Think back over the recent celebration of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It was the event of the season!
Can you imagine those invited not attending, and even making a joke of it? Even those of us not bowled over by royal pomp and splendor caught the reruns on television, to catch a glimpse of The Dress, or simply because we were charmed by the sweet affection evident between the bride and groom.
And oh, the "wedding garments" in evidence, from the elegant and cheerful yellow ensemble worn by Queen Elizabeth, to the military uniforms covered with medals, to the extravagant hats and "fascinators" (Who had even heard the word before this event?) of other women guests!
That is the type of event evoked by the beginning of the parable, depicted as directed once again to "them"--the chief priests and elders who have been the audience of the previous two parables (21:23). It is a story of etiquette and bad manners that escalate into violence, and of an arbitrary decree by the king reminiscent of the royal folly Alice encountered in Wonderland: "Off with their heads!"
This wedding party began as convention dictates. A first invitation (a sort of "Save the date!" notice that has become common again) is followed by the summons carried by the host's servants when the banquet is ready. Then things start to fall apart.
First, the invited guests simply refuse to come, and when the second call comes, they treat the invitation as a joke and go about their business. More than bad manners are at stake, for some invitees even assault and kill the servants. In his anger the king then escalates the confrontation by sending in his troops to destroy both the perpetrators and their city. Apparently the king has judged their bad behavior to be the opening salvo of a rebellion that must be quelled, even at the cost of a portion of the king's own holdings.
With the party ready, the king is determined that it will go forward, and so the servants are sent out again, this time to the very limits of the territory. (That is what the term means that lies behind the "main streets" in verse 9). They are to bring in everyone, "good and bad" (verse 10), so that the hall will be filled. When he king plans a party, the party will go on!
With minor variations, the parable to this point echoes the version in Luke 14:16-24 and a similar one in the Gospel of Thomas. All three seem to go back to a common original form of the story, which each Gospel writer adapted to his own purposes. For Matthew those purposes center on the issue of the "worthiness" of the guests (verse 8). The criterion apparently is not an ethical one (for both "good and bad" are brought in), but rather a matter of eschatological insight--the ability to recognize the urgency of the invitation and to respond.
This is where the specifics of the story evoke biblical traditions and images that would have made its point clear to Matthew's readers. For example, the parable is introduced as something to be compared to the "kingdom of heaven."
In Matthew's careful Jewish piety that minimized the use of the Greek word "God" (a carry-over of the refusal to pronounce the divine name in Hebrew), as well the use of "king" as a common metaphor for God, the story is evidently about a divine banquet. Further, a wedding can be a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel (Isaiah 54:5-6; 62:5; Hosea 2:16-20), and a banquet a sign of the covenant between them (Isaiah 25:6-10; 55:1-3). "Worthiness" thus involves being able to recognize the king's "wedding banquet" for what it is and responding to it as one's top priority.
The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus' table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project or empire he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even one's ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host's plan. That radical inclusiveness comes to a sudden halt, however, when the king encounters a guest who is not properly attired (verses 11-13).
The parable-within-the parable has no parallels outside of Matthew, so it must reflect his particular agenda. The language of the parable ranges from sarcasm, with the address of the man as "Friend" (see 20:13 and 26:50), to apocalyptic violence (verse 13). The details of ejection into the "outer darkness" with "weeping and gnashing of teeth" invoke earlier declarations of judgment (for example, 8:12; 13:42; and 13:50) and require that we read this parable in an eschatological key.
Clearly the issue is not the man's clothing, but rather something else about how he presents himself in this ultimate moment. We are left without a list of specific criteria that move a person from the list of the many "called," to that of the few "chosen" (verse 14), but it appears that Matthew envisions further accountability beyond one's initial response of discipleship, our "yes!" to God's invitation to the banquet.
I am drawn to understand this double parable through the lens of James 2, and the tension between his affirmation that one's faith can be seen in one's "works" (by which he means deeds, especially deeds of justice and compassion), and Paul's more famous affirmation (in Galatians and Romans) that our standing before God depends only on our acceptance of God's grace.
My suggestion about the reason for James' position is that Paul's costly and radical notion of faith as the commitment of one's entire life may have become watered down to a matter of intellectual belief or emotional trust that does not bring one's behavior into play. It seems to me that Matthew is in the same place that we find James. He affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God's grace, but he also affirms that for us to be "worthy" of God's gift requires nothing less than our whole life.