Responding to a Royal Invitation
And Jesus answered and spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king, who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.’ ” But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged and sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ And those slaves went out into the streets, and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests. But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw there a man not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (22:1–14)
This parable is the third in Jesus’ trilogy of judgment parables given in response to the Jewish religious leaders who maliciously challenged His authority (21:23, 28–30, 33–39). It is among the most dramatic and powerful of all His parables, which, though directed specifically at those leaders and all unbelieving Israel whom they represented, also has far-reaching significance and application for subsequent times, certainly including our own.
For three years Jesus had been preaching and teaching the gospel of the kingdom, which included proclaiming Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world. He had been offering Himself and His kingdom to the people of Israel, His own people, the chosen people of God. But at the end of those three years, all but a handful of Jews had rejected Him. Although Jesus had always been popular with the masses wherever He ministered, their acceptance of Him was for the most part superficial and selfish.
The multitudes were awed by Jesus’ straightforward, authoritative teaching, which was in refreshing contrast to the confusing, legalistic, and complicated tradition taught by their scribes and Pharisees. They were even more awed by His healing miracles, which had brought restored health, sanity, and even life to so many countless thousands of their friends and loved ones. They doubtlessly appreciated the fact that Jesus never took financial advantage of them, never taking payment for any supernatural good work He did. On the contrary, He was always giving to them freely, and had on several occasions miraculously fed thousands. They deeply admired Jesus for His humble, self-giving love and compassion, and they must have rejoiced when He rebuked and embarrassed their hypocritical, self-righteous leaders, who looked down on them in contemptuous superiority. How wonderful, they must have thought, that the Messiah not only is so powerful but also so compassionate.
But when the people finally realized the kind of Messiah Jesus was, and especially that He had no plans to deliver them from the Roman oppressors, their acclamation quickly turned to rejection—as is evident in their change of mood from Sunday to Thursday of this last Passover week of Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, as He continued to respond to the Jewish leaders in the Temple, where He was teaching on Wednesday morning (21:23), it was also to the multitudes that the third judgment parable was directed.
The Invitation Rejected
And Jesus answered and spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king, who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.” ’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them.” (22:1–6)
The parable contains four scenes, the first of which depicts the rejection of the invitation. Although none of His hearers may ever have attended a royal wedding feast, they were all familiar with wedding feasts in general and had some idea of the importance and magnificence of one that a king would prepare for his own son.
As Jesus answered the chief priests and elders (21:23), He was continuing to respond to their bitter challenge of His authority and spoke to them again in parables for the third time. It is likely they heard little of what He said, because their minds were by then singularly and unalterably bent on His arrest and execution. They had wanted to seize Him after He related the second parable but were still afraid of what the crowds might do (21:46).
In His first two parables Jesus gave no introduction, saving the explanation and application to the end. In this parable, however, He begins by stating that it illustrates the kingdom of heaven. Because most Jews believed that the kingdom of heaven was reserved exclusively for them, and possibly a few Gentile proselytes, the audience in the Temple immediately knew that what Jesus was going to say closely applied to them.
Although they had many perverted ideas about the kingdom of heaven, because the term heaven was so often used as a substitute for the covenant name of God (Yahweh, or Jehovah), most Jews would have understood that it was synonymous with the kingdom of God and represented the realm of God’s sovereign rule. There are past, present, and future as well as temporal and eternal aspects of the kingdom, but it is not restricted to any era or period of redemptive history. It is the continuing, ongoing sphere of God’s rule by grace. In a narrower sense, the phrase is also used in Scripture to refer to God’s dominion of redemption, His divine program of gracious salvation. As Jesus uses the phrase here, it specifically represents the spiritual community of God’s redeemed people, those who are under His lordship in a personal and unique way because of their trust in His Son.
In the ancient Near East, a wedding feast was inseparable from the wedding itself, which involved a week-long series of meals and festivities and was the highlight of all social life. For a royal wedding such as the one Jesus mentions here, the celebration often lasted for several weeks. Guests were invited to stay at the house of the groom’s parents for the entire occasion, and the father would make as elaborate provisions as he could afford. A royal wedding, of course, would be held in the palace, and a king would be able to afford whatever he desired.
A wedding feast that a king prepared for his son would be a feast of all feasts, and Jesus was therefore picturing the most elaborate celebration imaginable. The fact that it was a wedding celebration was incidental to the purpose of the parable, the only mention of the groom being that of identifying him as the king’s son. No mention at all is made of the bride or of any other aspect of a wedding. The point is that because the feast represents the greatest festivity imaginable, given by the greatest monarch imaginable, for the most-honored guests imaginable, a royal wedding feast was chosen as the illustration of the ultimate celebration.
When all the preparations were complete, the king sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast. The fact that they had been invited indicates that the guests were invited earlier and already knew they were expected to attend the wedding. To be a pre-invited guest to the king’s wedding was among the highest honors possible, and no doubt those who had received invitations were boasting to their neighbors and friends. It is therefore inconceivable that, when the actual call came to attend, they were unwilling to come.
As with the previous parable of the wicked vine-growers, it is the shockingly extreme and unthinkable nature of the events mentioned that are central to the story’s point. Jesus’ hearers already would have begun to think to themselves, “Who would do such a thing? The very idea is preposterous.” Attending the royal wedding would be an even greater experience than receiving the invitation, and it would have provided the finest food and the most prestigious fellowship in the land. Not only that, but an invitation from one’s king not only brought honor but obligation. It was a serious offense to spurn the king’s favor.
The initial response of the king, like the initial response of the vineyard owner, is as amazing as the responses of the guests. Few monarchs were known for their humility and patience, especially in the face of open insult. But that king sent out other slaves saying, “Tell those who have been invited, ‘Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.’ ”
The dinner was the first of many meals eaten during the feast, and it was ready to be served. “Remind the guests,” the king said in effect, “of all the preparations that have been made. The oxen and fattened livestock are all butchered and waiting to be roasted, and everything else is ready also. Plead with the people to come to the wedding feast now.”
But as before, the invited guests disregarded the call from the king, except that their refusal this time was even more crass and brutal. Many of the invitees were coldly indifferent, acting as if the wedding were of no consequence. They responded by carrying on business as usual. They went their way, doing the things they would normally have done in looking after their own interests, represented by the farm and business. They were so selfishly preoccupied with personal concerns for profit that the invitation and the repeated calls of the king to stop work and attend his son’s wedding were altogether ignored. They willingly and purposely forfeited the beauty, grandeur, and honor of the wedding for the sake of their everyday, mundane, self-serving endeavors. They were not concerned about the king’s honor but only about what they perceived as their own best interests.
But another group of guests were worse than indifferent. Rather than being concerned about offending the king, they were themselves offended at his persistence. In an act of unbelievably brutal arrogance, they seized the king’s slaves and mistreated them and killed them. Contempt for the king’s slaves demonstrated contempt for the king himself, and in mistreating and killing his slaves they committed a flagrant act of rebellion.
As already noted, because Jesus had said that the parable was about the kingdom of heaven, its meaning needed no interpretation to any thinking hearer. The king obviously was God, and the invited guests were His chosen people, Israel, those who already had been called by Him.
God first called His chosen people through Abraham, whose descendants would be blessed and be a channel of blessing to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:2–3). After being captive in Egypt for 400 years, the chosen people were delivered through Moses. Through His prophets the Lord declared, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son” (Hos. 11:1), and, “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). In one of the most poignant accounts in Scripture, God described Israel as an abandoned newborn, with its umbilical cord untied and squirming in its own blood. To that hopeless infant He had said, “Live!” and it lived and prospered. The Lord bathed it, anointed it with oil, clothed and protected it, and adorned it with jewelry (Ezek 16:4–14).
The wedding feast represented God’s promised blessing to Israel, a figure understood by everyone in the Temple that day. According to talmudic literature, the Messiah’s coming would be accompanied by a grand banquet given for His chosen people.
The slaves God sent to call again and again those who had been invited were John the Baptist, Jesus Himself in His preaching-teaching ministry, and the New Testament apostles, prophets, and other preachers and teachers. It would seem that the slaves would also have to represent New Testament preachers, because their message pertained to the King’s Son, Jesus Christ. God was saying to Israel, His already-invited guests, much the same as He had said from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “Here is My Son; come and give Him honor.” But John the Baptist was rejected and beheaded, Jesus was rejected and crucified, and the apostles and prophets were rejected and persecuted, many being put to death.
The indifferent guests in the parable represent people who are preoccupied with daily living and personal pursuits. They are essentially the secular-minded, those who are interested in the here and now and have no interest in spiritual things. They are the materialists, whose primary interest is accumulating things, and the ambitious, whose main concern is “getting ahead.” They are not usually antagonistic to the things of God but simply have no time for them.
Those who are actively hostile to the gospel invariably are people involved in false religion, including the many forms of humanistic religion that parade under a guise of philosophy, mysticism, or scientism. The history of persecution of God’s people shows that the chief persecutor has been false religion. It is the purveyors of error who are the aggressive enemies of truth, and it is therefore inevitable that, as God’s Word predicts, the final world system of the antichrist will be religious, not secular.
The fact that the king sent his messengers on two different occasions cannot be pressed to mean that only two calls were extended or that the first group consisted of John the Baptist and Jesus and the second consisted of the apostles. The parable makes no distinction in the types of slaves, or messengers. The point of the two callings of the invited guests was to illustrate God’s gracious patience and forbearance with the rejecters, His willingness to call Israel again and again—as John the Baptist had done for perhaps a year, as Jesus did for three years, and as the apostles did for some forty years, until Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in a.d. 70.
The Rejecters Punished
But the king was enraged and sent his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and set their city on fire. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. (22:7–8)
The second scene in the parable depicts the punishment of the rebellious subjects who rejected the king’s call. As in the parable of the vineyard, God’s patience is here shown to have its limit. The king would have been perfectly justified in punishing the offenders when they first ignored His call. After His repeated invitations and their repeated wicked responses, He finally became enraged. One is reminded of God’s statement with regard to the antediluvian generation: “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever” (Gen. 6:3).
The term behind armies (strateuma) refers to any group of armed forces and is probably better translated “troops,” since the king would hardly have needed his full military might to accomplish his purpose. According to the king’s instructions, the troops both destroyed the murderers responsible for killing his emissaries and set their city on fire. The fulfillment of the second prophetic feature in the story occurred in a.d. 70.
When the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem in that year, he killed some 1,100,000 Jews, threw their bodies over the wall, and slaughtered countless thousands more throughout Palestine. In his Jewish War, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, graphically chronicled the horrible scene:
That building [the Temple at Jerusalem], however, God long ago had sentenced to the flames; but now in the revolution of the time periods the fateful day had arrived, the tenth of the month Lous, the very day on which previously it had been burned by the king of Babylon.… One of the soldiers, neither awaiting orders nor filled with horror of so dread an undertaking, but moved by some supernatural impulse, snatched a brand from the blazing timber and, hoisted up by one of his fellow soldiers, flung the fiery missile through a golden window.… When the flame arose, a scream, as poignant as the tragedy, went up from the Jews … now that the object which before they had guarded so closely was going to ruin.… While the sanctuary was burning, … neither pity for age nor respect for rank was shown; on the contrary, children and old people, laity and priests alike were massacred.… The emperor ordered the entire city and sanctuary to be razed to the ground, except only the highest towers, Phasael, Hippicus, and Mariamne, and that part of the wall that enclosed the city on the west.
The king explained to his slaves that the wedding was ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to attend. Their unworthiness was not because in themselves they lacked the required righteousness. Neither the original invitation nor the subsequent calls were based on merit but solely on the king’s gracious favor. Ironically and tragically, they were declared to be not worthy because they refused an invitation that was in no way based on worth. As the parable goes on to make clear (v. 10), “both evil and good” people were called.
That which makes a person worthy of receiving salvation is not any sort of human goodness or religious or spiritual accomplishment but simply his saying yes to God’s invitation to receive His Son, Jesus Christ, as Lord. The people God here declared not worthy were His chosen people, Israel, who would not come to Him freely and without merit through His Son. And because they rejected the Son, God rejected them for a season. Because they rejected their own Messiah, they were temporarily cast off as a nation and as God’s unique chosen people.
The New Guests Invited
Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ And those slaves went out into the streets, and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests. (22:9–10)
The third scene in the parable depicts the guests who were finally invited to replace those who had repeatedly refused the king’s call. The wedding feast for the king’s son was ready, but there was no one to attend unless new guests were invited.
“Go therefore to the main highways,” the king told His servants, “and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.” The plan was for them to go everywhere and find everyone they could and invite them to come. That is precisely what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). God had long beforehand predicted through Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ and her who was not beloved, ‘Beloved.’ And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God” (Rom. 9:25–26; cf. Hos. 2:23; 1:10). By the Jews’ “transgression,” Paul wrote in that same letter, “salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11).
Just as their king commanded, those slaves went out into the streets, and gathered together all they found, both evil and good. They called the morally evil and the morally good alike, their being equally unworthy in themselves to come to the king’s feast. The original guests had not been invited because of their moral or spiritual superiority, and neither were the newly-invited guests. Among the ancient Jews were those who lived exemplary, upright lives, who were helpful to their neighbors, told the truth, never used the Lord’s name in vain, never cheated in business, and never committed adultery or murder or theft. There were also those whose lives were a moral cesspool. But the first kind of person was no more acceptable to God in himself than the second. God has always extended His call for salvation to both evil and good people, because neither are righteous enough and both are equally in need of salvation.
Paul makes clear that “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10). God will not allow those whose lives are characterized by such sins to have any part of His kingdom. But He will receive for salvation a person who is guilty of any or all of those and other sins and who desires to be cleansed from his sins by the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. Therefore Paul could continue to say to his Corinthian brothers in Christ, “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified” (v. 11).
What makes a person worthy of salvation today is exactly what has made a person worthy of salvation since the Fall, namely, personal faith in God’s gracious provision in Christ. All who accept God’s invitation to His Son’s celebration, that is, who follow the Son as their saving Lord, will be dinner guests in His divine and eternally glorious wedding hall.
The Intruder Expelled
But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw there a man not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (22:11–14)
The fourth and last scene in the parable focuses on an intruder into the wedding feast, who did not belong because he was not dressed in wedding clothes. The man obviously had been included in the general invitation, because the king made no restrictions as to who was invited, having instructed his slaves to call both the evil and good wherever they might be found. He was not a party crasher who came without an invitation, but he had come improperly dressed, and he obviously stood out in the great wedding hall, in stark contrast to all the other dinner guests.
At first reading, one wonders how any of those who accepted the king’s invitation could have been expected to come properly attired. They had been rounded up from every part of the land, and many had been taken off the streets. Even if they had time to dress properly, they had no clothes befitting such an occasion as the wedding of the king’s son.
But the fact that all of the dinner guests except that one man were dressed in wedding clothes indicates that the king had made provision for such clothes. It would have been a moral mockery, especially for such an obviously kind and gracious ruler, to invite even the most wicked people in the land to come to the feast and then exclude one poor fellow because he had no proper clothes to wear.
That man was fully accountable for being improperly dressed, but the gracious king nevertheless gave him an opportunity to justify himself, asking with undeserved respect, “Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?” Had the man had a good reason, he would certainly have mentioned it immediately But he was speechless, unable to offer the king even the feeblest excuse. It is therefore obvious that he could have come in wedding clothes had he been willing.
Until that point the man had been utterly presumptuous, thinking he could come to the king’s feast on his own terms, in any clothes he wanted. He was proud and self-willed, thoughtless of the others, and, worst of all, insulting to the king. Arrogantly defying royal protocol, he was determined to “be himself.”
But his arrogance was short-lived. When, as the king knew in advance, the man could not excuse himself, the king said to the servants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The binding of hand and foot probably represents prevention of the man’s resisting as well as prevention of his returning. By that time it was night, and although the wedding hall would be well lighted, it was dark outside. The man was permanently expelled from the presence of the king and of the king’s people into the outer darkness. He would have great regret and remorse, and, with everyone else in that place, he would experience perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth. But though he had a great opportunity, he had never had, and did not now have, the godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation (2 Cor. 7:10).
Since Cain’s first attempt to please God by offering his self-appointed sacrifice, men have been trying to come to the Lord on their own terms. They may fellowship with believers, join the church, become active in the leadership, give generously to its support, and speak of devotion to God. Like the tares among the wheat, they freely coexist for a while with God’s people. But in the day of judgment their falsehood will become obvious and their removal certain. Some will dare to say to God “on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then [Christ] will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ ” (Matt. 7:22–23).
The proper wedding garment of a true believer is God-imputed righteousness, without which no one can enter or live in the kingdom. Unless a person’s righteousness exceeds the hypocritical self-righteousness that typified the scribes and Pharisees, he “shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The only acceptable wedding garment is the genuine “sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Many of Jesus’ Jewish hearers that day would have recalled the beautiful passage from Isaiah which declares, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10). Sincere Jews knew that, contrary to the man-made, legalistic traditions of their rabbis, God not only requires inner righteousness of men but He also offers it as a gift.
God’s eyes, of course, can see into men’s hearts to know whether their righteousness is of their own making or His granting. But even outwardly a true believer’s life will evidence right living and reflect right thinking. The Lord not only imputes but imparts righteousness to His children. Only He can see the internal righteousness that He imputes, but everyone can see the external righteousness that He imparts. A child of God is characterized by a holy life. Peter made that fact clear when he described salvation as “obedience to the truth” which has “purified your souls” (1 Pet. 1:22).
Just before Jesus declared that prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles in His name may be false evidence of salvation, He had said that true evidence of salvation will always be apparent. A person’s spiritual condition will be manifested in the fruit of his living. “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?” He had asked rhetorically. “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:16–17, 21–23). A holy, godly life cannot help bearing righteous fruit, because it is the natural outgrowth of the work of the Spirit within (Gal. 5:22–23).
Jesus surely would have been pleased had one of His hearers interrupted and asked, “How can I be clothed in the proper garment? What can I do to keep from being cast into the outer darkness like that man?” He no doubt would have said to that person as He had said many times before in various ways, “Come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:40). As Paul explained to the Corinthians, God made Christ “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). That is the wedding garment that God demands and His Son provides.
Jesus did not ask the Jewish leaders to comment on this parable as He had done with the previous two, where in each case they condemned themselves by their answers (21:31–32, 40–45). He knew they would not be trapped again, because it was now obvious that the whole thrust of the parables was to condemn them. Their only purpose, now heating up to a fury, was to trap and condemn Him to death (22:15; cf. 21:46).
Consequently, the Lord closed with the simple but sobering statement, Many are called, but few are chosen. That phrase reflects the scriptural balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s will. The invitations to the wedding feast went out to many, representative of everyone to whom the gospel message is sent. But few of those who heard the call were willing to accept it and thereby be among the chosen. The gospel invitation is sent to everyone, because it is not the Father’s will that a single person be excluded from His kingdom and perish in the outer darkness of hell (2 Pet. 3:9). But not everyone wants God, and many who claim to want Him do not want Him on His terms. Those who are saved enter God’s kingdom because of their willing acceptance of His sovereign, gracious provision. Those who are lost are excluded from the kingdom because of their willing rejection of that same sovereign grace.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.
“Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
From time to time in these studies I have acknowledged that a particular parable is difficult to interpret and have mentioned several ways the details of the story might be taken. That problem does not exist with the parables in Matthew 21 and 22: the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked tenant farmers, and the parable of the wedding banquet. On the contrary, they are all too clear—above all the parable of the banquet! It speaks of God’s gracious invitation in the gospel and of the indifferent and even arrogant way men and women respond to it. It also refers to hell as the end of those who presume to enter God’s presence without the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness.
This parable is found in Luke as well as in Matthew, though with some differences. The fullest form is Matthew’s; Luke does not mention the guest who is cast out. But Luke 14:15–24 contains an elaboration of the excuses made by those who refused the king’s invitation.
Those Who Would Not Come
The story begins with a king who has prepared a wedding banquet for his son and sends servants to those who have been invited to tell them that the feast is now ready and that they should come. They refuse to come. Their refusal is an insult, of course. It is dishonoring to the son, the king, and even to the servants who carried the king’s message. But the king is patient at first. He sends other servants to repeat the invitation: “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet” (v. 4). But again they refuse. This time, however, they do not merely reject the invitation, they also mistreat the messengers and kill some of them. The king sends an army to destroy the murderers and burn their city (vv. 1–7). After that he invites others.
The reason the parable is so easy to understand is that nearly every part is discussed in plain terms elsewhere. The king is God, sitting on the throne of the universe. The son is his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The banquet is the marriage supper of the Lamb. The messengers are the early preachers of the gospel. Those to whom the invitation was first given are the upright Jews, and those who eventually come to the banquet are the outcast and poor, even Gentiles. John 1:11–12 says, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
John 1:11–12 suggests that on one level at least a number of Jesus’ parables deal with the refusal of the Jews to receive Jesus when he first came to them. This was a major puzzle during the lifetime of the Lord, as well as afterward, so it is not strange to find parables that either deal with it directly or allude to it indirectly. The older son in the parable of the prodigal son represents Israel and her religious leaders particularly. So do the workers in the vineyard who were hired early but were paid the same as those who came late. So does the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). These parables all explore the thinking of those who supposed they had worked long and faithfully for God, unlike the common people or Gentiles, and were resentful when the grace of God was shown to people they considered unworthy of it.
The unique element in the parable of the wedding banquet is the willful refusal of those who were invited. It was not that they could not come. Rather, they would not. The reason for their refusal is not spelled out, but the way the servants were treated suggests what it was. They “seized” the servants, “mistreated them and killed them” (v. 6). If the invited guests felt that way toward the servants, they obviously felt that way toward the king who had sent them and would have seized, mistreated, and killed him if they could have done so. In other words, they would not come because they actually despised the king and were hostile to him.
The leaders of Christ’s day bitterly resented this portrait of them, but resent it or not, that is precisely the way these religious leaders thought and acted. In the story immediately before this (Matt. 21:33–46), Jesus told of tenant farmers who beat, killed, and stoned the owner’s servants. At last they murdered his son.
In the chapter following (Matthew 23), Jesus pronounces woes on these same people:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!…
I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.…
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
We know that at the last these rebellious subjects of the King of heaven killed Christ. As Stephen later put it, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:52–53).
Today we are not so inclined to kill prophets. If we are honest, however, we will admit that the same spirit is present among many of our contemporaries as they dispose of God’s messengers by ridicule or neglect, if not by more violent hostility. Charles H. Spurgeon preached seven sermons on this parable during the course of his long ministry, and he was deeply touched by that fact. He said:
Today this same class will be found among the children of godly parents; dedicated from their birth, prayed for by loving piety, listening to the gospel from their childhood, and yet unsaved. We look for these to come to Jesus. We naturally hope that they will feast upon the provisions of grace, and like their parents will rejoice in Christ Jesus; but alas! How often it is the case they will not come!… A preacher may be too rhetorical: let a plain-speaking person be tried. He may be too weighty: let another come with parable and anecdote. Alas! With some of you the thing wanted is not a new voice, but a new heart. You would listen no better to a new messenger than to the old one.
Some who are invited to the gospel banquet do not openly express their hatred of the one who gives it, but they make excuses. They go off “one to his field, another to his business” (v. 5). Jesus elaborates that point in Luke’s version: “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come’ ” (Luke 14:18–20). Each of those excuses is trifling. As Jesus tells it, it is not a case of a man being on his deathbed, unable to move, nor a woman being kept at home by a violent husband. Not one of these excuses has any weight at all. So what if a man has just bought a field? There is no reason why he would have to see it on that particular day and miss the banquet. The field could wait. There was no reason why the second person had to try out his oxen. He could have waited a few days. Even the excuse about marriage had no substance. Are we to think that a new bride would be unwelcome at a feast to which her husband was invited?
Besides that, the invitation was not the first they had received. In both versions of the parable Jesus says the invitation was sent to those who had already been invited once. The guests had no excuse for failing to arrange their schedules accordingly. When the final summons came, they should have been eagerly anticipating the banquet.
Many who reject the gospel invitation today have equally flimsy excuses and will rightly incur the King’s wrath. They say they are too busy for spiritual things. They say they have fields or patients or bonds or whatever it is that imprisons their souls and keeps them from faith in him who brings salvation. Spurgeon, whom I quoted earlier, tells of a ship owner who was visited by a godly man. The Christian asked, “Well, sir, what is the state of your soul?” to which the merchant replied, “Soul? I have no time to take care of my soul. I have enough to do just taking care of my ships.” But he was not too busy to die, which he did a week later.
Do you fit that pattern? Are you more interested in your good credit than in Christ? Do you read the stock quotations more than you read your Bible? You do not have to murder a prophet to miss out. You have only to fritter away your time on things that will eventually pass away and thus let your opportunities for repentance and faith pass by.
Those Who Came
Half the parable (Matt. 22:1–7) is about those who despised the king and would not come to the banquet, but the second half (vv. 8–14) tells of those who did come. The king said, “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find” (v. 9). Luke makes it plain that these persons were drawn from the lower ranks of life. “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.… Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:21, 23).
This seems an extraordinary thing for the master to have done or, in Matthew’s case, for a king to have done. But when we remember that the master represents God, it seems inevitable. We need to ask questions such as, Is it possible that the King of the universe could ever be dishonored by having no one at the wedding supper of his Son? That no one would be saved? Can the Almighty be vanquished? Disappointed? Can the work of the Lord Jesus Christ be ineffective? Can Jesus have died in vain? Or risen in vain? If Jesus died and no one receives salvation through his completed work, would not God be dishonored? Would Satan not have triumphed? To ask questions such as these is to show the impossibility of such an outcome. God must be honored. Jesus must be effective in his work. Jesus himself said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37, emphasis added).
But surely God is dishonored by the kinds of people who come, someone might say. These are not the important people, not the wise, not the strong, not the mighty. True, and God admits it. Paul wrote, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). Is God dishonored by dealing with such people? On the contrary, he is highly honored.
How? Let me share Spurgeon’s answer to that question:
- “The persons who came to the wedding were more grateful than the first invited might have been if they had come. The richer sort had a good dinner every day. Those farmers could always kill a fat sheep, and those merchants could always buy a calf. ‘Thank you for nothing,’ they would have said to the king if they had accepted his invitation. But these poor beggars picked off the streets … welcomed the fatlings. How glad they were! One of them said to the other, ‘It’s a long time since you and I last sat down to such a joint as this,’ and the other answered, ‘I can hardly believe that I am really in a palace dining with a king. Why, yesterday I begged all the day and only had twopence at night. Long live the king, say I, and blessings on the prince and his bride!’
- “The joy that day was much more expressed than it would have been had others come. Those ladies and gentlemen who were first invited, if they had come to the wedding, would have seated themselves there in a very stiff and proper manner.… But these beggars! They make a merry clatter; they are not muzzled by propriety; they are glad at the sight of every dish.…
- “The occasion became more famous than it would otherwise have been. If the feast had gone on as usual it would have been only one among many such things; but now this royal banquet was the only one of its kind, unique, unparalleled. To gather in poor men off the streets, laboring men and idle men, bad men and good men, to the wedding of the Crown Prince—this was a new thing under the sun. Everybody talked of it. There were songs made about it, and these were sung in the King’s honor where none honored kings before.… Dear friends, when the Lord saved some of us by his grace, it was no common event. When he brought us great sinners to his feet, and washed us, and clothed us, and fed us, and made us his own, it was a wonder to be talked of for ever and ever. We will never leave off praising his name throughout eternity. That which looked as though it would defame the King turned out to his honor, and ‘the wedding was furnished with guests.’ ”
Ultimately, nothing will dishonor God. Unbelievers may despise him and dishonor him by their rejections of the gospel, but theirs is not the last word. Their hatred will be overcome by God’s good, and the praise of the redeemed will drown out the cries of the impenitent. To see it we have only to turn to the last chapters of the Book of Revelation, where we find the wicked being judged and the redeemed people of God engaged in holy, hearty, heartfelt praise to him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb forever.
The Man without a Garment
At this point the parable seems to be over, which is the case in Luke. But Matthew is not quite finished, and I am glad because here the Lord gives a much needed warning concerning the man who came to the feast without a wedding garment. The disadvantaged sometimes possess an inverse pride. Because they are not rich or famous or powerful but poor and unknown and weak, they feel they deserve the king’s bounty and can come before him in their own character and on the basis of their own “good” works. Jesus exposed that error by showing how the man who came to the feast without a garment was at once confronted by the king and then thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 13).
What is the wedding garment? It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, of course. It is that perfect righteousness that God provides freely to all who repent of sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for their salvation. We sing about it in a hymn of Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, translated by John Wesley:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
If we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we will be able to stand before God and rejoice in our salvation, but only if we are so clothed. If we are not clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we will be speechless before God and will be cast out.
I am interested in the words “the man was speechless” (v. 12), because that is the same thought Paul expresses in Romans 3:19, when he wraps up his powerful indictment of the human race by concluding that “every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”
Early in his ministry, Donald Grey Barnhouse developed a way of presenting the gospel using that text. When Barnhouse was speaking to a person and he wasn’t sure whether the person was a Christian, Barnhouse would ask, “Suppose you should die tonight and appear before God in heaven and he should ask you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?” He learned from experience that there were only three answers a person could give.
Many would cite their good works, saying, “I’d say I’ve done the best I can, and I’ve never done anything particularly bad.” This was an appeal to the person’s moral record, and Barnhouse would point out that it is our record that has gotten us into trouble in the first place. We have all fallen short of God’s moral standard embodied in the law. The Bible flatly declares, “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20).
A second group of people would respond as a woman did whom Barnhouse once met on a ship crossing the Atlantic. He asked, “If God demanded of you, ‘What right do you have to come into my heaven?’ what would you say?”
She responded, “I wouldn’t have a thing to say.” To put it in other words, she would be “speechless” before God, which is what Paul wrote about in Romans. In Jesus’ parable the Lord says this will be the case for all of us when God actually asks that question. In this life we may get by with our excuses or with the delusion that our record is pretty good and God will be satisfied with it. But in that day, when we see God in his glory and understand what true righteousness is, our foolishness will be made apparent to ourselves as well as to all other beings in the universe, and we will be reduced to silence—if we are not clothed with the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness.
Which brings us to the third and only acceptable answer. “What right do you have to come into my heaven?” The only possible answer is, “None at all, so far as I myself am concerned. But Jesus died for my sins and has given me the covering of his own righteousness in which alone I dare to stand before you. I come at your invitation and in that clothing.” Will God reject a person who comes in that way? He will not, for it is precisely for such persons that Jesus Christ died. Besides, it is Jesus who has invited us to come to him.
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
Many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matt. 22:14)
We are fascinated by weddings. My recent internet search of the term “wedding” turned up over fifty million hits, not far behind terms such as truth, marriage, baseball, and mother. Weekly television programs and successful magazines are exclusively devoted to brides and weddings. Wedding movies entertain every year, with stories of princess brides, runaway brides, and wedding planners who dream of their own wedding plans. Some people plan more for their wedding than they do for their marriage, and a few people seem to care more about their wedding than their marriage. Therefore they put their marriages at risk by delaying marriage in order to have “the perfect wedding,” and after the marriage ends, they may end up suing each other for ownership of the wedding photos.
The Kingdom Is like a Royal Wedding Banquet
Since this fascination with weddings is nothing new, it is no surprise that Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom that features an unusual wedding: “Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son’ ” (22:1–2 ESV). Like all parables, this one is a comparison, an analogy, meant to make a point, not to offer a precise definition of the kingdom. Strange things happen in parables, so that they arrest our attention and make us think. Here, for starters, guests spurn a royal wedding and kill the messengers, and the king retaliates by burning their city.
In our story, a king hosts a wedding banquet for his son and invites his guests. Then, as now, custom required that the king send invitations to his friends and fellow leaders for such a formal event. The guests would be honored by the invitation, and the king would prepare a sumptuous banquet that might last for days.
The invitation secures a commitment to attend (or not) on a certain day. Since they had no clocks or watches, everyone would need to be ready to come when the king dispatched his servants to invite everyone again and to declare that the hour of the wedding and the feast had come.
The Invited Guests Behave Badly
Yet on the appointed day, when the king “sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet … they refused to come” (22:3). This is astonishing—both rude and unnatural—to reject anyone like this, let alone the king!
But the king persisted and gave everyone a second chance. Could there be a misunderstanding? To make everything clear, “he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet’ ” (22:4).
Strangely, the guests cared not a whit and “paid no attention” to the servants. They “went off—one to his field, another to his business” (22:5). Thus they ignored the king. To sense the depth of this insult, imagine receiving an invitation to an intimate event hosted by the president or prime minister of the nation. This is neither a publicity stunt nor a photo opportunity, but an entire day with government leaders, including an hour with the president or prime minister himself, discussing policy. We accept the invitation and arrange to go. But when the day comes, we change our mind. It is a beautiful day for a round of golf or a long hike with a friend, so we skip the flight. Suppose that the president’s staff is tracking the flights of all his guests and learns that we are not on the appointed flight. Thinking the best, a staffer calls and says, “We see that you missed the flight. I have reserved a seat on the next flight from your airport. It is scheduled to leave in an hour, but the plane will wait for you.” If we still do not come, what must the president think? If we choose golf or a hike over a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet with the president, he must be dismayed as he concludes that we think nothing of him and scorn his office.
As the parable describes the shocking behavior of the king’s supposed friends, we realize that Jesus must have been dismayed at the dreadful way Israel’s leaders had treated him in recent days. Describing Jesus’ life as a whole, John says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Matthew has given us the details. Specifically, when Jesus examined the temple and saw no fruit, he corrected what he saw. But far from asking Jesus what his acts meant, the authorities replied defensively, asking why he thought he had the right to criticize them. Jesus then told three parables that describe the way he saw the temple and its leaders.
The parable of the two sons compares the leaders to a man who promises to serve his father, then goes off and does nothing (21:28–32). The parable of the tenants compares Israel to tenants who are given a perfect vineyard, then refuse to pay the rent and attempt to seize the property by beating and killing the owner’s representatives. Finally, they incite one another to disinherit and slay the owner’s son, just as the leaders soon disinherited and killed Jesus (21:33–46). In this parable, people are invited to a royal banquet, then refuse to come.
These parables do not merely condemn Israel’s leaders, they express dismay over their rejection of Jesus, their long-expected Redeemer and King. Remember, Jesus had an emotional life. On occasion, he grew weary and disappointed, even exasperated (Matt. 17:17; Mark 8:12). So here we sense astonished disappointment. How could those who claim to be God’s people do such things? It is a wound, an outrage, a senseless insult to the King of kings. It is hate toward his servants, the prophets, and his Son. Why would they do it? How shall the king respond?
The story hints at the senselessness of it all. The guests casually wandered off to their farms or businesses. Jesus tells essentially the same parable but in a different setting in Luke 14. There Jesus describes the guests’ excuses in more detail. As in Matthew, they had no urgent business.
One said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it” (Luke 14:18). But any sensible person would inspect a field before he bought it. Today one might as well say, “I cannot come to your party. I bought a house and need to look at it.” It is hardly urgent to examine a field or a house after buying it. Besides, if a final inspection is necessary, the next day will suffice.
Another wanted to test five teams of oxen (14:19). But a team must be tested before purchase, for if they cannot pull together, they are worthless. This excuse is no more likely than someone saying today, “I just bought five trucks and must go see if they run.” We test things before we buy them.
Finally, one said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (14:20 ESV). The assumption is that the marriage was recent. The law does excuse a newly married man from fighting for Israel’s army (Deut. 20:7). But marriage is no excuse for backing out of a party. Besides, he did accept the first invitation, whether newly married or not. So the invitees insult the host’s honor.
Worse yet, some of them did something more egregious than simply to ignore the king and his messengers. They “seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them” (Matt. 22:6). At first glance, the invited guests simply seemed rude and disrespectful. But now we see that they hate him and would destroy his reign if they could. This is rebellion!
The king is angry, yet resolute. He is the king, after all. The violence against his servants will be punished: “He sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (22:7 ESV). In the parable, the feast is waiting and the rebels are concentrated in another city, which he burns. We understand that not everything in the story could happen at once. Rather, the king ordered his soldiers to act decisively to crush the rebellion.
This element of the story may shock us. The image comes from Isaiah 5, which also supplied the starting point for the parable of the wicked tenants (21:33–46). In Isaiah, the Lord compares Israel to a fertile vineyard, well planted with vines, guarded by a tower and supplied with a winepress. But the vineyard bore him no fruit. Therefore the Lord will tear up the vineyard, let the vines dry, and then burn them. Israel despised the word of God, “therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled” (Isa. 5:1–6, 24–25 ESV).
As the first phase of the story ends, we pause to consider whom the characters represent. As usual, the king represents God the Father. The son represents Jesus (the son was Jesus in the prior parable, 21:33–46, and Jesus is a bridegroom in 25:1). The servants are God’s agents—the prophets, the apostles, and their successors. The king invites guests to his son’s wedding feast just as God invites men, women, and children to his kingdom through the ages. The feast is a symbol of eternal life, for God’s people will celebrate and dine with him at “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7–9).
Those who initially agreed to come represent those Israelites who said “Yes” to God, but now refuse God’s invitation when the hour arrives. Originally, they especially represented the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus. But the citizens also represent religious people who first accept, then reject God’s invitation.
Then and now, those who reject God’s invitation miss his feast. Yet the guests do not simply turn down an invitation to a party. In the story, they are so hostile that they kill the king’s servants. This violence is rebellion against the king. For this, they face the king’s wrath and punishment (22:7).
In the real world, many simply ignore God’s invitation, for it seems irrelevant to them. Others are more adamant about their goal of keeping God out of their lives. For example, Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned Harvard paleontologist and Darwinist, famously said, “Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains.” That may sound innocuous, but Gould meant that religion and morality merely belong to the private sphere of finding comfort and direction in life. He meant that religion—indeed, God himself (should he exist)—should stay out of the public sphere of science and fact. He meant Christians should keep their faith out of science and scientists will keep out of their faith. But his definition of the spheres keeps God and faith out of all but a small realm of private feelings and personal decisions. Religion can offer direction to the morally confused and comfort to the emotionally burdened, but nothing more. So he excluded God from most of the world.
Now we cannot read the first principles or the developed theories of science from the Bible, but if the God of the Bible says anything, he says he is Lord of all. When someone says, “This sphere, my sphere, is off limits to God,” he rejects the Lord. He ignores, even insults, God’s messengers.
The King Invites Others
The king is angry at his first guests. They “did not deserve to come” (22:8). But the king is gracious. The wedding feast stands ready (22:8), so he commissions his servants to “go to the street corners” or, more precisely, the intersections where two roads meet. He charges them “to invite to the banquet anyone you find” (22:9). So the servants “went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (22:10).
The banquet will go on because the king shows genuine grace, inviting those who have no relationship with him. There is no reason to invite them to the feast other than his desire to honor his son on his wedding day. That is why the servants must “gather” them. Custom required them to refuse the invitation. The offer cannot be serious! So the servants must convince them the host is sincere and urge them to come. The king orders that the servants bring “both good and bad.” Eventually, “the wedding hall was filled with guests” (22:10).
Again, the symbolism is easy to follow. The guests who fill the banquet hall represent everyone who does not deserve a place at God’s eternal kingdom celebration. They represent flawed Israelites who are unworthy of God—the ordinary people, the sinners, who seemed to have no relation to the king. They represent Gentiles, nations, and peoples who once seemed far removed from the kingdom. From the beginning, the Gospels predicted that Jesus would come to the Gentiles. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Simon called him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Later, John said that through Jesus “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 2:32; 3:6 ESV). Matthew says Jesus began his ministry in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15).
So God invites all kinds of people to his feast. Some initially say yes, then back away. Many leaders did this in Jesus’ day. They said yes to God once, but when Jesus came, they did not like what they saw. Today, the same holds for nominal Christians. They go to church occasionally, maybe even regularly. They like some of Jesus’ teachings and the offer of eternal life. But when they inspect the entire package, they demur and pull away.
Such people remind us that it is not enough to say yes to God once, vaguely. Many people are baptized, catechized, and sanitized from public displays of gross sin. But there is more to faith than that. True believers say yes and come to Jesus, redeemer and Lord, as the Gospels present him. Yet if someone refuses the feast, he does not stymie Jesus. His feast goes on, for he issues more invitations.
To this day, invitations remain important. In high school, good looks, athletic ability, and social confidence are the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners in the world of invitations. Of course, adults consider it important to be invited to certain parties or meetings, and some will do all they can to get in. But there is a gathering for which no credentials are required. The host is most impressive and the guest list will take your breath away. Unfortunately, one glance at the host tells you this party is out of your league.
Yet the party is not exclusive. Everyone is invited. The messenger declares, “The king requests your presence.” You reply, “There must be a mistake. You cannot mean it.” But the host does mean it, so the messengers must gather people, pulling them in. “Yes, you have no standing with the host, but he wants you to come. Please come; I implore you.”
The parable depicts the free gift of the gospel. The feast is a metaphor for eternal life. Even today, people ought to be astonished that the king of the universe requests their presence. Before we knew him, apart from any merit on our part, the Lord God set in motion a process that brings ordinary people to himself. According to plan, God personally entered history with the incarnation and continued through the death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ. He will return to call his people to himself.
But the Guests Must Be Prepared
This is the gospel: God saves on the basis of grace, not by merit, by grace alone, not by credentials, résumé, or lineage. He saves by faith in Christ alone. Even our faith has no merit. We cannot boast, “At least I had the good sense to believe.” God seeks us and prompts us to come to him. Besides, faith does not look inward, to the believing self. It looks upward to Christ. Then and now, faith leans on Jesus. And he accepts us, whether we are insiders or outsiders, whether we are the kind to get invited to important parties or not.
The story has one more element. The king came, inspected his guests, and “noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes” (22:11). His address takes a cordial tone: “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” But the man had nothing to say—he “was speechless” (22:12).
Since he was unfit for the banquet, the king’s servants tossed him outside, “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:13; cf. 8:12; 13:42, 50). The guest was invited, but he acted like a party crasher. He was not dressed for the wedding. As a result, the host cast him out. The parable hints at the reality of eternal exclusion from the blessed presence of God and the eternal punishment which Matthew 24 and 25 describe more fully.
The darkness and the weeping represent eternal separation from God. The parable reminds us that not all who are part of the visible church are members of the true church. Eventually they leave or are cast out. As John says, “They did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (1 John 2:19).
But what do the wedding clothes represent? There are two answers. In Revelation, the wedding clothes are the righteousness of Christ. In heaven, God’s people are dressed in white robes. They became white when washed “in the blood of the lamb” (Rev. 7:9–14). This fits the parable which says the king invited both “good and bad” guests. If they are “bad,” they must be dressed in the righteousness of Jesus, which we gain by faith. But Revelation also says God’s people are dressed in fine linen, which is “the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:8 ESV).
So then the garment seems to be both the righteousness we have by faith in Christ and the righteousness we have by living as disciples. How can it be both? Let me answer with another story from family life.
Reflecting on the Banquet
Our first child was born to my wife at noon, after twenty hours of labor and thirty-three hours without sleep. A nurse cleaned her, checked her grip, and handed her to her mother for a season of bonding, as if, like a duck, our infant needed to imprint on her mother. It was a tender but brief moment. They cuddled, I took a photo, and my exhausted wife smiled and said, “Here, you take her, I need to sleep.”
I accompanied our newborn for the next phase of hospital activities. They undressed and weighed her and she screamed. They stretched her out for measurement and she screamed some more. They smeared gel in her eyes and thrust tubes down her nose and stuck their fingers in her mouth and she wailed. My emotions began to rise. Sleep deprived as I was, I struggled to restrain myself from accosting my baby’s tormentors and shouting, “Why are you hurting my baby? Leave her alone.” I did restrain myself, of course, because I could foresee the headlines: “Pastor wrestles nurse in hospital melee.” But the depth of my emotions surprised me. I loved this child! I had known her for twenty minutes and hot waves of paternal love surged through me.
Just so, parental love does not depend on an infant’s merit. It is free. My children know their parents’ love is free. Yet they know it also has costs. For example, everyone has chores to do, even if they suspect that it is impossible to match all the white socks correctly. And we have rules: Tell the truth; treat each another with respect, and don’t hit anyone unless they clearly deserve it.
Why do my children obey those rules? Why do they love and respect their parents? In order to obtain our love? No, they love because we loved them first. They obey not to get a father but because they have a father. For a child, there is a great difference between obeying parents in order to gain love and obeying because she is loved. Good parents remember the difference every day. The kingdom is the same. First we experience God’s love, then we love him and obey him. Both are necessary: the parents’ initial love and the child’s answering love.
The parable makes this vital point about God: he invites all kinds of people to join his kingdom. He offers life to religious and to secular people, to Jews and Gentiles. The other characters in the story teach additional lessons as they respond to this primary lesson.
The first group teaches that rejection of God’s offer is rebellion, which God eventually punishes (22:1–7). The second group teaches that both good and bad people can enjoy God’s offer (22:8–10). Yet those who come to God must come in truth (22:11–13). They must be prepared to stand before the Lord. That happens two ways: by faith in Jesus, who gives his righteousness to us, and by living as a disciple.
So it comes to us. Jesus says, “Many are invited [or called], but few are chosen” (22:14). That is, many hear the outward call to God and many appear to respond, but God chooses only some of them to enter his eternal heaven. We know who these are by a profession of faith that is verified by a godly life.
Today, we can have assurance that we are ready for God’s banquet and have been chosen for it in this way. We must ask: Have we heard and accepted Christ’s call to believe? Are we, to use Paul’s phrase, “putting on Christ” and the good deeds that never earn God’s favor but always answer to his favor? Or will you be speechless when you meet the Lord?
Some years ago, a great pastor fashioned a diagnostic question that started profitable conversations about the faith: If God asked you, “What right do you have to enter my heaven?” what would you say? The pastor found that people answered three ways.
- Some say they have tried to be good—a good neighbor, a good mother, a good citizen. They say, “I’ve done my best and I’m no worse than the next fellow.”
- A second group is speechless. This is not the silence of a listener, it is the silence of the embarrassed, the flustered and the guilty, who know they have nothing to say in their defense. They simply do not know what to say.
- The third group says, “I have no right to enter heaven and offer nothing by way of merit. But I do believe in Jesus. I trust in him alone for salvation and I seek him for daily direction.”
The third group is fit for the banquet, fit for heaven. In the last several chapters, the topic of true religion and true faith has come up several times. True religion bears fruit, true faith follows Christ. If someone is not sure whether his religion is genuine, he should both examine himself and pray. He may seek a Christian friend or a pastor to help him, or he may seek a quiet place where he will be alone with the Lord. A person might pray this way:
Lord Jesus Christ, I am aware that in different ways you have been seeking me. I believe that your claims are true; that you died on the cross for my sins, and that you have risen in triumph over death. Thank you for your loving offer of forgiveness, freedom, and fulfillment. Now—I turn from my sinful self-centeredness. I come to you as my Savior. I submit to you as my Lord. Give me the strength to follow you for the rest of my life. Amen.
This prayer, sincerely prayed, makes us true friends of the king. It clothes us in the garments that prepare us for God’s banquet, for life everlasting with him.