The Gospel reading for Sunday, October 9 presents Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the Wedding Feast. This account can also be found in Luke 14:16-24. This is the third consecutive Sunday Gospel reading taken from the Sermon in the Temple, a five-chapter blockbuster where Jesus debates the Temple authorities in the Temple of Jerusalem.
This is also the last opportunity Jesus will have to preach in public, and his timing could not be any better. The Temple of Jerusalem will be filled with thousands of pilgrims during the Holy Week of Passover. To access this passage of Sunday, October 9 in the Lectionary, click here for the Catholic, and here for the RCL version.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet builds upon the parable that immediately precedes it: the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard. In the Parable of the Tenants, Jesus speaks of those who have already lost the Kingdom of God (Mt 21:43) through their stubborn unwillingness to hear the Word of God. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet, on the other hand, speaks of those who are now invited (Mt 22:2) to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Wedding Metaphor
In both the Old Testament and the New, the wedding symbolizes an idealized encounter between God and his own people. God and his people have a spousal relationship. For example, Hosea 2:21 and Jeremiah 2:2 depict Israel as the spouse of Yahweh. Here is how Isaiah (54:5) describes the relationship:
For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.
Our first class prophet, John the Baptist, refers to Jesus as the Bridegroom, and therefore implies that he is the Messiah inferred in Isaiah 54:5. In John 3:29, when John the Baptist is asked why Jesus now draws disciples away from John and baptizes in the River Jordan, John responds:
He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full.
John the Baptist’s use of the term bridegroom to describe Jesus is prophetic, since the later Book of Revelation refers to the Wedding of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7). The bride is the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), and its inhabitants are those written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27).
The Parable in Matthew’s Gospel
Thus, even the Sacred authors of the Gospels understood Israel to be the bride, and Jesus the bridegroom. Now, let us consider the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. The parable begins with an invitation:
The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.
Jesus is preaching in the Temple. We need not speculate as to who the invited guests are: they are the prophets, kings, and religious leaders entrusted by God to preserve the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Thus the elders and chief priests, with whom Jesus is speaking, were “invited guests” to the Wedding Banquet. Then Jesus continues the story:
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 laid hold of his servants…”
Jesus continue with his line of argument that there were those who were invited in advance– the preferred guests. We need only refer to Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 to know who those preferred guests were: the “lost sheep of Israel.” When Jesus refers to lost sheep, his not referring to those that have gone missing. As Jesus says in Mt 9:36, he is referring to the fact that the people of his time have no pastor or shepherd. Nonetheless, those invited to the wedding banquet do not attend. The parable then tells us that the King seems to respond a bit unreasonably when he discovers that those invited have not accepted the invitation:
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Scholars argue that this is a non-accidental reference to the fate of Jerusalem, when it was razed by the Romans in 70 A.D. There is a good question here as to whether Jesus actually spoke these words in the Temple, or whether Matthew the Evangelist interpolated Jesus speaking these words. My regular readers know where I stand on this question: Jesus spoke these words. The primary reason I make this case is because the parable of the Wedding Feast makes little sense in relation to the Sermon in the Temple without this prediction.
In the context of the Sermon in the Temple, the entire section is a back-and-forth argument with the Temple authorities. The twin parables – The Wicked Husbandmen and the Wedding Feast – are veiled warnings directed towards the Temple authorities. Jesus is saying to the Temple authorities, you may reject my message, but others will accept it, and you will be held accountable for your failure to recognize that I fulfill the prophets’ expectation of a Messiah.
Jesus is telling the Temple authorities that he is not happy with their refusal to receive him as God’s son. In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Jesus uses euphemistic language to tell the Temple authorities that the “enraged king,” God himself, will reject those who do not accept the invitation extended by Jesus:
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”
Here, Jesus tells us that the invited guests will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, as they declined to the invitation extended to them. Rather, it will be offered to saints and sinners alike: to common folk, including gentiles. When Jesus says that “bad and good alike” are gathered, we are reminded that Matthew the Evangelist, was, himself, a tax collector and sinner. It comes as no surprise that Jesus offers the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven to repentant sinners, just as much as to the saints among us.
Finally, we are told that those without a wedding garment will not be admitted to the Banquet. While many are invited to the wedding, saints and sinners alike, it appears that some verily expect to be admitted and are not. Benedict XVI has a theory as to what that “wedding garment” is. He cites Saint Gregory the Great, and says that the “wedding garment” is charity. In other words, some may arrive at the banquet hall with the faith, but in their failure to practice charity (love of God and neighbor), they do not gain admittance.