Dressed for the Feast

Two different kinds of invitations came to me in the mail this week. One came by postal service. The paper was of rich stock, and the lettering was exquisitely embossed. It was addressed by hand with elegant flourishes. A stamped envelope was included for the R.S.V.P. The other came electronically, as an e-vite, sent to a vast list of friends and acquaintances. The invitation encouraged the recipients to spread the word to others. No response was necessary—one could just come and bring a dish to pass around.

In today’s Gospel, the host of the great banquet seems to have used the ancient equivalents of both these kinds of invitations as he prepared for the wedding of his son. When those who have received formal invitations are summoned to the feast, they refuse to come, even after two attempts by the servants. The king then instructs the servants to go out to the streets and invite everyone they find. They do so, gathering in “the bad and the good alike,” and the banquet hall is filled.

Matthew’s version of the parable does not highlight the status divisions between the first and the last invited. Nor are the latter said to be poor, crippled, blind and lame, as in Luke’s version (14:15-24). Matthew does not elaborate on the excuses that the first invited gave, nor does he mention the necessity to compel the second tier of invitees. Instead, Matthew focuses on the profligacy of the host and the expected responses.

This is the third in a series of three parables directed at the religious leaders, who would be expected to be the first to receive and respond affirmatively to God’s invitation through Jesus. But these are not the ones who fill the banquet hall. Jesus, as the Old Testament figure of Woman Wisdom incarnate, calls out to all “from the heights out over the city” (Prv 9:3), extending an e-vite to any who are willing to “walk in the way of understanding” (Prv 9:6).

But there is a catch. One must come properly attired. In the Pauline letters we find frequent use of the metaphor of putting on clothing to signify the way of life one embraces. The Colossians are exhorted, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3:12; see also Rom 13:14; Gal 3:37). Likewise, Matthew would have all the guests clothe themselves with good deeds and faithfulness, ever ready for the banquet. More is needed than just showing up.

The Matthean version of this parable veers away from parabolic form, as it becomes a highly allegorized sketch of salvation history. While the extravagant generosity of the king in opening the banquet hall to all is a most apt depiction of God’s invitation to us through Jesus, the vicious retaliation against those who killed the king’s servants and the burning of the city are not depicting God’s doings; they are allusions to the killing of servants like John the Baptist by Herod and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans.

As in other Matthean parables, where unresponsive characters are thrown into “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30), there is a warning here that refusal of the divine invitation has dire consequences. God does not inflict fiery punishment, but those who ignore God’s invitation and do not allow themselves to be clothed in the garment of Jesus’ ways of love and forgiveness choose for themselves a place at the table of retaliatory violence and destruction.

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