The Wedding Feast Parable

15 Oct, 2023

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Exodus 32:1-14 | Philemon 4:1-9 | Matthew 22:1-14.

What was your immediate gut reaction to our gospel reading this morning?

Did you find it distressing and disturbing? More than a little troubling? A bit dark and twisty, maybe?

You may find it interesting to know that this story circulated in a variety of forms in the early church. Along with this version in Matthew, there’s also a version in the Gospel of Luke (14:15-24) and one in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (64) as well. What’s also interesting is that the version we have just heard and the version that is in Luke’s Gospel, while recognisably the same story, are still very, very different.

In Luke’s version, it is not a king issuing an invitation to his son’s wedding feast, but rather a much more anonymous “someone who gives a great dinner”. And while it’s true that many of the invited guests in Luke’s version give their excuses and choose not to attend the dinner, they do not kill the slaves that the host sends. In the same way, while the host in Luke’s version is angry when so many fail to respond to his invitation, he displays none of the murderous, vindictive rage that characterises the king’s response in Matthew’s version.

And it is probably in the violence and absurdity of the king’s response in Matthew that this story veers so wildly away from Luke’s version and, indeed, away from anything approximating reality. It’s hard to imagine that with a wedding banquet prepared and the food literally on the table that a king should charge off and slaughter those who killed his messengers and then burn their city to the ground, all before trotting back to rejoin his son’s wedding celebration.

So, it seems pretty clear that the author of Matthew’s gospel has taken this parable that was part of the early church’s repository of Jesus’ stories and teachings and shaped it according to the particular concerns of his or her community. And most scholars would suggest that what Matthew is presenting here is actually an allegory of salvation history, where: the king is God, the original invitation is God’s call to Israel to be in a covenantal relationship with God, the subsequent messengers are the Hebrew prophets, calling the people back to God, and the final messengers are prophetic Christian missionaries whom
God sends to call not just the people of Israel but everyone else also to join in the wedding feast.

It is the concluding verses of the parable, however, alongside the king’s earlier vindictive violence, which is probably the most disturbing feature of this parable. When the king comes in to see the guests, he notices a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he asks him how he was able to get into the banquet without being properly attired for the festivities. Again, this part does not appear in Luke’s version of the story, and again, we are confronted with a situation which, on the face of it, just seems ridiculous. This person who is not wearing a wedding robe has just been gathered in from off the street. How is he supposed to be wearing the appropriate gear for a wedding?

But, as we know, parables do not necessarily mirror reality. Their purpose is to invite people to see the world differently, to challenge people’s assumptions about the world, to nudge us toward different possibilities. And, in this instance, what we are being invited to consider is how we respond to God’s call.

In early Christianity, conversion was often pictured as exchanging one set of clothing for another, shrugging off the old way of life and taking on a new identity in Christ. And this man has not taken on the behaviour and attitudes of the Christian
life. He has heard the call to faith – he is at the wedding banquet. But he is not wearing a wedding robe. He has not “put on” Christ. He is not living out the love and justice and compassion of God. And so the king condemns him to the “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This condemnation, along with God’s apparent rage and violence, makes this a particularly difficult and troubling parable.

But despite this – perhaps even because of it – this parable nonetheless confronts us with important questions:

o What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
o What does it mean to be faithful to God’s call?
o How do our lives reflect the love and compassion and mercy and justice of God?

And we do not need to take on the parable’s threat of the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in order to be confronted by the urgency and immediacy of those questions. We believe in a God of love who will not abandon us or cast us from God’s presence. We do not need to be afraid of that.

But we also know that we have been called by God to put away the old ways of sin and to “put on” Christ so that we might be changed into something new, so that the world may also be changed by God’s work in and through us. We are the Body of Christ.

We are both participants in and agents of the reign of God. And if we believe and trust in a God of justice and reconciliation and mercy and grace and love, then those are the things for which we should strive. Those are the things on which we should set our hearts and minds. Those are the things that should be both our goal and our guide. And those are the things that God’s spirit is constantly at work within us to bring about. And we should know that, at its heart, this parable and, indeed, the whole story of God is about an invitation and a party. And it is the joy of that party, the promise of God’s peace and God’s justice, not the fear of any “outer darkness”, that shapes and empowers our living and strengthens our hope.

Thanks be to God.


M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New
Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 8 edited by Leander E. Keck et al., 1995, 418.

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