Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14
This seems to be one of the harsher and, perhaps, more illogical parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Many preachers might prefer to preach Luke’s version (Luke 14:15-24) or even the version found in the Gospel of Thomas (64). Matthew’s version seems to turn up the volume on the violence and tacks on the troubling addendum of the last-minute guest kicked out of the party for wearing the wrong outfit (verses 11-14). In addition, Matthew ups the ante of this parable by turning the dinner party (as in Luke) into a wedding feast for the “son” hosted by the “king,” making an eschatological nod to the messianic banquet.
Matthew’s telling of this parable, marked by extreme reactions and violent actions, may make more sense if we take a moment to consider the way it functions both in the arc of the Gospel and in relationship to Matthew’s community (the first recipients of this text). At this point in the Gospel narrative Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the last time and we are chapters away from Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. At this moment, the tension is ramping up between Jesus and the religious leaders over the source and nature of Jesus’ authority. Also humming in the background is the situation in Matthew’s community (as described a couple of weeks ago). This group of largely Jewish Jesus-followers, receiving these words of Jesus, were likely feeling the sting of separation and rejection by the Jewish authorities and their synagogue communities. They found themselves dislocated from all they knew and were trying to navigate who they were amid Jewish community pressures and Roman occupation.
So, this parable comes roaring in as the last of a set of three, strung together as an extended response to the temple leaders’ question about Jesus’ authority (Matthew 21:23-27). As with the previous two parables (The Two Sons and The Wicked Tenants), Matthew engages in allegorical work. And he places this third parable as a sort of eschatological climax in the argument. While the initial invitation to a wedding feast might feel realistic (or at least possible) to early receivers of this text, the parable quickly takes a turn into the fantastical where slaves are killed for extending invitations, the king burns his whole city down, and an unsuspecting guest is thrown out of the party for poor clothing choices.
Read allegorically, this parable may be interpreted as the messianic banquet (Matthew 8:11, Revelation 19:9) hosted by God (the king) for Jesus (the son). The first set of slaves represent the prophets that called the Israelites (invited guests) to the banquet. The violence done to the slaves represents Israel’s rejection of the prophets and the king’s violent response might be interpreted as the fall of Jerusalem. The second set of slaves sent out to extend invitations to “both the good and bad” are thought to represent the Christian prophetic missionaries out on their evangelistic mission. And, finally, the guest rejected for not wearing the right garments represents one who has not “put on” the Christian life.1
In his way, Matthew is making a point both about Jesus’ authority in relation to the temple leaders as well as his community’s significance in relation to the synagogues that had rejected them and their message. Through this parable placed on the lips of Jesus, Matthew is arguing that his Jesus-following community, despite the alienation they may feel in the present by temple authorities, are now the inheritors of the invitation and promise of God. And though our communities today may not be invested in the same argument as Matthew’s community, there might still be some rich places for preachers to find echoes of challenge and invitation for their contemporary congregations.
First, the harshness of this parable may be off-putting to the present-day faithful who appreciate their Jesus gentle, meek, and mild. However, there is something about the violence and intensity of this parable that shakes us up and may remind us that we are participating in not just our personal or even communal stories, but also in God’s eschatological story. What we do as people of faith matters. It is so easy these days to compartmentalize all the pieces of our life, particularly our faith life. We check “going to church” off the to-do list and may view our faith as one small aspect among many of our lives. The intensity of this parable and harsh consequences of refused invitations reminds us that living out our faith is a matter of urgency and importance. In other words, attending to our faith lives, our relationship with God, and our communities has eschatological implications.
Second, this parable insists that our faith ought to make a difference in how we live our lives. At first read, the last part of the parable (found only in Matthew) doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. One of the last-minute invitees, recruited off the streets, shows up not wearing a wedding robe. The king notices this and inquires: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” When the mis-dressed guest is literally speechless in reply, the King commands that the attendant “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” How was the guest supposed to know he needed to pack a wedding robe? After all, he never got a “save the date!”
But, again, Matthew invites us to the world of allegory. The “wedding garment” symbolizes the Christian life that we “put on.” This language is used in Galatians 3:27 where the community is told, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And this image is unpacked in Colossians 3:12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In other words, there is an expectation that being a Christian, a Jesus-follower, will make a difference and be obvious in the way we live our lives. This parable, through metaphors and life-and-death consequences, insists that we, like Matthew’s community, need to live lives that do not just prioritize our faith, but reflect our faith to those around us.
Finally, this parable reminds us of God’s broad, persistent, and generous invitation. In this parable, God/the king does not desire to party alone. Instead, he keeps extending invitations to everyone around so that the wedding feast will be a rich array of people from every corner of the city. Likewise, the invitation towards faith and faithful living is extended to us, insistently, persistently for us to accept and relay to others.
- Such allegorical interpretations are explored in Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 246–47; Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 416–17.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of celebration, you have invited all people to rejoice in the goodness of your love. Help us to be hospitable to all people at your banquet, so that all might receive your blessing. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Let us go now to the banquet ELW 523
As we gather at your table ELW 522
I am the bread of life ELW 485
Bread of life, we pray you, Thurlow Weed