Lets start with the the bitter, and let be bitter as it is.
Matthew has received a memory of Jesus—a memory of Jesus telling a parable about a man of property who threw a party that all the guests he had in mind refused to attend. In Luke, the parable ends with the servants of the great someone gathering in the poor and lame, and it becomes a story that opens up Jesus’ remarkable word to the people reclining around the table with him that if they want to eat the bread of the Kingdom of God, they should throw banquets for those who could never repay them.
Something else happens in Matthew. A King sends out slaves to call his invited guests to his son’s wedding banquet. But even though everything is ready, no one is interested in coming. Then things come completely off the rails, because the invitees aren’t content to simply shame the King, and they kill the the slaves who came to tell them that the fat calves are just waiting for somebody to eat them.
Because the king is the king, there are dramatic military responses available to him and his troops go and leave the murders dead in the ruins of their burned city.
But this all started with a wedding banquet! And that banquet is going to happen. So the king sends more slaves—who must have been super excited about this mission—out into the streets to gather up anyone still alive, washed or dirty, good or bad, though at this point we hardly know how to tell that.
Anyway. The banquet hall is full, and when the king makes his kingly entry, he notices that a guest is not wearing a wedding robe (there doesn’t really seem to have been such a thing as a wedding robe—the idea is they aren’t dressed up). And there’s a dress code! And this man should never have been let in. So, out he goes into the outer darkness, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There are lots of questions to ask.
Maybe the first is: what does Matthew think is going on here? Matthew is a Jew. And he looks backward at Jesus through the aftermath of the catastrophic Jewish wars with Rome, and devastation of Jerusalem by Roman troops some forty years after Jesus died. The legions settled things by destroying the temple, left a world without a center, and those who lived those times knew what outer darkness, what weeping and gnashing of teeth looked like. That detail in the parable—about the troops killing and burning a city—and the way the parable is set among parables and proclamations of judgement and consequences to religious elites, tell us that Matthew saw those had refused to listen to the prophets, and those who opposed Jesus, and those who rejected the earliest communities of believers in the risen Christ, as living the same kind of life. And he sees consequences for that kind of life—a kind of life that doesn’t make sense.
There is a banquet prepared. A lavish feast—the kind that a person with everything would give his son. The people invited first have refused it, and things have gone bloodily wrong. But there is still a feast, and the host is now gathering new guests almost indiscriminately. But not everyone end up staying. Nothing is a given here. And if Matthew saw his fellow believers—those who remained faithful to the Jewish law, but trusted that the coming of Christ had shown its deeper truth, and shown a fuller way of living toward God—he seems to be saying that you can move toward that call and still miss the mark, still be found at the feast without a wedding garment. It sets generosity hard against uncompromising demand that we respond to Jesus, by living the kind of life Jesus gave us.
But living things can’t be reduced to a single meaning.
Read this parable as an allegory, and hold that too tightly, and we eventually have to decide if the King in this story can be God—this king who invites only the remarkable people at first, and exacts murderous vengeance when the plan goes wrong? A king who doesn’t sit down with his forced guests, but only looks in to enforce a dress code. Is that God? Is this the kingdom of heaven?
Turn it another way.
Jesus ate with sinners and undesirables, gathered them and made fellowships of them. And he taught that this showed what the kingdom is like; the kingdom of heaven is like a banquet, and people who don’t seem to belong together, will share a table there. Jesus feasted, and call us to that feast.
And here is where the wedding garment part of the story starts to speak to me, and where I start to see myself in this story. Because, I don’t know about you but I don’t often receive gifts well—I mean the big gifts. Like the love that has found me, and begs response. Like my life in a world where where, on almost any given day, my son wants to help me build something.
Part of me just has no idea how to receive all of it, the flood of it. And in a sad way, gifts and invitations can end up feeling like impositions crowding my path, like something I didn’t ask for, something to wade through on my way to I don’t know what. Some task. I could totally be the guy without the wedding garment, because I didn’t actually notice it was a wedding, who couldn’t stop and remember: this is a feast that’s happening to me.
Jesus points at us and says be awake. Know where you are. They will grow up. There will only be so many full moons. This leopard moth, brilliant as snow, that is sleeping outrageously fearless on the wall right now will be gone when you come back and you will never see it again. Don’t just stumble through this gift. Don’t stumble through your own belovedness.