[October 26, 2008] The text from today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:1-14) is a parable Jesus told about a king’s wedding feast for his son. It takes place at the beginning of Holy Week, perhaps the Monday after Palm Sunday. Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast as the priest and the sacrifice and to fulfill the spiritual meaning of the Exodus. He also entered Jerusalem as its King, as the Son of David, who would come to claim the kingdom but instead comes to proclaim God’s judgment on the city. In fact, this whole section, from His entry into the city in chapter 21 to the end of chapter 25, is about judgment. Jesus is not only the “Son of David”; He is such as the Son of God.
Last week Jesus confronted the chief priests and elders, the people who claimed to be responsible for the people of God, and in His speech the Pharisees also felt accused. First, Jesus accused them of rejecting John the Baptist. John the Baptist came to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming. The leader’s response to Jesus only proved their incompetence—all they were interested in was protecting their own power and influence. Second, Jesus compared them to tenant farmers who tried to steal the farm from the owner. He accused them of rejecting the prophets who were sent to gather the spiritual fruit of Israel by calling Israel to repentance, and now of murdering the only Son that God sent with the same mission. He warned that these leaders would lose their hold on God’s estate, the “vineyard,” and would be destroyed by God’s historical judgment.
Today’s parable is a continuation of last week’s speech. Last week Jesus told a parable about two sons and the parable about a vineyard. This week His parable is about a wedding feast. Last week the owner of the vineyard sent his only son to gather his portion of the vineyard’s produce. This week a king prepares a wedding feast for his son. The stakes are high. Not only is Jesus the Messiah as the son of David, He is also the Messiah as the Son of God. And not only is the Son the concern of the vineyard (Israel) but He should be the concern of everyone who hears His call. Last week we saw how the leaders, those put in places of responsibility, rejected the prophets of the Old Testament and eventually rejected the Messiah. This week not only the leaders are culpable but the people are too. They rejected the prophets of the Old Testament and the Son, but they also reject the apostles of the New Testament sent by the Son. Let us take a look.
The Marriage and the Wedding Feast
In a way, the whole Bible is about a wedding. It starts out with a couple, Adam and Eve, whose story portrays the union of Christ and the church. Then there is the story of God and Israel. The prophets describe this union-in-the-making as the marriage of God and His people. The prophets speak in different ways. The most powerful image, however, is that the wedding is waiting for the coming of the Messiah. When the Messiah comes and restores Israel, the age of the kingdom will begin which the prophets speak of with superlatives and a host of metaphors. This age is compared to a wedding feast. Then Jesus comes and compares Himself to a bridegroom come for His bride. The apostles speak of the church as the bride being taken from among Jews and Gentiles and being prepared for her Husband. And the Bible ends with the picture of the New Jerusalem as the final marriage of bride and Groom, of Christ and the church, including Gentiles as well as the people of Israel.
God’s purpose is the union of God with creation through the union of Christ and His people. In this union the people of God are transformed to become what Christ is, to possess His life and nature. The image of marriage speaks of our intimate union with Christ, intimate in a way that we can indicate but that is more wonderful than anything that we can conceive. This union, which we can only know partially now, will come about because of the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus of Nazareth, His life of absolute faithfulness, His obedient death on the cross, His resurrection, His ascension, and—the part we still wait for—His coming manifestation. Essentially the work is done. When Christ returns and is manifested—that will be the wedding. For now, we are still bride and Groom in waiting.
The wedding, when bride and groom at last come together and make a common life, calls for a celebration, a wedding feast, which in the Jewish culture of the first century was a week-long occasion, a week of eating and drinking, dancing and making merry. The wedding feast speaks of when Christ shall come and complete the work that He began. The wedding feast is not the marriage, but the long celebration of joy that precedes the marriage life. It is another name for the age of the kingdom that precedes our eternal union.
The First Part of the Parable (Matthew 22:2-10)
The parable has two parts: verses 2-10 and 11-14. In verse 3 the king sends his slaves to call those who had been called to the wedding feast. This refers to the prophets whom God sent to Israel. In verse 4 the dinner is ready: the oxen and fatted cattle are slain and the table is set. This refers to Christ who has become our spiritual food by His offering up His humanity to the Father on the cross and becoming transformed by resurrection into something that we can “eat.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ into us (as life) to become our “substance,” and to that end we feast on Him daily through the Word, through prayer, through our life together, through our faithfulness in living. As the church, by our worship we already celebrate the wedding feast, just as by our living we anticipate the coming of the kingdom.
In verses 4-6 the slaves sent to invite people to the wedding feast refer to the twelve apostles and all those workers who went to Israel to proclaim the gospel. Those who responded to the invitation were only a remnant. Most of Israel disregarded the invitation and went off, “one to his field and another to his business.” Some Jews, the priestly establishment (the Sadducees) on the one hand and the Pharisaic zealots on the other, persecuted the messengers, even killing them.
In verse 7 Jesus spells out the consequence of this rejection. The city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. This is one of the few places Jesus spells this out, but He does. (It is not without precedent that Jesus could actually predict this. The collision course the nation was on was foreseeable and Jesus, even as a prophet, saw it coming.)
In verses 8-10 the slaves go onto the crossroads outside the city and invite everyone they found, both evil and good. This refers to the apostles and workers who brought the gospel to the Gentiles—to everyone they found—and it refers to what everyone in the church is still sent to do. We are all the slaves of the King, sent to call everyone we find to the wedding feast of the King’s Son. This is where we are today.
This part of the parable is a sword with two edges. On the one hand, we are invited to the wedding feast and the question is: What is our response? Verse 5 says that people “disregarded [the invitation] and went off, one to his own field and another to his business.” The fact that we are here might indicate that we have accepted the invitation. But have we? Are we here half-heartedly? If Jesus calls us to feast with Him every Lord’s Day (Sunday is the Lord’s Day because it is the day of the Lord’s resurrection), to feast on His Word and to eat His spiritual body as the bread of life, do we only come when it is convenient? When “field and business” allow it? I am afraid that those who call themselves Christians have no enthusiasm for Jesus, no enthusiasm for the life that Jesus calls us to. The lure of the world speaks so much louder to us. The cure is to make a decision. The more you drink of this living water, the less thirsty you will be for the brackish water of the world (John 4:13-14). Or to put it another way, if you are divided in loyalties, which loyalty are you feeding?
Our whole life is the one limited opportunity that is given to us. Each time the invitation comes to us is a specific opportunity. Each time we forsake the opportunity, our heart hardens and the next opportunity becomes more difficult. After a while, we become deaf to the opportunities we still have left. Are we becoming deaf?
On the other hand, we are all called to invite “all whom we find, both evil and good,” to partake of Jesus with us. It is not a difficult thing to speak of Jesus with our family, neighbors, coworkers, and those we meet. Not only is it not difficult, they continually bring up the subject in one way or another. Yet how many of us in fact open our mouths to share what is our own with others? There are fifty-two Sunday’s a year. How many times a year do we invite someone to church? Nowadays, people do not want to go to church, so why not invite them to your home and encourage conversation? The gospel spreads by hospitality—our own and the hospitality of others—hospitality in our homes. If Jesus actually lived in our homes (I hope He does), should we not use our homes in this way?
The Second Part of the Parable (22:11-14)
The parable continues. Not everyone who responds and comes to the wedding feast is prepared. This refers to when Christ returns and judges His church, not when He judges the whole world. The man does not have on a wedding garment. Garments in the Bible refer to behavior and virtues, our righteousness. It speaks of “putting off” Adam and “putting on” Christ as our living (for example, Rom. 13:14; Col. 3:12; Eph. 4:24). Revelation 19:8 speaks of the bride wearing a “fine linen, bright and clean, for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of the saints.” (‘Righteousnesses’ is plural because it refers to acts or deeds.) In Psalm 45:14 the bride’s garment is embroidered.
In my judgment, the guests of the wedding feast are believers. But like in the parable of the ten virgins, some guests have not prepared themselves. They still have on their old garments. When Christ judges His believers, some may be cast out of the wedding feast. This does not mean that they lose their salvation. During the time of the wedding feast, they will make up for their losses. They will be ready by the time the feast is done, but they will have to pay a price.
This is what it means to be cast into the outer darkness—outside the wedding feast. Christ will come in glory and we are supposed be with Him in that bright glory (Colossians 3:4), but according to descriptions in the Old Testament, the divine glory is surrounded by a covering of thick darkness. This has always been understood metaphorically even if we imagine that it is literal as well. The weeping and the gnashing of teeth speak of regret and self-blame.
Even though we are believers, we need to attend to our discipleship. We cannot take it for granted. It requires constant attention, constant work and striving. When Jesus says, “Many are called but few are chosen,” He suggests that it is possible that most believers will actually be thrown out of the wedding feast when that day comes. Will we? The apostle Paul argues along the same line in 1 Corinthians 9-10. “I do all things for the sake of the gospel that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run on a racecourse all run, but one receives the prize? Run in this way, that you may lay hold … I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest perhaps having preached to others, I myself may become disapproved.” What are the priorities that we live by? If Christ is first, then let us not be lazy about it. Our lack of enthusiasm is a poor appetite because we have been stuffing ourselves on junk food.
The wonderful thing is that God does invite us to the wedding feast of His Son, and when we worship together at the Lord’s Table we are already anticipating that day. Help me make our celebration more joyous! Let us make it worthy of Christ.