The early Christian movement attracted fallen-away Jews and Gentiles but not Israel’s leadership. This was a great mystery to Matthew, who develops this theme of invitation and response throughout his Gospel. The Gospel passage this week finds Jesus still in the Temple, warning the chief priests and elders that their time is running out. God summoned them to the kingdom, but in their rejection of the Son, they have rejected God’s invitation. This parable gives a clear insight on Matthew’s conundrum: Israel’s leaders received the invitation first, but they rejected it. Only then did God turn to sinners and Gentiles to populate his kingdom.
‘Many are invited, but few are chosen.’ (Mt 22:14)
In what ways has God invited you? How have you responded?
How do you understand Christ’s “wedding garment” of love? How are you crafting one like it?
This parable has a surprise ending. A guest shows up without the proper wedding garment and is thrown out into the night. This action is difficult to square with the king’s generosity in the first part of the parable. The church, mercifully, offers a shorter version of the Gospel this week that omits the second part of the parable. This omission has good historical grounds. Versions of this parable also appear in Luke (14:15-24) and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (64:1-5). In neither case does the parable of the bridal garment appear. It is not likely that the writers of Luke and Thomas independently left out the same passage. It is more likely that Matthew put together two previously unrelated parables to develop his theme of invitation and response.
Biblical scholars have not reached consensus over the meaning of the wedding garment. It helps to remember that Jesus lived in a highly ritualized culture. Wedding celebrations especially were ceremonial events involving the appropriate participation of the guests. The invitation issued by the servants was indiscriminate but not compulsory. Anyone who said yes to it would have known that they were going to an affair that required appropriate dress and courteous interaction. The etiquette added to the joy; dancing, drinking and feasting each had their own ritual action and these added to the memorable qualities of the day (similarly today, the ritual of the best man’s toast can be one of the most memorable parts of a wedding celebration).
Jesus’ culture was hierarchical as well. Guests at a wedding owed their host a debt of gratitude that they repaid with tokens of respect. A close reading of today’s Gospel shows that the crisis peaked not over the man’s attire (which the host may have felt compelled to lend him), but over his failure to respond to the king. This lack of courtesy was the grave insult that led to his ejection from the feast.
Patristic authors found the wedding garment to be a symbol of Christian love. They derived this from literary cues like the king’s generosity, the wedding and the tokens of respect due a host. They also taught that the wedding garment makes us resemble Christ, the divine bridegroom. Gregory the Great, for instance, argued that the wedding garment was not baptism, which was symbolized simply by entering the feasting hall. To participate in the feast, one must be clothed like the bridegroom in compassion, generosity, forgiveness and love. Similarly today, many call themselves Christians. Only those attired with a love like Christ’s will experience the joy of God’s feast.