Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Wedding Feast

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.' But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matthew 22:1-10).

Why did Jesus speak to them in parables and who is the “them” Matthew is writing about? Jesus addressed his parables to the Pharisees in particular[1], but also to the crowds of people who were not his disciples in general. The disciples are the ones to whom Jesus referred when he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given…but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” The disciples have the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven and they will “have in abundance” as a result of Jesus’ teaching them. Those who oppose Jesus and reject him will lose even the knowledge they have.

Parables are generally defined as a complete, imaginary story designed to illustrate a spiritual truth (Engelbrecht, 2009). For the unbeliever – the “one who has not” – the parable also functions as an instrument of judgment. Because unbelievers reject the Gospel, their eyes cannot see, nor can their ears hear, the truth that the parable illustrates[2]. We are called to faith by the Holy Spirit working through God’s word. We cannot come to Jesus by our own efforts, reason, or strength. This is why Jesus says we must have faith like a little child[3].We receive God’s gracious forgiveness and salvation through our simple, child-like trust in Jesus words, brought to us by the Holy Spirit. These spiritual issues are not things that we can reason out, weigh as evidence in a courtroom trial, and decided to believe in after we have processed it logically.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:38-40).

Indeed, this is what the Pharisees were attempting to do – or at least pretending to do – when they asked Jesus for a sign and why Jesus speaks to them in parables[4]. In this particular instance, Jesus tells them that there will be no magic trick to convince them, and directs them to Holy Scripture for the sign they seek. This sign Jesus points the Pharisees to is the sign of Jonah, the sign of his impending death and resurrection[5].

This idea that faith depends on the working of the Holy Spirit through the means of God’s Word and not on a person’s reason is also illustrated to us in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus[6]. The wicked rich man who had died and gone to hell begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers as a warning sign that they should turn from their wickedness and avoid the eternal torment that surely awaits them. What is Abraham’s answer? “They [the five brothers] have Moses and the Prophets [God’s Word]; let them hear them.” Jesus goes on to explain that, if a person will not listen to the voice of God calling him through Holy Scripture, he will not be convinced of God’s message even is someone should rise from the dead. His heart has been hardened.

What does Jesus mean by the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven? The Kingdom of Heaven, at other times called the Kingdom of God, is God’s ruling as king over the whole universe, the church on earth and the church and angles in heaven (Luther, 1986). Jesus makes clear that this concept is not a physical, earthly kingdom, like a country or empire; it is a spiritual kingdom[7]. Jesus makes the spiritual nature of his kingdom the most evident in his dialogue with Pontius Pilate[8]. The Jews and Romans viewed Jesus the same way they viewed the Zealots, as a political threat. Jesus makes it very clear that he was not leading a revolution, at least in the conventional sense. Jesus came to conquer sin, death, and the devil for mankind by dying as a sacrifice on the cross. By his death and resurrection he established his kingdom of grace, and rules over it from his place in heaven at God the Father’s right hand. When he returns, it will be to judge the world[9].

"But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:11-14)

Why did the king in Jesus’ wedding feast parable treat the man without a wedding garment so harshly? The man was one of the people whom the king's servants went out into the streets to bring to the wedding. He was invited to the feast by the grace of the king, and not by virtue of his relationship with the king, or anything else that could be attributed to him. In the ancient Middle East it was customary for the host of a banquet such as the wedding feast described in the parable, to provide his guests with clothing appropriate for the celebration to which they had been invited. For this man to to be at the banquet but not properly attired would mean that he would have had to refuse to wear the clothing provided him by the king for some reason (Engelbrecht, 2009).

God is the king in the parable. The wedding feast is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the spiritual kingdom of God's grace, secured and won for mankind by the blood of Jesus. The first group of people called to the feast represents the Jews, particularly the Scribes, Pharisees, and the Teachers of the Law - the Jewish political/religious establishment of the time. Their rejection of the invitation to the feast is a rejection of God's call to repentance and the gracious gift of forgiveness he freely gives. The servants mistreated and killed represent the prophets. The people gathered in off the street represent the inclusion of Gentiles in God's kingdom. The man who refused to wear the garment provided for him by God is one of those called who miss out on the blessings of God's Kingdom because they do not respond to the invitation properly - in child-like faith.

Perhaps the man in the parable thought that his clothes were good enough to attend the banquet when in reality, compared to the garments of God's righteousness tailored for is by Christ on Calvary's cross, they are tattered rags. Though the man did nothing to deserve an invitation to the banquet or festival garments, the king provided for him in abundance. In the same way, though we in no way deserve mercy, the Lord invites mankind to join him at his heavenly banquet through the message of the Gospel. How will we respond to his invitation? Will we faithfully accept the garments provided us without question or condition, or will we reject the message and try to come to the party on our own terms, wearing our own filthy rags? If we do, we will end up like the man in the parable – cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Works Cited

[1] Matthew 13:10
[2] Matthew 13:13; Isaiah 6:9-10
[3] Mark 10:15
[4] Matthew 12:39
[5] Matthew 12:39-40
[6] Luke 16:19-31
[7] Mark 1:15; Romans 14:17
[8] John 18:36
[9] Matthew 25:31-32

Engelbrecht, E. A. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.