This text is problematic for some because of its seeming harshness and lack of love. In a parable of Jesus a wedding guest comes, but is sternly rebuked for not appearing properly attired, and is kicked out of the wedding. In fact he is sent to a place of stern judgment.
This passage comes from a wedding feast parable of Jesus, and care must be taken in seeking to interpret and explain it. Another account of the parable of the great banquet is found in Luke 14:15-24, but it does not include the bit about the wrongly-dressed guest, so I will just deal with the version of events as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
The entire parable, found in Matthew 22:1-14, goes like this:
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off–one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
We are not left in doubt as to the main message of the parable. Jesus supplies it for us in v. 14: many are called but few are chosen. Jesus is nearing his final confrontation with the religious authorities, and they have been increasingly recalcitrant and resistant to his appeals.
This in fact is the last of three parables clumped together. The first is the Parable of the Two Sons (Matt 21:28-32) and the second is the Parable of the Tenants (Matt 21:33-46). These also were aimed at the religious establishment, as vv. 45-46 make clear: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”
So the religious leaders are especially in view here, but others are included as well. The kingdom is open to all who will come, but not all want it. The call goes out, but many refuse the invitation. But let’s go back to the inappropriately dressed wedding guest.
Either he did not take the clothing the king provided for the event, or he did not bother to change into something appropriate for this important occasion. Either way, he showed great disrespect to the king, his son, and the other guests. This was quite insulting to the king and provoked his wrath.
As Craig Keener remarks, “For the king graciously to extend the honor of an invitation to a banquet and be rebuffed as if his benefaction were meaningless was a traumatic breach of the social order.” This applied to both those who refused to come and those who came lacking the proper clothing.
Says Keener, “Matthew leaves no doubt as to the interpretation: the wedding garment signifies repentance (3:2; 4:17). Just as most of the Jewish leaders were unprepared at Jesus’ first coming (cf. 23:13-33), some professing disciples of Jesus will be unprepared at his second (24:45-51).”
God the Father calls us to attend the great wedding event, to partake of his kingdom. Many refuse the invitation, while others accept it, but inappropriately and without due seriousness. Not just religious leaders but all those who profess to be God’s people need to take this parable seriously.
As Michael Wilkins comments, “This once again points to the accountability of everyone’s response to Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom of heaven. The privileged leaders are judged for rejecting the invitation (22:7), and the populace of Israel, who are also privileged to be the children of God, will be judged for their response to the kingdom. But even Jesus’ professing disciples, such as Judas (called ‘friend’ in 26:50), are culpable for what they ultimately do with the invitation. Not all who respond do so from the heart. This is the point of all three parables of judgment.”
While our salvation is the free gift of God, it does not come without any requirements on our part. True repentance is one of the conditions of entering into the kingdom. Once again, we find no cheap grace in the teachings of Jesus. Following him is always seen as something costly and all-embracing.
R. T. France puts it this way: “The symbolism is of someone who presumes on the free offer of salvation by assuming that therefore there are no obligations attached, someone whose life belies their profession: faith without works. Entry to the kingdom of heaven may be free, but to continue in it carries conditions. Even though this man belongs to the new group of invitees, he is one who produces no fruit, and so is no less liable to forfeit his new-found privilege than those who were excluded before him.”
We have to be careful that we don’t act like gate-crashers, as this man did. We dare not presume upon the grace of God. We dare not become complacent and indifferent to the king’s generosity. We dare not forget that the life of the disciple of Christ is characterised by repentance and obedience, not recklessness and indifference.
John Nolland offers a nice summary of the parable as a whole: “If the first part of the parable has to do with the decisive exclusion and replacement of those who fail to honour the summons when the wedding feast is ready, the second part of the parable has to do with the impossibility of coming to the wedding feast on one’s own terms. It is addressed to those who are confident that they have a place in the coming eschatological banquet.”
The strong language used by the king is of course quite common terminology found in the gospels, and so often used by Jesus about the fate of the lost. Hell is real, and many are going there. We all must make a sober assessment of our spiritual condition.
Many are called, but few are chosen. Sobering words indeed.