedding feast. God is patient. He sends out word again and again. Why seek rebels twice? Why seek them even once? God is so patient. But God is also holy and just, and he will mete out justice to those who reject his joyful (party-like) rule.
The Ecclesia’s Unchosen
That is the first part of this two-part parable. It is a prophecy about Israel’s rejection of God’s invitation. The second part of the parable (vv. 8-14) is a prophecy (I think it’s fair to call it that) to the Ecclesia about what will happen in the last days, that is, the days from the destruction of the temple until the last or final judgment.
Verses 8-14 have a similar structure as the first half. We find:
Invitations (vv. 2, 3a; 4; 8, 9; 11, 12a)
Responses (vv. 3b; 10; 12c)
Judgments (vv. 7; 13b)
We also find similar characters and details. The king, servants, and the wedding feast represent the same persons and realities. The two new characters are “the attendants,” whom the king uses to bind the guilty, and the “guests,” those from the highways and byways. The “guests” represent the Ecclesia (if that isn’t clear now, it will be in a moment). And based on the Parable of the Weeds, “the attendants” are likely the angels: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of this kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:41,42). The same language is used for angels in the Parable of the Nets (13:49, 50).
With all that in mind, hear now the short symbolic story of the long history of world missions—the gathering of the Ecclesia, but also the judgment of the Ecclesia.
Then he [the king] said to his servants [missionaries or gospel-ers], “The wedding feast [the messianic banquet] is ready, but those invited [Israel, cp. 8:11, 12] were not worthy [cp. Acts 13:46]. Go therefore to the main roads [what Spurgeon calls “the heathen highways of the world”] and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” (vv. 8, 9)
This is the Great Commission! The gospelers are told to “go” out to “the main roads” or perhaps better, the ‘“outlets’ of the city streets,” that is, to the points where the highways become gravel roads. The Jewish city folk have rejected the message; perhaps the Gentile country bumpkins won’t. And sure enough they won’t! Those outsiders will eat up this idea of coming in for a free feast! Verse 10 triumphantly records the mission’s success: “And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good [people from all walks of life?]. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
In verses 2-7 we heard rejection, rejection. In the Gospel of Luke, it’s rejection, rejection, rejection. In the Gospel of Thomas (bear with me), it’s rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection. Whether it is two, three, or four rejections, there is repeated rejection to the king’s gracious offer. Now finally, with verse 10, someone (many someones) accept. The place is packed. Emily and I had 300 people at our wedding. Here imagine 300,000,000,000! “The wedding hall was filled with guests.” And then the music starts and the choir sings:
The end! Right? Wrong. Jesus does not end on this positive note. He does not say, “And the many were merry!” or “All the elect lived happily ever after.” No, this is a parable with a poignant point. What does poignant mean? It could mean “piercing” or “cutting” or “moving.” What do I mean by it? All of the above. We are to have this emotional prick of conscience, a cut-to-the heart heartbreak when we read the end. Like the Pardoner’s Tale, this parable ends with a deadly surprise:
But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, “Friend [that's the same word Jesus used of Judas at his betrayal, 26:50], how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen, (vv. 11-14)
So much for the notion that parables are simply fun little stories told by the supreme, seeker-sensitive storyteller. Wow. Jesus. What a sober story! Now let me explain a few details, and then let’s let this poignant point penetrate.
What is clear is not everyone who has accepted the invitation to the wedding and shows up to eat gets to eat. What is also clear is that those who don't show up with the proper wedding attire eventually get thrown out into the darkness. But note (please note) that it is a just judgment, for the one judged (and note the individual account one must give) has no defense—“And he was speechless” (v. 12b), and he is full of shame and regret—“in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v. 13b). The judgment of verse 7 is pictured as a city being burned; the judgment of verse 13 is of a person all alone in darkness. Which picture of the grave looks nicer to you? Pick your poison. He should have known better. (He should have dressed better.) It’s his own fault he is exposed and then (eternally?) exiled.
That’s what’s clear.
What is not clear is what the “wedding garment” is, which is surprising since it is the hinge upon which the verdict turns. So, what is it?
If we interpret Scripture with Scripture, we find a few possibilities. Looking at Galatians 3:27, perhaps the garment represents baptism. Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” We know from history that the early Brethren wore baptismal garments or robes. Or, looking at Colossians, perhaps the “garment” here is less literal. In Colossians 3:12, 14 Paul writes:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience... And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Augustine took the garment here to mean “love.” Perhaps he is on to something (pun intended). Is the clothing here charity—if you have faith but not love you are nothing (cp. 1 Corinthians 13:2)?
Or, looking at Revelation 19, might the “garment” symbolize good works? Look at verses 7, 8 of that passage (and note the setting):
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come [ah, a wedding], and his Bride has made herself ready: it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure [sounds like a garment]”—for the fine linen is [drumroll please] the righteous deeds of the saints.
Most commentators, ancient and modern, cite this cross-reference and argue that the “garment” is “righteous deeds,” or more clearly, “the evidential works of righteousness.” This man is judged by his works. And he has no works to show, so out he goes. Now that might cut against the grain of our grace sensibilities, but it certainly fits themes that arise like mountains coming out of the sea throughout Jesus’ teachings, especially in his final parable, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25:31—46).
A final option is faith. Not surprisingly Martin Luther writes, “The wedding garment here is faith, which many will lack at Judgment Day. Without faith no one can remain at the wedding.” If that sounds forced, one only has to recall the imagery of Revelation 7:9-14, where God’s people from every nation, tribe, and language are “clothed in while robes” (Revelation 7:9, 13), robes that have been washed “white in the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 7:14). I think the idea is they have “the cleansing effects of [Christ’s] death on their behalf’ by means of a trial-steady trust, or more succinctly, by faith alone. And faith alone is a theme that Matthew won’t leave alone. Every person in his Gospel who demonstrates saving faith (i.e., gets into the kingdom) comes to Christ empty of self but full of faith. Think of the centurion. Think of the synagogue ruler. Think of the paralytic. Think of Matthew himself. They have nothing to give Jesus, certainly no righteousness of their own.
Okay, those are the options. Which one is the right one? Do the garments represent faith, good works, love, or baptism? Well, I have two rules I follow in parable interpretation (and I have patented these rules, so you can’t steal them). The first rule is this: if Jesus gives you the interpretation, take it. So if he says, “And the seed represents the word of the kingdom," say, “Okay, Jesus, then the seed is the word of the kingdom.” The second rule is this: if Jesus doesn’t give you the interpretation, don't be afraid to let the application be more elastic.
What I mean is this: perhaps the lack of a clear definition is intentional. The point, in other words, being put to the reader involves questions like these: What do you think you need to get in and stay in? What might you lack? What must you be sure to have on? Perhaps here Jesus holds up a mirror to all Brethren and says, “Take a good look. Are you properly dressed?” To those who boast in their own righteousness, he says, “Make sure you are wearing my righteous covering, not your own.” To those who confidentially cover only their lips (not their lives) with a mere profession of faith, he calls for a full-body coat of many colors—“show me your faith, your love, your works, your baptism.”
All that to say what Calvin said 500 years ago (why do I try to improve upon him?):
There is no point in arguing about the marriage garment, whether it is faith or a holy and godly life; for faith cannot be separated from good works and good works proceed only from faith. All Christ wants to say here is that we are called by the Lord under the condition that we be renewed in our spirits into His image, and therefore, if we are to remain always in His house, the old man with all his blemishes is to be cast off and we are to practice the new life so that our appearance may correspond to our honourable calling.
A-plus, Jean Cauvin. I’ll expand on Calvin’s idea, keeping his house analogy: it might not be necessary to have a wedding garment to get into the house (the good and the bad came in with no personal righteousness of their own). But it is necessary to have a wedding garment to stay in the house for the meal. Does that mean personal righteousness is necessary? I suppose it does. To Jesus, grace and faith and salvation are never antithetical to repentance and holiness and obedience.
Bruner, as usual, says it just right:
True faith in God’s imputed righteousness moves believers to want to be righteous personally—not as a basis for standing before God (only Christ can give that), but as an evidence of wanting to please the Father who was gracious enough to invite. But where this desire to be holy is lacking, where there is the carelessness of presumption, or where there is an immoral “once saved always saved,” ostensibly in the interest of eternal security, there the church is taught by the parable’s ending to fear. God wants good people. And if we don’t want to be good, or don’t even want to try, or don’t think it is even necessary to want to try, or if we see the Christian gospel as simply a making safe, a permission to live as one pleases, “unconditionally,” then this parable warns.
Called but Not Chosen
Later Bruner adds, “Failure to seek a holy life will mean failure to enter the kingdom of God.” Really? Says who? Says some scholar? No. Says Jesus Christ right here. Our Lord gives his summary of his parable in verse 14. It’s the high point of his poignant point.
For many are called, but few are chosen.
What does Jesus mean by this antithetical parallel? I’ll explain, apply, and then end.
Here the word “called” (in Greek, a key word used in vv. 3, 8,9,14) in the context of the parable is clear. It means to accept the invitation. In our context we can think of it meaning someone who professes faith in Christ and becomes part of his visible Ecclesia. So Jesus is not using the term “called” in the same way Paul sometimes does (e.g., Romans 8:29, 30), meaning “irresistible calling.” Jesus is also not using the word “chosen” (eklekoi, i.e., elect) the way Paul often does.
Here is where it gets confusing, I know. For Jesus here “chosen” means “persevering to the end (24:22,24, 31 ).” Note that although the king, as I said, dominates the talking and acting, here at the end it is this man’s decision not to get dressed properly that gets him tossed out. Here personal responsibility comes face-to-face with divine sovereignty. So Paul uses the word “chosen” to speak of divine sovereignty (God chooses the chosen), and Jesus uses it to speak of human responsibility (the chosen choose God's way). Paul uses the word to give assurance of our already possessed salvation, Jesus to warn of losing it. Paul uses it as a source word (predestinarian), Jesus as a goal word (ethical action—energetic ethical effort). I’ll put it this way (perhaps this will help): Paul uses the word to pull us, Jesus to push us, to push us through the narrow gate and down the straight and narrow path that leads to life.
That’s my explanation of verse 14. Let me now apply it. The Ecclesia is a mixed body (corpus mixtumfo comprised of wheat and weeds, sheep and goats. That’s what Jesus teaches in Matthew. Thus, like Israel of old (v. 7), the Ecclesia of the new covenant will face judgment (cp. 16:27; 2 Corinthians 5:10). (Matthew’s Gospel alone “contains detailed descriptions of the Final Judgment—for example 7:21 ff.; 13:36ff.; 47ff.; 25:31 ff.,” all of which are given to professing Brethren! Isn’t that interesting?) So every disciple who openly professes Jesus as Lord (“Lord, Lord”) will stand before the King and Judge. Jesus Christ will have judicial robes on. The question is, will you have the proper attire? Faith? Sure, faith! A faith that loves, works, obeys, gets baptized into Christ.
You see, as Brethren we live between the cross (in the past) and the choir (in the future), under the commands of Christ (in the present, by the power of his sustaining presence). In the meantime for the end time we must conform our lives to the gospel. That’s the short of it. We must conform our lives to the gospel or else!
That’s the ending I’ll give because that’s the ending Jesus gives. The Pardoner’s Tale might be a laughing matter (it’s intended in part to be funny), but Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast is not. We must conform our lives to the gospel or else!
(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)