Remember Jesus’ story about the guy who was tossed out of the wedding banquet for not wearing the right gear? What was that about?
Matthew 22:8-14 (my translation, compare NIV)
8 Then he says to his servants, “Seriously, the wedding is ready, but the ones who’ve been called were not worthy. 9 So head out to where people meet as they travel and call as many as you can find to the wedding.”
10 The servants headed out and rounded up everyone they found — both the bad and the good! That’s how the seats at the wedding were filled.
11 When the king came in to check on his guests, he saw someone who had not dressed for the wedding. 12 He says to him, “Friend, how did you come in here without dressing for the wedding?” He had no answer.
13 Then the king said to his attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him out where it’s utterly dark, where there’s anguish and remorse. 14 For many are called, few chosen.”
You could hardly find a better example of how we conscript Scripture to conform to our own views instead of listening to what it says. For Calvinists, the final verse confirms a particular view of election. For Lutherans, the mix of good and bad reflects justification by faith (not works). For Augustine, the guest’s eviction in final judgement was the result of refusing the special garment provided by the king, even though there’s nothing in the story about the king providing garments and that didn’t happen at weddings. And we’ve already dismissed the nonsensical idea that Jesus thought God was rejecting the Jewish people.
None of these readings focus on the main thing. This is a kingdom parable, a story of the king’s son (22:2). The point is the king’s determination to honour his son on his special day, even though his subjects treat his son so shamefully. This is just days before the crucifixion.
In the story, those honoured with an invitation reject the son and even kill the messengers (22:3-6). You might expect the king to call the wedding off, or at least turn it into a private event. Instead, he turns it into a more public event. He invites everyone they can find, indiscriminately, the bad as well as the good (22:9). In an honour/shame culture, that was unthinkably rash.
Not only is the king persisting with his plans, he’s mixing among his people. Isn’t this a security nightmare? Given how they’ve already treated his servants (22:6) and how this crowd has been assembled indiscriminately (22:10), there could be some in the room who don’t honour the king. What if they’d like to get rid of the king? Or his son?
The king is keeping an eye on his guests, and he spots a problem. Someone came to his son’s wedding without bothering to dress up. Maybe he just wants a free meal at the king’s expense, but he’s showing no respect for the king’s son, publicly dishonouring him like that. With amazing empathy, the king approaches him to learn if there’s a good reason for this anomaly. There isn’t. The king binds him (security risk), evicting him from the royal wedding, leaving him outside in complete darkness (no streetlights), so the only thing he can see is the shame he has brought on himself by dishonouring his prince (weeping and grinding his teeth in remorse).
What’s the point?
It’s the final week of Jesus’ life, and he’s responding to the temple leaders and Pharisees who reject his authority. Within a few days, they will take the son appointed by God to reign, bind him, hand him over to their imperial oppressors, and cast him out of the city to be crucified. In a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin, they’ve decided to save the people by killing Jesus (John 11:47-50). Jesus brings no force to stop them, for he believes his Father will sort out the judgement (see on 22:1-7).
The king’s son has been constantly showing up the failure of the Pharisee’s agenda (calling the worthy, ostracising the sinners). As his Father says, that hasn’t resulted in worthy guests (22:8).
So, the king in Jesus’ story prohibits the servants from making any such judgement. He commands them to call everyone they found on the streets. Shockingly, the result is that the prince’s wedding is filled with bad as well as good people.
The truth is that our religious world today is as judgemental as in Jesus’ day. Aussies have a major beef over how judgemental the church is, and it’s a major turnoff. Like Jesus said, the judgement we give the community gets reflected back on us. We use labels like “sinner” in ways Jesus did not, and naturally people feel rejected. Jesus has already rejected our offer to sort the good from the bad, insisting we leave that for God to work out (see on Matthew 13:28-30).
Once we reject the Pharisees’ agenda (we humans trying to sort the good from the bad), we discover that the heavenly king is walking among his people. He’s not checking for the kinds of behaviour we Pharisees think of as sins. He’s checking for people’s attitude towards his son.
God’s approach is so different from ours. What bothers him is a gardener who didn’t bother to change his dirt-clogged shirt for the royal wedding. Even then, the label he chooses is, Friend. Church might work better if we did that.
Once we take our hands off the judgement hammer, we discover our heavenly sovereign is perfectly capable of deciding who belongs at his table, and who doesn’t. He makes that judgement call, and he forbids us from doing so.
Here’s Jesus’ pithy summary: many are called; few chosen.
Theologians have spilt much ink arguing over the difference: Who are the called? Who are the chosen? How do we tell the difference? Wrong questions. Our desire to pontificate is so strong that we missed the whole point.
Jesus’ point is not who’s called versus who’s chosen. It’s who calls versus who chooses.
The king’s servants relay his call. Indiscriminately. To everyone. The result is a mix of bad and good — shocking and completely unacceptable to us religious bigots. But it has to be okay. God can sort it out. If he finds someone who dishonours his son, he who knows people’s hearts in ways we do not. He can and will resolve it.
We call everyone to his banquet; he chooses who belongs at the table he set for his son. Could that be a fun way to do church?
What others are saying
These quotes illustrate how even great commentators have struggled to make sense of this parable, either being judgemental or not making sense of God’s judgement.
Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 400), Serm. (Ben.) 90.6:
What is that “wedding garment” then? This is the wedding garment: “Now the end of the commandment,” says the Apostle, “is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” This is “the wedding garment.” Not charity of any kind whatever; for very often they who are partakers together of an evil conscience seem to love one another. … Question yourselves; if ye have it, ye may be without fear in the Feast of the Lord. In one and the same man there exist two things, charity and desire. Let charity be born in thee, if it be yet unborn, and if it be born, be it nourished, fostered, increased. But as to that desire, though in this life it cannot be utterly extinguished.
John Calvin, Institutes III, xxiv, 8:
The statement of Christ “Many are called but few are chosen” [Matt. 22:14] is, in this manner, very badly understood. Nothing will be ambiguous if we hold fast to what ought to be clear from the foregoing: that there are two kinds of call. There is the general call, by which God invites all equally to himself through the outward preaching of the word—even those to whom he holds it out as a savor of death [cf. 2 Cor. 2:16], and as the occasion for severer condemnation. The other kind of call is special, which he deigns for the most part to give to the believers alone, while by the inward illumination of his Spirit he causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts. Yet sometimes he also causes those whom he illumines only for a time to partake of it; then he justly forsakes them on account of their ungratefulness and strikes them with even greater blindness.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1995), 631:
The material added by Matthew at this point (vv 11–14) apparently has as its purpose to emphasize the very great importance of righteousness for those who would enter the kingdom (cf. 5:20) and thus to balance the point made in v. 10 concerning “both bad and good.”
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 823:
When he is consigned to the “darkness outside” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. 8:12; 25:30) the symbolism again invades the story, as the punishment far exceeds the scale of the man’s offense.