So begins the last of three parables Jesus addressed to the religious leaders after he entered Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday. He had entered Jerusalem in a triumphant procession with the people placing palm branches along his way, and shouting Messianic acclamations. He immediately entered the temple, and cleansed the Court of the Gentiles of the moneychangers and the merchants who were selling animals for the temple sacrifices. The chief priests and elders had just challenged him. “By what authority are you doings these things? And who gave you this authority? (Matthew 21:23b)” Jesus addressed their challenge with a series of three parables.
The first was the story of the father who asked his two sons to go work in his vineyard. One said yes to his father’s request, but never went. The second said no, but eventually went. It was quite clear to everyone that the son who paid lip service to his father represented the religious leaders. They were experts in all the legalities of religion, but did nothing to further their work in God’s vineyard. The sinners, those condemned by the religious leaders, though hesitant, eventually took up the work of the vineyard. Jesus ended the parable with a prophecy. “Amen I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 2131b-32)”
The second parable told the story of a landowner who planted a vineyard, erected a wine press, built a watchtower and leased the property to tenants. When vintage time came the tenants refused to give him a portion of the produce as their rent. They beat and even killed his servants who were sent to collect it. He finally sent his son, but they killed him, too.
In the Hebrew Scriptures the vineyard always represented Israel. The parable was telling the religious leaders that they had reneged on the covenant. God had given them a wonderful vineyard to till, but they had given nothing back in return. They were violent and murderous with God’s messengers, the prophets, and they would even murder the owner’s son. Jesus then launched another prophecy at them. “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. (Matthew 21:43)”
Matthew’s chapter 22 begins with the third parable. It’s narrated in two parts. The first part speaks about a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. The parable had a double edge to it. It wasn’t only predicting God’s judgment of Israel; it was also meant to be a warning to the Christians for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel. The second part is a small parable in itself, and uses the image of the wedding garment.
The context of the entire parable was the wedding feast. It was symbolic of several things. In Jewish tradition a wedding symbolized God’s wedded relationship with Israel. “I will espouse you to me forever, I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)” The wedding feast also represented the coming kingdom of God.
Here are some cultural aspects to the story that will be helpful in understanding it. This wasn’t an ordinary wedding. It was a royal wedding. It was celebrating the marriage of the king’s son. It was a very big deal to be invited to a wedding like this. Traditionally, invitations were sent out in advance, but the date for the actual wedding was not given. When the entire affair had been put together with the food and entertainment ready, servants would be dispatched to announce that it was time to come to the wedding feast. Once the general invitation was given the guests had to be on alert for the call to come to the wedding – right away.
The king dispatched his servants with the goodnews of the wedding feast but they were met with in difference, and even hostility. Those invited continued with their ordinary business, working on their farms or in their businesses. But some of them were even hostile towards the servants and beat and murdered them. The king, in anger, sent his troops to destroy the murderers, and to burn down their city.
Once again we can see the theme of Israel’s rejection of God’s invitation. Israel was specially chosen to attend the royal wedding banquet, but ultimately refused the invitation, settling for the ordinary things of life. The rejection and murder of the servants reflected the hostility shown to the prophets God sent to reaffirm his invitation. The reference to the king’s anger, and the ultimate destruction of those who were invited and the city they lived in, was Matthew’s interpretation of the horrific event of 70 AD, the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew, and probably most of the Christian community at the time, saw it as God’s punishment for refusing to accept the Messiah, the king’s son.
The king then sent his servants to the main roads to invite to the banquet whomever they found, good and bad alike. This is in line with the two previous parables. Israel refused God’s invitation. Now the invitation has been extended inviting everyone to the wedding feast in the kingdom of God.
The final part of the parable described a scene in which a person entered the wedding not properly dressed. This might seem a bit odd to us, and the king’s response quite radical. We’re used to wedding invitations that are stamped “black tie optional.” The meaning is clear. Don’t dress like a slob; this is a special occasion. In our culture we have to be told how to dress for occasions. Restaurants often print on their websites, “jackets required,” or “casual dress.” Some private clubs have strict dress codes, no jeans or sneakers in places other than the athletic facilities, and jackets, dress slacks, collared shirt and dress shoes are required throughout the club. In the Middle East, a wedding is a highly formal occasion. People know that they’re to dress in their best clothes. It’s not just a custom; it’s part of the celebration. By dressing up, everyone feels special, and the occasion is raised above the ordinary.
This short scene is a commentary to the main parable. Everyone was invited “good and bad alike.” But this was the wedding feast in the kingdom of God. One was obliged to put on a wedding garment. In biblical vocabulary what a person wore was symbolic of who the person was. One had to be clothed in the values of the kingdom. As Christians, we can interpret it this way. To enter the wedding feast in the kingdom of God one must be clothed in the Beatitudes. Nothing else will do. The Beatitudes have to be part and parcel of our lives. They make us who we are.
Now we need to direct this parable from Jesus’ attack on the religious leaders of his day, to ourselves. What would Jesus be telling us through these parables?
Each of us has been invited to the wedding feast in the kingdom of God through our baptism. As time goes on, however, Jesus has asked us to make an interior break with the everyday things of life, like our work, business concerns, and even family. “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or fathers or mother or children for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)” Jesus gave us the Good News that everyone is called to the kingdom of God, “good and bad alike.” But each of us must be properly clothed to enter the wedding banquet. Isaiah spoke of this in his prophecy. “He has clothed me with the robe of salvation, and wrapped me in the mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10b)” In the Beatitudes, Jesus listed what his followers were to wear: poverty of spirit, meekness, a thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. Saint Paul put it this way to the Christians of Rome. “Let us throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 13:12b-14)”
Jesus expected a great deal from the religious leaders, but was disappointed. They refused the invitation he extended to them. We’re offered the same invitation, and we’re asked to prepare for the wedding banquet by clothing ourselves with Christ himself – interiorizing his teachings and values. To enter the feast we have to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.