(Year A, Sunday Closest to October 12, Gospel Reading Matthew 22:1-14)
“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, 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.” – Matthew 22:11-14 (ESV)
The first time I read this parable, I was stumped. Why did the king react so harshly to a man who had, based on the earlier details of the story, been gathered in from the street to attend the wedding feast? It seemed incredibly unfair, and no matter how I approached it, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Isn’t this reaction, as well as the words of Christ at the end, seemingly out of character for how we think the Gospel is supposed to work? If we read the king to be Almighty God, then there is seemingly a disjointing of message. We read in the Epistles that God wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). But how does that work with him being willing to cast out a man simply for coming in off the street in the wrong clothes? How does this desire that all should be saved marry up to “many are called, but few are chosen”? Isn’t Jesus, and therefore God, being a little harsh in this judgment?
After reading this Gospel once, I turned to the Epistle lesson as a source for inspiration for this week’s reflection. But my curiosity would not let me leave a troubling message alone so easily, and so I read it again. And again. But no matter how much I read it, I had trouble getting it to click into place.
So, admitting that I didn’t currently have the insight to make headway on the meaning of the parable, at least not the closing verses, I turned to the commentary in the ESV Study Bible. This is one of many instances where I am profoundly glad for the work of academic theologians and all other professional scholars whom God has gifted with studious minds and knowledge of how to approach even these parables which seem intractable and at odds with how we think things are supposed to work.
The ESV Study Bible puts forward two possibilities for what the wedding garment represented, either one of which satisfies the impasse, and neither of which could be said to be far-fetched. I encourage the reader to investigate and come to their own conclusions. The point, for this reflection, is that the wedding guest lacked something that the king saw as essential for the guest to be accepted to the feast. And when I read this, the message clicked for me. This parable isn’t about the king flying off the handle at a random guest who wasn’t dressed as nicely as the king would have liked – this is about the character of the wedding guest, and how they demonstrated to the king their lack of respect for his station and their ingratitude for his invitation.
There are three clues in these four verses which make it clear that the king was not being arbitrary, and the guest was not worthy of the company of the king.
First, the parable states the king saw “a man who had no wedding garment.” This makes it clear that at least many of the other guests, if not all of them, did have appropriate attire for the feast, because otherwise this man would not be notable, or the text would have referred to the group of people without garments. This suggests that either garments were provided for the rest of the guests, or they had the presence of mind to run home and change before coming to the feast. For the guest to not have a garment marks him out as not being mindful of what was expected of him.
Second, the king’s initial response, to ask “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” shows that it is not merely about the guest arriving in the wrong attire; otherwise, wouldn’t the king have just skipped asking for an explanation and thrown him out right away?
Finally, and what increasingly becomes the damnable element to my mind, is the guest’s response – or, more properly, his lack of response. “And he was speechless.” When I first read the parable, and came across those four words, I glided over them and didn’t really digest the meaning. Now, they resonate with the recurring assertion throughout the New Testament that we will be required to give an account of ourselves in the last judgment (Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12, 2 Corinthians 5:10). For the guest to be speechless is at best a demonstration that he was unprepared to be in the presence of the king, and at worst is an attempt to evade and try to slip by unnoticed (think of the Pharisee’s response to Jesus when he asked them about where the baptism of John came from in Matthew 21:27). In either case, he is shown to not be worthy of being in the presence of the king, and is cast out.
The king is, just like our King, a powerful figure who is worthy of awe, respect, and even fear. We hope that when we approach the judgment seat of God we will both be clothed in the wedding gown of righteousness and Gospel truth, and to give an account that is pleasing to Him. This is the point of the parable – that we who are called to the presence of God do so in the manner and under the terms that He has set for us, and that when He speaks to us, we respond to Him. The wedding guest did neither of these things, and was cast out.
This week, consider what terms God has set for us generally to come before Him, as well as anything you personally may be required to do in pursuit of those general terms (disciplines you may be called to take up, or behaviors the Spirit urges you to set aside). I also urge you to consider how God is speaking to you, and how the Spirit is directing you to respond to His call.
Grace and peace to all.