Grace and judgement at the wedding banquet in Matthew 22

The lectionary gospel for Trinity 19 in Year A is Matthew 22.1–14, the parable of the wedding banquet. This is the third of three parables about judgement in this section of the gospel, and these wider chapters all focus on judgement (we will be hearing more about this before we reach Advent), so you might be wearying of it. But this is the most startling and striking of parables, and the reader can hardly fail to be struck by the drama of both the imagery and its theology.

There is a very similar parable told by Jesus in Luke 14:15-24, but this has different details, and takes place in quite a different context. In the recent history of interpretation, it has often been assumed that there was one original story, probably Luke’s version, and that the other, probably Matthew’s, was changed and elaborated by the community and/or the gospel writer (so, for example, scholar Bart Ehrman sees this as a classic example of where the early Christian community changed and invented the teaching of Jesus). But this assumes that Jesus only ever told stories once, which seems unlikely given that he taught for so long and we have comparatively few examples of it, and that he never adapted stories to illustrate a broad principle in different contexts. So we should take Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching here seriously in its own right, and in its context within his gospel.

The parable begins in Jesus’ customary way in Matthew: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like…’ a person. We shift from the example of a master of a household or landowner to a ‘human king’, a phrase only found here and in the opening of the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matt 18.23—a reminder both that we can find insight into the ways of God and his kingdom in the affairs of humans, but that this is a parable, so we need to take care in the way we make sense of the parallels.

Like the preceding parable of the wicked tenants, a son is mentioned, and it is his wedding banquet. There is, perhaps, an important Christological claim being made here; in the previous parable, the son clearly points to Jesus, and the death of the son alludes to Jesus’ coming death at the hands of the Jerusalem leaders. But any Jewish listener will hear in this story, with its mention of the extensive invitation at the end of the parable, an allusion to the Great Banquet of God in Is 25.6–8:

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.

This is important background for the writers of the NT, with Paul alluding to it in 1 Cor 15.54, and John in Rev 7.17 and 21.4. The eschatological feast of God for all nations is the wedding banquet of his son Jesus—though in this parable the figure of the son himself plays no further role.

It is important to read the process of invitation in the context of first century Mediterranean culture, rather than our own customs, since it is easy to misread something quite serious as trivial. Both in this parable and the similar one in Luke, it is clear that there is a double (or perhaps triple) process of invitation. Preparing a feast in Jesus’ day was a costly, time-consuming and strongly communal process. Formal invitations would be issued, and then, on the basis of the number of those who had accepted, the host would slaughter the appropriate number of animals (which itself would be an important communal activity, involving other members of the village), and prepare the meal over several days. Only then would the second invitation, that the feast was ready, be sent out.

Those who now refused would be reneging on their initial acceptance, would be spurning the offer of food that had, at some expense, already been prepared, and would be publicly insulting the host in front of the whole community. The equivalent for us would be coming to dinner in someone’s house, enjoying drinks and aperitifs, and then when the main course is put on the table, taking one look at it and getting up and leaving. Kenneth Bailey, in his wonderful study of the Lukan parable in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (pp 314–315), notes that the expanded excuses in Luke add insult to injury. The process of buying a field, testing oxen, and getting married (Luke 14.18–20) are all very long-term processes in that culture—you would normally inspect a field through the season, to see where the sun fell, how plants grew, and how fruitful was its produce before embarking on a purchase.

The jolly song that we used to sing about this parable, ‘I cannot come, I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now…’ suggested that the issue here was busyness and pre-occupation. But read in context, it is clear that these people never really intended to come, and thought the long-term occupations of their present lives much more important than the feast of the king, so much so that they are ready to spurn his generosity and humiliate him in public—particularly significant in a culture where honour and shame were so important.

By refusing to come, the guests insult the dignity of the king who had counted on their attendance and graciously prepared food for them (Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, p 520).

The parable here in Matthew contains an immediate element of judgement that the parable in Luke does not: ‘The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’ (verse 7). It is worth noting that this element of the narrative doesn’t actually fit in the story very well; it seems rather unlikely that a king would invite people to his son’s wedding who are from another city, rather than his own. Most commentators see this as an allusion to the coming destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans—Josephus, The Jewish War 6.353–355, 363–64, 406–8) describes the city being burned by the Romans, but the temple being burned by the Jewish rebels—which will make most readers feel very uncomfortable with the idea that God has punished the Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. That will need addressing in a wider discussion—but for the purposes of reading this parable, we need to note that this echoes ‘the robust theology of the OT prophets who hailed pagan conquerors as God’s instrument (Is 10.5–11, 44.28–45.7, Jer 25.9)’

Jerusalem is now no longer God’s city but ‘theirs’, and the community as a whole is implicated in their rebellion and its punishment, as had so often happened in the past when Israel’s sins had led to the city’s destruction by invading armies (R T France, NICNT, p 825).

In both parables, in Matthew and Luke, the anger of the king is transformed into energetic grace; the places at the table will not be left empty, and the generosity of the king will not go to waste. Luke includes a double second invitation, suggesting the opening of the kingdom both to Jews receiving Jesus as their Messiah, and gentiles who are incorporated into the people of God as well, reflecting the mixed nature of his audience. In this parable in Matthew, Jesus includes no such double invitation, consistent with the rest of the gospel where the incorporation of the gentiles is much less of a feature. But here Jesus does emphasis the inclusion of the ‘good and the bad’ (v 10).

This is striking both in the light of Matthew’s emphasis on the importance of ‘righteousness’, by which he means doing the right things that God commands, a term repeated seven times in the gospel in total—but also in the importance of honour and shame in first-century culture. To be invited to the banquet of a king would be an extraordinary social honour, striking in its privilege; those who were first invited ‘did not deserve to come’ (v 8), but neither do the eventual guests either. The gracious invitation of the king has extended to those who would not normally be considered worthy. As John Barclay notes about Paul’s theology of God’s grace:

It was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so the good gift in antiquity was normally given according to some criterion of worth…

For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth … If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, your whole notion of worth, and thus your social values, is thrown into disarray (from the Grove booklet Paul and the Subversive Power of Grace)

And this section concludes with one part of the paradox of the kingdom; even though ‘many are called, and few are chosen’, the wedding hall is ‘filled with guests’.

Bailey points out that this parable offers a very different interpretation of how God will fulfil the promise of Is 25 from others of the time. The translation and interpretation of the passage into Aramaic, the Targum of Isaiah, makes this comment:

Yahweh of hosts will make for all the peoples in this mountain a meal. And although they supposed it an honour, it will be a shame for them and great plagues, plagues from which they will be unable to escape, plagues whereby they will come to their end.

Similarly, 1 Enoch 62.1–11 speaks of a great banquet of the Messiah, where gentiles will be present—but an angel with the sword of death will come and slay them all. The banquet hall will run with blood and gore, through which the believers must wade in order to feast with the Messiah! And the Messianic Rule of the Qumran community also describes a banquet where non-Jews, those who do not keep the law, and anyone with a physical blemish is excluded.

Isaiah’s beautiful vision, which saw faithful Jews and Gentiles coming together at God’s invitation, goes badly awry in these three reinterpretations of the great banquet (Bailey, p 311).

Only in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable do we have the codicil about the guest who is not properly attired in Matt 22.11–13. Once again, we need to be careful to read this in its cultural context. For us, wedding clothes are something special, perhaps something expensive which only the wealthiest can afford (and hence the astronomical cost of weddings at the moment). But a hundred years ago even the bride would not buy a special wedding dress, instead wearing the best dress that she already had (I think it was Queen Victoria who set the trend for white dresses at weddings, as well as black at funerals). So if someone does not have the right apparel, it might not be their fault.

But in the first century, the wedding clothes that the guest was expected to wear would be the linen garment that he already had; what was needed was to make the small effort in cleaning it and putting it on. And, once again, in that culture to refuse to do so was not a mere accident, laziness or a limitation of poverty, but a deliberate decision to flout convention and fail to honour the host who had bestowed honour in the invitation. Though there is language elsewhere in the NT in which white garments are a gift from God, signifying new life or righteousness in Christ, in this parable there is no suggestion that the wedding garments are supplied by the king—they belong to and should have been worn by the guest. It is the guest’s act of response.

In the parable, these wedding garments thus signify the appropriate response to the gracious invitation of the king. As Barclay puts it, the grace of God is indeed unconditioned, in that it is bestowed on those who are now worthy, but it is not unconditional, in that it makes demands on us:

Luther was anxious about any language of obligation or obedience if it implied trying to win favor with God. As a result, some Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace. They believe a gift should be given without any expectation of return. However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace—that God gives to us and doesn’t care about what we do. On the other hand, the Calvinist and, in different ways, the Methodist–Wesleyan traditions have rightly understood that the gift of God in Christ is based on conditions, in a sense. While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

And so Calvin comments:

As to the wedding garment, is it faith, or is it a holy life? This is a useless controversy; for faith cannot be separated from good works, nor do good works proceed from any other source than from faith. Christ intended only to state that the Lord calls us on the express condition of our being renewed by the Spirit … and that, in order to our remaining permanently in his house, we must put off the old man with his pollutions … and lead a new life. (Commentary on Mathew, Mark and Luke, vol 2).

This double emphasis in the parable is exactly what we find in Paul—even to the extent of his using the complex issues around the grace towards and judgement of Israel being on object lesson to the Jewish-Gentile messianic community formed in the grace of God around Jesus:

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree. (Romans 11.22–24).

I hope, dear reader, that you can see why I was so excited at the beginning of this piece about how sparkling and startling this parable is—rich with theological themes and insights, encouragements and warnings.

Within the story, the gracious generosity of God looms large, in the form of the king who not only prepares a great feast for his (ultimately ungrateful) subjects, but whose generosity then extends to those who simply do not deserve it. God prepares a lavish feast for all who would accept his invitation, take up the offer, leave their previous preoccupations, and come and sit with him.

But alongside that, there is no shirking from the importance of human action and responsibility in answering the call and responding to the invitation. The language of judgement here is clear and stark:

Many are ‘called’ or ‘invited’ with the message of repentance, but only those who respond worthily will share the inheritance of the chose, covenant people… (Keener, p 523).

Judgement is self-imposed. Those who refuse the initiation cut themselves off from the fellowship of the host and his guests. They choose not to taste the banquet (Bailey, p 320).

Join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues in this week’s video:

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13 thoughts on “Grace and judgement at the wedding banquet in Matthew 22”

  1. Yesterday I wanted to parallel the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the wedding feast, today I feel differently, after reading your blog today. Now I think the workers represent the leaders of Israel . At the end of the parable there seems to be an ellipsis… I expect it to end, “ …so the owner paid off the workers, girded his loins, treaded the grapes himself and filled the new skins with new wine.
    The parable of the wedding feast represents the age we are in, celebrating as we arrive with the One on the throne. The casting out is the end of the age, just before we all take our places at table.
    PS. I’m on holiday so haven’t had time to look at this, but I will.

  2. Revisionists beware. Enter the Gospels with fear and trembling.
    Thank you for this article:wide-ranging, full, yet concise with themes that resonanate throughout the scriptures.
    (Not many would be brave enough to cite both Luther and Calvin, where to even mention their names is to invite immediate opprobrium, even at their most biblically erudite).
    Not many would even consider looking at Calvin’s commentaries and at the same time move across traditions to Bailey, Barclay, France and Keener.
    There is one place where it can never ever be considered that God’s grace is cheap, where it is of infinite eternal enormity – at Calvary, the cross of Christ, the Mount of Olives, the place of the skull – the death of death- the place where Isaiah 25:6-8 is filled-full
    Thanks, much appreciated.

    • This article took me back to look at a Biblical Scholar of old, 18 CenturyMatthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible,. Complete and Unabridged.
      It looks back and forwards in the Biblical canon.
      My O My how swathes of present day Christianity isn’t being nourished with Biblical delights and strong food, festival, Son -Groom and Bride and in place of scriptural filthy rags, put off and new robes of righteousness put on: representative of a changed life, a new life transformed.
      Even as it has been quickly skimmed, to me, it is a treat. For those interested, it can probably be found online.
      BTW from another commentary it was mentioned that Augustine said the new clothes were provided by the King. The commentator thought the text is not in support. Maybe, Augustine was employing scripture to interpret scripture.

      • Jesus Christ provides the basic garment of righteousness, forgiving our sins and renewing us through the grace of the Holy Spirit, beginning in baptism.

        However, we need to respond to the gift or garment of God’s salvation and persevere in it. We ultimately accept or reject this salvific garment. God communicates sufficient grace to every soul, and this interior grace is an invitation to an eternal life of union with Him, in the Person of his Son.

        Saint Augustine said: “So what is this wedding garment? The apostle Paul tells us: ‘What we are aiming at… is the love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5). That is the wedding garment. Paul is not talking about just any kind of love, for one can often see dishonest people loving others… But one does not see among them this love ‘that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.’ Now that is the love that is the wedding garment.” (Saint Augustine, Sermon 90)

        Jesus’ parable makes clear that, whatever one’s past actions may have been, the indispensable condition is to wear the wedding garment, that is, to have our soul clean and a repentant heart, to embrace a way of life that gives testimony to love for God and neighbour. We must cloth ourselves in the wedding garment of charity, that is, pursue the love of God above everything else.

        Jesus sums it up when he says “many are called, but few are chosen.” Everybody’s invited, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to be chosen for the eternal kingdom. We have to be clothed with the garments of the Messiah. We have to be clothed with the garments of righteousness and sanctity.

  3. I am struggling with the wedding garment. If people are coming from the streets then they do not have time to go home and change, and the poorest may have nothing to change into. I am aware that the idea that the host provided clothes is more read out of this parable than found from other sources. In the end it probably does not make a difference to the challenge, but I wonder if there was some practice, possibly a recent grand wedding, where garments had been provided, and this was known by the original audience. It is also possible Matthew assumes we can follow this and has not put in the detail. The story, as you say, is not “realistic” – the king lets the feast grow cold while he summons up soldiers to attack another city! The gate-crasher is cast into outer darkness not just the street outside.

    It may be an interesting preaching exercise to ask the congregation which character(s) they themselves associate with – the busy non-attending, the good and the bad from the roadside, the slaves who are beaten for inviting others; and also whether they feel worthy and thankful to be invited to the banquet, whether they feel an impostor or that they are not really allowed in, or whether they feel welcome by grace and are glad that the hall is full of others also there by grace not by status.

    The feast in Isaiah 25 is not a wedding banquet. Leon Morris in his commentary says no one has found an OT reference to a wedding feast as such as a symbol of what is to come: Ian do you have any links back for a wedding feast rather than just a feast or banquet? There are obviously several references to Israel being God’s bride though they would imply the wedding has already happened!

    • Thanks. You are right, Is 25 is not a ‘wedding feast’. I think this is creative reading by Jesus, just as depicting himself as bridegroom is another theological and related innovation.

      But it is a ‘feast’ to which all are invited, ‘bad or good’. So there is still a strong antecedent there. I would also read this in parallel with the feast at the table of Abraham to whom all come ‘from the East and the West’ in Matt 8.

  4. It may be helpful to look at Esther 1:1-14 ff and the lavish feast set out there, and compare and contrast with this passage in Matthew.
    In Esther is there was a lavish and last feast of a the King. The detail astonishes to display great ness a nd royal glory and spledour for many days with the invitations to the great and small with no compulsion.
    But more, adorned with her royal crown the beautiful Queen Vashty refused to come at the request.
    In Matthew is his no mere feast, it is the wedding feast of the King’s Son to his Bride.
    The similarities and dissimilarities are striking. Esther would be well known to Jesus’s hearers.

    The “Gospel calls and offers are represented by an invitation to the feast.” “The guests are called, bidden to the wedding, that they may go forth and meet the Bridegroom, for it is the Father’s will that all men should honour the Son…”
    “The guests are called upon for in the gospel are not only gracious proposals made but gracious persuasives. We persuade we beseech….even when the invited guests are slack in coming the King sent other sevants…
    ” When the prophets of the OT prevailed not, nor John the Baptist, nor Christ himself, the apostles and ministers of the gospel were sent after Christi’s resurrection to them the Kingdom was come, it was quite ready, and to persuade them to accept the offer.”
    God here in this passage is showing the riches of His grace… “such as becomes the King Of Glory to give…
    ” He gives like Himself; for he gives Himself to be to them *El shaddai- a God that is enough.* a feast indeed for the soul.”
    Quotations; Matthew Henry.

  5. It is interesting to note that the recent massacre of Israelis occurred on the last day of the feast of Sukkot, a seven-day feast.
    HJ and Geoff Have posted excellent thoughts on the Gospel feast.
    However the Jewish story is replete with the celebration of feasts, often lasting many days
    Jesus often took advantage of such feasts to make declarations that He was/is the meaning of the feast[s] in question.
    For a Jewish perspective on the term feasts see
    which highlights the fact that Jesus is a continual feast of joy and gladness in a most remarkable way. Oh, would that the Gospel were preached as a feast of fat things…
    and abundance of life.
    Yes, churches are often these days using food events to draw people into the Church building
    When we are invited to a seven day continual feast of God’s Salvation we Christians come a poor 3rd to other religions which are fervent and prolonged in their observances of their faiths and political adherents unstinting in their proclamations and activities. We are, alas, all to often casual Christians.

    • Indeed, Ala
      It is suggested that we do not really know the full significance of Jesus birth life death and resurrection without knowing the meaning and significance of the Hebrew feast/festivals and Jesus being their fulfillment.
      A have a couple of books by Messianic Jews on the Feasts that draws them out and pulls the together in Jesus the Christ, who certainly wasn’t white, western, middle-class, middle -aged and middle-minded.


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