MATTHEW 21:23 – 22:14. THE CONTEXT
This controversy section began with the chief priests and elders asking Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” (21:23). At 21:45 they become chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus counters by asking,“The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” When his critics refuse to answer him, Jesus refuses to answer them. He then responds with three (or four, depending on how we count 22:1-14) parables of judgment:
• The Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32)
• The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
• The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:1-10)
• The Parable of the Wedding Garments (22:11-14)
These parables all “speak of people who do not live up to expectation and so lose their place of privilege, to be replaced by a more surprising group” (France, 821).
MATTHEW 22:1-14. TWO WEDDING PARABLES
This lesson includes a pair of parables (1-10 and 11-14). They are often treated as a single parable because the setting for both is a wedding banquet, but they make two related but somewhat different points. Both are allegories—stories in which the various elements (people, things, happenings) have a hidden or symbolic meaning.
When dealing with allegories, we need to be careful not to push interpretation too far. Allegories are intended to make a point, we will profit by focusing on the intended meaning rather than trying to find significance in every jot and tittle.
MATTHEW 22:1-10. THE PARABLE OF THE MARRIAGE FEAST
1Jesus answered and spoke again in parables to them, saying, 2“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a marriage feast for his son, 3and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast, but they would not come. 4Again he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner. My cattle and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the marriage feast!”‘ 5But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his merchandise, 6and the rest grabbed his servants, and treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7When the king heard that, he was angry, and sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
8“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. 9Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast.’ 10Those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good. The wedding was filled with guests.“
“Jesus answered and spoke again in parables to them” (v. 1). The “them” to whom this parable is addressed are the chief priests and Pharisees (21:45).
These parables are more allegorical than most. The code for understanding them is as follows:
• The king (v. 2) is God.
• The son (v. 2) is Jesus.
• The invited guests (v. 3) are the people of Israel.
• The first slaves (v. 3) are the Hebrew prophets.
• The second and third sets of slaves (vv. 4, 8) are Christian missionaries.
• The burned city (v. 7) is Jerusalem.
• The good and bad (v. 10) are the members of the church, which includes both righteous and unrighteous.
• The wedding robe (vv. 11-12) equates to righteousness.
There are a number of parallels between these parables and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-41), which immediately precedes them. In the first two parables (21:33-41 and 22:1-10), the God-figure (landowner/king) provides something wonderful (a fine vineyard/a banquet feast). He then sends slaves to convey a message (pay the rent/come to the feast), and the people (tenants/invitees) mistreat and kill the slaves (Jewish prophets/Christian evangelists). The God-figure persists, sending other slaves, whom the people also mistreat. The God-figure then punishes the original beneficiaries and transfers the benefit (vineyard/ banquet) to others. The God-figure’s son is involved in both parables, although in different ways.
This is obviously more than a story about a king and a banquet. It is the story of salvation history in which God sent prophets and Christian evangelists with Good News, which some rejected and others accepted.
Luke’s version of this story (14:15-24) has none of the violence of Matthew’s version. In Luke’s version, the invited guests simply make excuses why they are unable to attend the great banquet.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a marriage feast for his son” (v. 2). This is a parable of the kingdom—intended to help us to understand the differences between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven. The wedding banquet is a metaphor for the messianic banquet that we will enjoy with Christ in the kingdom of heaven (see Isaiah 25:6-8).
“and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast” (v. 3a). The king (the God figure) takes the initiative to organize the marriage feast and to invite the guests. The point is that our relationship to God depends on what God has done for us. The initiative is God’s (Brunner, 42-43).
Preparing for a banquet is expensive and requires time, so the custom is to send and accept invitations well in advance. The host then prepares food for the people who accepted. The extension of an invitation, then, obligates the host to prepare, and the acceptance obligates the guest to appear.
Once the banquet is ready, the host sends a second notice—rather like our custom of making medical appointments in advance and receiving a reminder call a day ahead. We can assume that the first invitation was issued earlier, and this is the second invitation. The time has come.
“but they would not come” (v. 3b). A guest who fails to attend not only causes food to be wasted, but also dishonors the host. This would be especially true in the culture of that time and place (Bailey, 95).
The invited guests offer no excuses, but simply refuse to honor the invitation. It was one thing to accept an invitation for a dinner to be held sometime in the future—to accept the invitation in principle. Such acceptance did not inconvenience them in any way, and it was an honor to be invited. It is something entirely different now that it is time to drop what they are doing, to change clothes, and to go to the banquet. Now that the invitation calls for action, they see only its inconvenience.
Likewise, the call of Christ, in its specifics, can be inconvenient. Like the invitees, we find it easy to accept Christ in principle, and, like them, we find it less easy to accept the particulars—Christ’s call to serve on the church board—or to teach Sunday school—or to be sexually abstinent until marriage—or to invite a co-worker to church—or to tithe. The place where the rubber hits the road can be pretty gritty. We are sorely tempted to reserve our discipleship for the parts of life that don’t require us to change—that don’t force us out of our comfort zone.
“Again he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner. My cattle and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the marriage feast”‘” (v. 4). The king makes a winsome appeal to persuade invitees to attend. As is often the case with allegory, the story is exaggerated. A real-life king would not try to persuade people to attend his banquet, but would punish those who refused to come. However, this is a story of God’s grace, so exaggeration is appropriate.
“But they made light of it, and went their ways” (v. 5a). To make light of a king’s invitation is to insult the king and to court trouble. A king dishonored in this fashion must punish the offenders to salvage his honor.
“one to his own farm, another to his merchandise” (v. 5b). Good things, not bad, distract them. Their problem is not drinking or whoring, but the routine of daily life. Temptation often comes clothed in wholesome attire. We have to work—run errands—take care of children—clean the house—cook and wash dishes—pay bills—mow the lawn. Where can we find room for God? Perhaps we can salvage a few minutes for God at the end of the day. Perhaps we should pencil him in on our “to-do” list. Or perhaps we will wait for the time when we have plenty of time—a time that is never likely to come. The truth is that we make time for those things that we count as important. God wants to be at the top of that list (6:33).
“and the rest grabbed his servants, and treated them shamefully, and killed them” (v. 6). This is an allusion to the prophets—God’s messengers—often murdered by Israel (1 Kings 19:10, 14; 2 Chronicles 24:18-22; 36:15-16; Acts 7:51-53; Matthew 5:12; 23:29-39). It was bad enough that some invitees made light of the king’s invitation. This group, “the rest,” is in full, violent rebellion.
“When the king heard that, he was angry, and sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (v. 7). Matthew is writing this after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and makes it clear that this destruction was the judgment of God upon the people of Israel.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited weren’t worthy'” (v. 8). Keep in mind that Matthew is writing to Jewish-Christian readers. They would understand “those invited” to mean Israel. The Apostle Paul addresses this issue in Romans 1:16, where he says that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first, and also for the Greek.”
The king sent a third set of slaves to “go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast” (v. 9). The alternative would be to have no guests—an empty banquet hall—no dancing—no celebration. The king has partially redeemed his honor by punishing those who spurned his invitation, but his honor is still in jeopardy unless he can present the bride and groom with a gala banquet. That requires guests—lots of guests. If the king can’t fill the hall with people of high estate, he will fill it with “as many as you may find”—anyone who will come.
“As many as you may find” includes Gentiles. There have been intimations in this Gospel from the beginning that the invitation would be extended beyond Israel. The genealogy of Jesus included Rahab, a Canaanite—and Ruth, a Moabite. Matthew then told about the visit of the Magi from the east (2:1-12). This Gospel will close with Jesus’ commission, “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). In between, Matthew includes this series of parables—the Two Sons (21:28-32)—the Wicked Tenants (21:33-41)—and the Wedding Banquet and the Wedding Garment (22:1-14)—that give veiled reference to the unfaithfulness of Israel and the extension of the invitation to Gentiles.
We should not interpret this parable as meaning that God has excluded Israel. Paul makes that point when he asks, “Did God reject his people?”—and answers, “May it never be!” (Romans 11:1). He says of Jewish people, “But concerning the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29).
The slaves gathered in “both bad and good. The wedding was filled with guests” (v. 10). The “bad and good” reflect the church of Matthew’s day, which is struggling with the problem of Christians who fail to exhibit evidence in their personal lives of their relationship with Christ. Matthew also deals with the problem of sinners in the church in the Parable of the Weeds (13:24-30, 36-43) and the Parable of the Net (13:47-50). Matthew’s concern with faithful Christian lives is also reflected in the words that he records Jesus as saying:
• “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:20).
• “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21).
• “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation bringing forth its fruit” (21:43).
This parable explains why the church includes Gentiles and sinners (Johnson, 515). Understanding this would be important in Matthew’s church, still primarily Jewish but with a growing Gentile membership.
Sinners and irreligious people were not welcome in the synagogues. As a matter of fact, people with physical or mental handicaps were barred (Bruner, 776). The church found an eager audience among those not welcome elsewhere. The result was that many church members were those considered undesirable in polite company. In many cases, they were crude or unrefined. In some cases, their behavior was far from Christ-like. Matthew is quite troubled about the presence of these “sinful” people in the church, a fact that is reflected in a number of places in this Gospel.
This parable summarizes in story form the relationship of God with the Jewish people and the church. It reminds us that God invites us to a joyful feast, and we miss the joy if we refuse the invitation. It acknowledges that both good and bad fill church rolls. It also implies a warning. God judged harshly those who refused the invitation. We can assume that God will act in similar fashion if we refuse the invitation to true discipleship now.
MATTHEW 22:11-14. THE PARABLE OF THE WEDDING CLOTHING
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?’ He was speechless. 13Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness; there is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be.’ 14For many are called (Greek: kletoi), but few (Greek: oligoi) chosen” (Greek: eklektoi).
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing” (v. 11). The failure to wear a robe is not general. The other guests apparently have robes, and this man is conspicuous by his failure to dress properly.
“Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?” (v. 12). In this Gospel, Jesus uses the word friend three times (20:13; 22:12; 26:50). Each time it has an ironic twist. On none of the three occasions does Jesus use it to address a true friend.
How important is it that the guest is improperly attired? Surely God will not enforce a dress code! But this parable warns that he will.
Where would the guest have obtained a wedding robe? Jesus doesn’t tell us. Perhaps there was time for the guest to find one. Perhaps the host provided robes? Whatever the reason, it is clear that other guests responded appropriately but this guest did not. It is also clear that the king believes this failure to be a serious and willful offense. Given that the king represents God, we can be sure that his judgment is true. This guest has declined to observe common protocol, and his refusal insults the king.
What is the meaning of the wedding robe in a Christian context? Jesus doesn’t tell us, but given the reference to “bad and good” in verse 10, and Matthew’s concern for righteousness (see above on v. 10), it stands to reason that the wedding robe equates to righteousness (see also Revelation 19:8, where “fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints”).
The issue would appear, then, to be sanctification—growth in holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit—righteousness—discipled lives. The errant guest has declined to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27)—has not valued holiness—has not chosen to live as saint instead of sinner. This parable warns that God will no more accept the rebellion of the unrighteous than he will accept the rebellion of those who refuse the invitation.
“Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness; there is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be” (v. 13). This Gospel includes several references to terrible eschatological punishment characterized by weeping and gnashing of teeth. In each case, it is Jesus who tells us of such punishment (13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30).
“For many are called (kletoi), but few (oligoi) chosen” (eklektoi) (v. 14). Note the rhyme between kletoi and eklektoi that is lost in translation.
Throughout scripture, we find God calling particular people for particular missions:
• In the Old Testament, God chose Abram and Abram’s descendants, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel to be God’s chosen people.
• In the New Testament, we find the idea of election (John 15:16; 17:6; Ephesians 1:4; 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13)—which suggests that God has chosen (or elected) only certain people for salvation.
More precisely, we are among the many who have been called (Greek: kletos), but only the elect (eklektos) have chosen to respond.
“few (oligoi) chosen” (v. 14b). We should not take the word oligoi (few) to mean that heaven will be sparsely populated. This parable has to do with accountability—not heavenly demographics. It is intended, not to frighten us, but to encourage us to take seriously the challenges of Christian discipleship (Hare, 252).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan