Isn’t today’s gospel reading the darndest parable? The whole thing just sort of jerks along, and doesn’t quite work – especially when you get to the poor fellow who is tossed into the outer darkness for violating the dress code. Puzzling. Let’s unpack it a little and maybe make it a bit easier to grasp.
First of all, this is one of those parables in which the writer, here it’s Matthew, takes a story of Jesus and re-works it for his own purposes. You can see another version of this parable – probably one a lot closer to the one Jesus told – in the fourteenth chapter of Luke. What Matthew does is sort of soup up the story so it isn’t exactly a street-legal parable anymore. Instead, it becomes an allegory of salvation history – a way of telling what Matthew sees as the central movements of God’s actions and plans for all of human history.
Since it’s an allegory and not a parable, we don’t need to bother too much about whether the details of the thing make sense the way they do with regular parables. So, for example, we don’t need to worry about how the king keeps dinner warm while he makes war against the first set of invited guests, destroys their city, and then has the banquet in that same city on pretty much the same day. That sort of thing is no problem in an allegory.
In this allegory, the first guests stand for Israel. The first two sets of slaves who issue the invitation represent the prophets of the old covenant, which is why some of them are beaten up and killed, hardly the usual way of declining an invitation. The city that is destroyed represents Jerusalem.
In the second part of the allegory, the slaves who are sent into the main streets to invite just anybody are the apostles, the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, who brought the church together. And the church, Matthew knew all too well, was filled with both good and bad, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving. After all, “everyone” means everyone: good, bad, and indifferent. The second crowd is very different from the first group, just as the church was very different from the leaders of Israel.
So, here we are. The wedding hall is filled with all sorts of guests. This precise moment in the story is Matthew’s present, the world, right then, as he knew it. It is also the world as we know it: the present age of the church.
Matthew is expressing the early Christian belief that, in spite of the words of the prophets and of John the Baptist, Israel, especially Israel’s leaders, had repeatedly ignored God’s invitation to his great messianic banquet for his son Jesus. So they are rejected, and the church is formed by the apostles. Remember, the apostles are represented in this allegory by the slaves who are sent to everybody else, to the lower classes, to women, to the gentiles, to the ones who had been ignored. And the apostles are told not to judge, but to invite. That was the way things were when Matthew used this parable of Jesus to tell the story of salvation history.
What happens next is big. Real big. What happens next is the end of all things, the second coming, the final judgment. The King arrives. And the King comes, apparently for the first time, to see his guests, to see who has managed to stumble or to be dragged into the party.
Now, at this point, a lot of Biblical scholars become very interested in the poor guy who gets tossed out. All sorts of things have been written about why he gets the boot, which mostly has to do with guessing what the reference to a “wedding robe” or a “wedding garment” meant back then. Since nobody really knows what a “wedding robe” means, the guesses have run amuck. They have included everything from ordinary clean clothes to a robe everybody supposedly had hanging in their house if they would only take a second to pick it up, to the white garments often given to newly baptized Christians.
Some interpreters even say the problem is the man’s silence, not his clothes. Still others like to talk about an inner state or condition. Some say the wedding robe is a metaphor for a “garment of good works.” Saint Augustine said that the wedding robe was “love that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.”
Another theory is that the wedding garment was a robe that the host gave to the guests as they arrived that the guests put on over whatever else they were wearing. There’s some good evidence for this understanding, and it fits with what Matthew is talking about.
But remember, what is happening here is not supposed to be a precise example of Palestinian social customs. Concern for accurate detail has gone out the window. This is a story about the final judgment!
So, Matthew is saying that, even though the church is filled with good and bad alike; and even though the apostles who call people to the church are not supposed to judge and are not supposed to exclude; and even though absolutely everyone is invited and absolutely everyone is handed all they need both to be properly dressed and to have a great time at the party; still, sooner or later, the King is going to arrive in person, and if you matter, if you are a real person, then you have to be able to say no.
You have to be able to reject the invitation, to ignore the robe; otherwise, you aren’t really there. The guy who refuses to put on the garment becomes a symbol for everyone invited to the feast who, nevertheless, declines to participate. It’s about the freedom we human beings have to just say no to God; it’s not about some weird overreaction to wearing the wrong outfit.
And it’s important that we have this choice, that we have the freedom to say no, to refuse to put on the garment handed us at the door, and so, thereby, to take our chances outside. If we can’t do that, if we can’t say no, then we can’t really say yes either, and we’re just sheep rounded up into a gilded pen.
Our humanity, our freedom, our very dignity demand that we have what the king gave that fool in the story, which is the opportunity to walk away from the greatest gift he could imagine, a gift he had, in fact, already been given.
And the poor guy had to really work at it; he was given all sorts of chances. But the King would not take away the man’s option to say no. The king would not treat him as someone whose actions didn’t matter and whose choices didn’t matter.
It’s the darndest parable. It is Matthew’s telling of the whole story of sacred history, from the beginning of Israel to his guesses about the final judgment.
The story is mainly about invitations, about God’s constant, persistent, and repeated invitation to God’s great party.
And who knows about our stubborn friend who is gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness? The parable hints that the character of the King is such that, sooner or later, he just might send a slave or two out that direction to issue, as he did with his first set of guests, one more batch of invitations. As the Old Testament reminds us, the Lord has been known to change his mind about acts of destruction.