The parable of the wedding feast
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and over the Internet.
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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 slaughtered, 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, ill-treated 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. So 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, the bad as well as the good, 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. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” 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.’
Matthew 22:1–14 (NIVUK)
We know how different our world has become. School, work, shopping, visiting friends or family or not has become quite different. Even those folk gathered in the worship area here for the first time in six or seven months have found that things are definitely not the same as we all follow rules and regulations.
What is it that the kingdom of God is like, and how are we able to implement some of these values in our lives? Last week we looked at a parable that seemed very positive. Treat one another the same. This week there’s even more of a challenge and this parable seems to be more of a challenge to us right at the end.
Prior to our reading, Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the Holy City, to the celebration of the crowds on Palm Sunday. That’s the background in Matthew there. This was Holy Week and very soon Jesus would be put on trial for his words and his work for being the King of the Jews. He is now in the temple court, still teaching people about the kingdom of Heaven. It seems that the message has taken a turn. It becomes more urgent and Jesus’ attacks on the traditional religious leaders is becoming less veiled. He teaches right at the centre of the Jewish faith in the temple itself and his teachings seem to be more and more against the establishment. It seems that they are being understood by the religious leaders as God rejecting them. Stories of servants and even landowners, children being killed, are interpreted as how God was treating those who should know better. Jesus was indeed in no holds barred teaching mode.
It is in this context that we come to the Parable of the Wedding Feast. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. It’s really quite shocking that so many friends, invitees, friends, family, perhaps close business associates to a king should refuse such an invitation to a prince’s wedding. I’m sure that if any monarchists here had been invited to a royal wedding or a high society soiree that they would think of nothing else for weeks and weeks on end.
In a not dissimilar passage in Luke Chapter 14, at least the invitees send their apologies, but still, there are weak excuses there. I’m going to buy a cow. I’ve got a business proposition to attend to. I’m sorry I’m going on honeymoon. Perhaps that last one is okay. But in this instance to upstage the king, well goodness me. Even more astonishing, the servants are mistreated for doing their job, for delivering the message of a joyous occasion, a banquet, a wedding banquet. Some are even killed. What awful people the king had invited to the wedding. In return, the king sends armies to trounce those who had upset him. This sounds like a massively disproportionate response for ignoring an invitation. Perhaps those invited were so the king could meet political allies, and so it didn’t matter too much that he could trash towns and kill those who didn’t belong to him. We’re not really told, but suffice to say the king sees such snobs as a major injustice to him and his son.
Today’s message of the king’s invitation being actively ignored by those expecting to come seems to offer an urgent step change in Jesus’ teaching. It’s more about God’s judgment upon those who should have been on the inside perhaps according to them. More shocking to the original hearers is that servants would then be instructed by the king to bring more people in from the highways and the byways. This sounds a little bit like the parable of the net that Andrew spoke about a few weeks ago. Just bring everything in. We’ll get it sorted out later.
As with last week’s parable of the landowner, the king in our parable today is God. The son is Jesus. The servants may well be those who accept the way of the king. Directly before the Parable of the Wedding Feast here in Matthew, we meet another landowner in another parable, but with quite different results to the grace we find from the landowner who continually goes out to find workers as we explored last week. This time the workers refused to give up what is theirs and when the servants go to collect what is owed, they’re stoned. This landowner sends his son thinking that they will acknowledge him and give over some of the crops as was the custom, but no. In this instance, the son is brutally murdered.
All of these parables seem to be more and more about the judgments or the justice of God and upon those who should have known better, or known that the Messiah was coming. The Messiah was here in Jesus, and Jesus is pointing out that in no uncertain terms he is the Messiah, he has come. Yet so much of Israel has missed it. He’s ramping up the judgment of God upon Israel. The people are blatantly ignoring God’s invitation to acknowledge and follow Jesus the Messiah. The twist in these parables is that now the Messiah must go further and to instruct the servants to invite those who wouldn’t have normally been invited. The Pharisees and the religious leaders of this world I’m sure would be agog at this statement. “What? Go to the gentiles, those outside, the nobodies of this world? Wasn’t this king on our side? How on Earth is it that the rules of engagement have changed?” They can’t see their own blindness.
For us, we know of the great commission to go and make disciples and this is the task of the servants, to bring everyone good and bad into the party. Offer them the chance to see what it’s like in the kingdom. As Helmut Thielicke states, it is, “the job of a disciple of Jesus to attract and invite and to offer the Gospel.… Then later, when the guest is inside the [banquet] halls of that house, … they will see how great was the darkness and gloom from which they were so gloriously and mercifully rescued and they will be sorry and repent.”1
Attract, invite, and offer. I love the gentleness and the command of these words. Words which don’t point to church but to Jesus.
I was interested to read over the last few days, Bishop Graham Tomlin has said that church and kingdom are not the same. Perhaps it’s refreshing a little bit maybe to hear an Anglican say that buildings aren’t the centre of it all. “The distinction between the two,” he says, “is very, very important. It keeps the Church humble and understated and is a healthy corrective to the triumphalism that so easily creeps into any institution that believes that in some way it has an [even more] special role to play in God’s plans.”2
Attract, invite, and offer. Not all who accept will come into a church building, but it is important that they come from darkness and gloom that being outside the kingdom is.
Another way of looking at it is that the same thought is whether I have been a Christian perhaps too long to recognize the tremendous blessing of that invitation. After all, it is an invitation of God’s to come. To put into words of the Psalmist in Psalm 51, Have I lost the joy of my salvation? Has my church attendance or even Zoom attendance become the Kingdom of Heaven in itself? How else do I invite people to come and find Jesus if not the church building? As servants of the King, we aim to do his bidding. Making disciples is the main task, and it can occur in many different forms, of which church invitation might be down the list.
Thielicke’s remark is true, “God the King demands of us obedience. We must even turn our whole life around, and we must pay for our Christianity with all that we are. But first he gives us something, first he simply invites us to come.”3 I wonder whether that’s the start of our great commission, an invitation to come, not necessarily to a church building, but to God. If we are fortunate for someone to accept, perhaps a long way down the line, the invitation to come to Jesus, then they are invited to come just as they are, as we sang earlier. How wonderful the privilege of having someone, seeing something of Jesus in you or me that they are inspired to be like him, too. For them, it’s like the King in this parable to go into the villages and street corners and compel people to come in. It seems the real work of transformation begins if we wish it to.
It all sounds lovely. This parable, everyone comes in. Tom Wright4 notices that the ‘everybody’ in Matthew’s gospel always includes the nobodies, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors, the blind people, and the disabled people. The ones who know that they’re not worth a thing in religious traditional terms, and yet just as with Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9, the disabled son of King David’s friend, Jonathan, it’s surprising who were invited to come to the table and eat and feast with joy.
That’s not the end of the parable here in Matthew 22, as it is in the possibly alternate ending or version in Luke 14. There is here an underdressed guest, which the King identifies. This guest who is either good or bad because we don’t know becomes challenged on the dress code, which in itself is a little bit odd because if you drag people off the streets, they’re not generally dressed to the nines ready for a wedding reception. Why is this King making such an issue of the wrong clothes?
There’s a simple answer according to Tom Wright, and he reminds us of the importance of the start of the parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a King who prepares a wedding feast for his son.” This parable is about a father God and his son Jesus. Many are called. The net is cast wide open. Everyone is invited to come to the party. “Here’s the catch”, says Tom Wright. “God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered. They are the clothes that we need to wear for the wedding. If we refuse to put them on, we’re saying that we don’t want to stay at the party.”
The clothes are really the key to understanding this parable. In the same way that Jesus talks later about the Pharisees being wolves in sheep’s clothing. They have to be the right ones. Wedding guests’ clothes are an item of joy. If I’m not wearing the wedding garments, I’m not showing the transformation that God has made in my life. If I have made a decision to follow Jesus, but still remain in the same old clothes, the same behaviours, way of life as beforehand, then only the King can see that I’m a fraud.
The book of Revelation sees the bride of Christ as the church. If I’m not in my wedding outfits, I don’t look the part and maybe I’m not ready for this marriage to the King’s son. At least all the others know they’re frauds and nobody is at this party. If I think I’m any different, the King seems to know my heart. To quotes Helmut Thielicke once more, “We seat ourselves at the banquet table without a wedding garment when we allow our sins to be forgiven, but still wants to hang on to them”5 – to that old life. I guess for us today the challenge is, “What clothes am I wearing? Do I need a new outfit for a new season?”
We end this parable of the kingdom series by reading parts of Isaiah 61. Whilst it’s in the old Testament, it seems to cover precisely why Jesus came, heralding a new positive kingdom, totally different from the world today. In our world of COVID-19, how differently must we see the world? How must we change as a community to meet the needs of those around us? Parts of Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
(Isaiah 61:1–3a, NIVUK)
Towards the end, continuing with this theme of clothing.
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the soil makes the young plant come up
and a garden causes seeds to grow,
so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness
and praise spring up before all nations.
(Isaiah 61:10–11, NIVUK)
I think next week we’ll be exploring Isaiah 61 a little bit more, but as for now let us be joyful that we have been invited to this wedding feast. We can put on the right clothes. As we listen to our final song today, I cast my eyes to Calvary, let us be able to rejoice, to reflect, or perhaps to rethink again where we are in our relationship with our God. I cast my eyes to Calvary.
1. Helmut Thielicke, trans. John W. Doberstein, The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge, UK; The Lutterworth Press, 2015), Chapter XVI: The Parable of the Marriage Feast.
2. Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church, 4th edition (London; Society for Promulgating Christian Knowledge, 2014) ,55.
3. Helmut Thielicke, trans. John W. Doberstein, The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge, UK; The Lutterworth Press, 2015), Chapter XVI: The Parable of the Marriage Feast.
4. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 85.
5. Helmut Thielicke, trans. John W. Doberstein, The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge, UK; The Lutterworth Press, 2015), Chapter XVI: The Parable of the Marriage Feast.
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