Two Parables for the Price of One

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 28
October 15, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In one parable, Jesus told of a king's invitation to his son's wedding banquet being ignored, with some of the king's messengers being killed. Those guilty of the crime and their city are destroyed, and other messengers are sent to bring anyone they can find to the banquet. In a second parable, the king finds that one of those brought in doesn't have a wedding garment. A living faith in Christ, with the good works that a living faith produces, is the festive garment that the king gives the wedding guests. We should wear it as well.

"Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables" is the way our text begins. Jesus spoke "in parables" - the plural is important here because it seems likely that the 14 verses of our reading were originally two parables that were later joined together. The two parts of our text, verses 1-10 and verses 11-14 are related, but they make different points about the invitations to a king's banquet. I'll refer to them as Parable One and Parable Two.

Not all the parables in the gospels come directly from the mouth of Jesus. Some are pretty much what Jesus said at one point in his ministry, a story that some of his disciples remembered and that was recorded years later by one or more of the gospel writers. But if an evangelist was inspired to see that what Jesus had said was relevant in a new way to a later situation within the Christian community, years after the time when Jesus spoke, the parable could be used to address that new setting. This ought to be kept in mind as we think about the parables of the wedding banquet. It's especially important that we do that with Parable One.

The rejected invitation

Jesus tells us that his parable in which a king gives a wedding banquet for his son is a picture of the kingdom of heaven. The banquet has been prepared, and messengers are sent to those who had been invited to tell them that it's now time to come. You might back out of an invitation to dinner from a business associate, but turning down a king's invitation, at least in biblical times, was a bad idea. And after all, we're told that the invitations had been sent earlier, so there was no good excuse for people to plead other plans.

Nevertheless, the would-be guests just don't come to the banquet. So the king, being very patient, sends other messengers to remind them. Some of the messengers are simply ignored, but others are treated badly and even killed. Jesus' disciples might have been reminded of Israelite prophets of earlier times like Jeremiah, whose messages were ignored or rejected by contemporaries.

Up to this point, Parable One is quite similar to a parable of Jesus recorded in Luke's gospel.1 There a wealthy man has had a great dinner prepared, and he sends a slave out to invite people to come to his house to share in it. But all of those who are invited are busy with other matters and ask to be excused. So the host sends the slave again to invite anyone they meet - poor, crippled, blind and lame. "Compel people to come in," he says, adding that "none of those who were invited will taste my dinner."2

But at this point Matthew's parable differs dramatically from the one in Luke's gospel. Matthew tells us that the king was enraged. He sends his troops to destroy the people who had murdered his messengers and to burn their city. (That seems strange because it's one of the king's cities!) Then the king sends out other slaves to gather anyone they can find and bring them to the banquet.

If we remember that Matthew's gospel was written decades after the time when Jesus told his parables, it's not hard to guess what the writer meant by destruction of the original invitees and burning of their city. In AD 70, the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation ended with the capture of Jerusalem and burning of the city with its temple. The writer of Matthew's gospel could have seen this as punishment of Jewish leaders who had refused to accept Jesus' message and approved of his execution by the Roman authority.

Here we need to be careful - more careful than Christians through the centuries have sometimes been! After Jesus' resurrection and the beginnings of the Christian church with its acceptance of Gentiles, there was considerable tension between Christians and Jews. Christians tended to forget that only a few Jews had actively opposed Jesus and began to think that God had rejected all of them. In reality, of course, all of Jesus' original disciples and the great majority of members of the original Christian community were Jews, as was Jesus himself.

And "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew," Paul insisted in his letter to Roman Christians.3 This parable doesn't mean that God has rejected all Jewish people. It does mean that everyone who hears the message of Jesus should take it seriously.

Responding to the gift

Now we come to Parable Two. The guests have been seated in the banquet hall, and the king comes in to see and greet them. Going from one group to another, he comes to one man without proper wedding garb. Addressing the man with disapproval,4 the king asks him how he got in without proper dress. And the man is "speechless."

Now we can understand that a person invited to a royal banquet ought to come dressed in an appropriate way. If you're going to a formal dinner with the president, you wouldn't (or at least you shouldn't) show up at the White House wearing an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt! But this isn't a situation in which the guests had plenty of time to get ready. The banquet was already prepared when the king sent out slaves to round up everyone they could find and bring them in. So how were the guests supposed to have proper garb for a wedding banquet?

In our country it used to be common (and the custom may be coming back5) that upscale restaurants had dress codes. Gentlemen were expected to wear a tie and perhaps a jacket, but those items would be lent to men without them. We might also think of churches that want women to have hats, and provide head coverings for those who don't. Our parable says nothing about such arrangements, but they might have been assumed.

But pursuing that question gets us off track. The parable assumes that the guests could have the proper wedding garb, and that this guest simply didn't have it. Maybe he slipped in past the servants because he thought that he had a right to dress as he pleased.

You may be asking at this point, "What does the wedding garment in the parable represent?" The wedding banquet, we were told at the beginning, is for the king's son. It's a celebration of the union of Christ with the community of believers, the church. We find that imagery again when the Book of Revelation looks to the end of earthly history. There the seer is told to write, "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb."6

All are invited to be part of the community united with Christ. God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,"7 we're told in First Timothy. Being united with Christ means putting our trust in him and his saving work. That is God's gift to us - for "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit."8 A living faith in Christ, with the good works that a living faith produces, is the festive garment that the king gives the wedding guests.

The end of the parable is a downer, with the man who crashed the banquet being thrown out, and Jesus saying, "Many are called, but few are chosen." But our job isn't to speculate about the ultimate fate of unbelievers. Instead, we're to pray that our own faith may be strengthened and that we will speak and act in ways that will invite others to be properly dressed for the marriage supper of the Lamb.