Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find.” (Matthew 22.8-9)
A couple years after Nintendo launched its game system, I bought one for Walt, thinking it the perfect birthday gift for him and a fun diversion for us. When I asked the clerk to recommend a few games, he handed me one based on The Lord of the Rings and something called “Grand Theft Auto”. I wasn’t so sure about his second choice. But he promised we’d love it, saying it was the season’s bestseller. We didn’t. The complicated controls made us feel old and inept, and we were unnerved by the graphic violence. Worst of all, the winning strategy directly opposed what we’d grown up with. Instead of avoiding danger—steering Pac-Man clear of Blue Meanies or watching for snakes that might kill Frogger—the game aggressively courted danger. Reaching the next level required players to wreak mayhem on whomever their avatars encountered. Appearances were deceiving and the rules seemed to shift with the developers’ whims. After giving it our best shot, we lost interest. Lack of dexterity, intuition, and ability to stomach the violence made the experience too unenjoyable.
Revisiting Jesus’s wedding feast story in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.1-14) may affect us in the same way. It’s very complicated, particularly if we’re accustomed to navigating the parables with ease. It’s not at all intuitive; the rules appear to change on a whim, as though Jesus makes them up as His story develops. And (in Matthew’s version, that is) it’s extremely—one might even say, gratuitously—violent. The tale is three-tiered, with each level introducing new characters, all courting danger to various extents, some to the degree we’re temporarily shut out of the story. We can’t conceive what provokes their rash behavior, and it's hard to rationalize the violence it causes. So wrestling with this parable is neither pleasant nor easy. Yet giving up on it too quickly will end with us missing one of the Gospels’ most fascinating, illuminating experiences.
An Open-Door Party
Here’s the story. Level One: A king invites the crème de la crème to his son’s wedding feast. Once everything’s set, he dispatches messengers to gather the guests. But they don’t come. So he sends a different group of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, “It’s time to show up.” Neither the momentous occasion (a royal wedding) nor the king’s trouble and expense—not even the honor of being invited—fazes the guests. Some offer piddling excuses: can’t get off work, can’t leave the farm, etc. Others attack and murder the messengers, inciting the king to order his troops to kill the killers and torch their city.
Level Two: With the feast on the back burner, the king tells his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find.” (v8-9) They fan out across town and invite randomly chosen strangers—“good and bad,” verse 10 says—to celebrate the prince’s marriage with the king. Since Jesus scoots through this part of the story rather swiftly, never describing the guests’ response to the invitation, let’s fill in the blank with how we’d react. Our first thoughts would turn to why we shouldn’t attend. We’re not dressed for it. We don’t fit in that crowd. We won’t know how to act. We haven’t time or means to buy a suitable gift. Some of us, the “bad” folks Jesus mentions, might suspect we’re being duped; it could be a sting operation to lure us into a police trap. Having heard of the king’s temper, we probably worry about offending him once we’re there. So accepting the invitation is, in itself, courting danger. Do we dare? Absolutely. It’s an offer too grand and glorious to refuse.
Level Three: Either the king gives the impromptu guests time to dash home and change into customary wedding attire, or he outfits them once they arrive. In any case, everyone’s dressed to the nines and having a good time when he spots one guest in casual clothes. He confronts the man, asking, “Friend”—Jesus uses a sarcastic term more like, “Hey, buddy”—“how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (v12) The man doesn’t reply. It’s tempting to imagine he shrugs, as if to say, “I heard you were giving an open-door party and thought I’d check it out.” More likely, he’s dumbstruck because he’s caught enjoying the king’s kindness without honoring his wishes. The king sentences him to a fate worse than death, binding him over to “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v13)
After taking us through this gnarly, harrowing scenario, Jesus sums it up with a daunting moral: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (v14) In light of whom He’s talking to (the disciples and Pharisees) and when He’s speaking (a few days before he’s arrested and executed), the parable breaks down easily. The king is God; the son is Jesus; and the invited guests are Israel’s religious establishment, which preaches exclusive right to divine favor but has a history of persecuting prophets sent to corral their behavior. The servants who take to the streets are apostles ordained to invite outsiders—estranged Jews and pagan Gentiles—to God’s table. They’re heralds of inclusion. And what of the imposter? We can see him one of two ways. Perhaps he’s a presumptive guest, possibly one who initially turned down the invitation, whose inflated sense of self as the king’s “friend” misguides him to believe he’s above honoring his host’s wishes. Or maybe he’s just a fool who abuses the king’s hospitality by refusing to change in a manner befitting the occasion. Either way, confusing the king’s grace with license to ill spells his doom. Like the no-show corpses buried in their city’s cinders, all the imposter can say is, “I was called.” His disregard for the king’s stature and standards deprives him of any right to number among “the chosen.”
Now comes the hard part, when we ask how Jesus’s story speaks to us. And make no mistake, it delivers an extremely profitable, potent, and pressing message. As with nearly all His parables, Jesus prefaces this one by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Thus, the story reveals how many who hear God’s call become casualties of self-imposed arrogance and ignorance. Some let obsessions with security and success keep them from the feast. Some give way to intellectual pride that rouses hostility to God’s invitation. Some presume insider status that exempts them from God’s expectations. Some exploit God’s grace by foolishly ignoring what’s asked of them.
And where do we fit in all of this? It comes down to choice. Do we join untold masses who are called but don’t show up? Worse yet, do we delude ourselves to think we’re doing God a big favor by showing up? Or do we override hesitations and feelings of inferiority to accept the open invitation to sit with other chosen guests—good and bad—at God’s table? When we put it like that, the stunning “Aha!” that ends Jesus’s story is inescapable. God does the calling. Choosing, however, is left entirely to us.
Dear God, we couldn’t more thrilled and delighted that You’ve invited us to Your feast. Nothing in this world could keep us from being there. All we ask is that You show us how to please You and be worthy of Your calling. Amen.
God calls everyone to the feast. Being numbered among the chosen is up to us.