The Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew's Gospel is similar to the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke's Gospel. Matthew's Gospel generally has a sharper edge to it while Luke's Gospel is gentler in character. The central themes are the same. Jesus used ideas and scenarios which were very familiar to those listening to him to try to communicate his idea of a universal spiritual kingdom. Here it is an actual king and a kingdom on earth with absolute power over the life and death of his subjects.
Jewish weddings were elaborate. First, the father of the groom made the arrangements for the marriage by visiting the home of the bride to pay the bride price. The timing of this arrangement varied. Sometimes it occurred when both children were small, and at other times it was a year before the marriage itself. Often the bride and groom did not even meet until their wedding day. The second step, which occurred a year or more after the first step, was the coming of the bride. The bridegroom would go to the home of the bride to bring her to his father's home. It was the father of the groom who determined the timing. Prior to the groom’s leaving to bring the bride, he must already have a place prepared for her as their home. This was followed by the wedding ceremony, to which a few would be invited. Prior to the wedding ceremony, the bride underwent a ritual immersion for ritual cleansing. The fourth step, the marriage feast, would follow and could last for as many as seven days. Many more people would be invited to the feast than were to the marriage ceremony. It was not that different in some respects from what used to take place in our society, an engagement, followed by finding a house together, having a wedding ceremony with close family and friends and then a reception with many more being invited in the evening. The custom largely today as you know is that couples meet and after a short time decide to move in to live together. They may or may not get married. If they get married it may not be for some years or many years. I remember being asked to conduct a baptismal service for a baby boy. I went to the house to make the arrangements. When it became apparent that the couple were not married I asked ' Did you ever think about getting married?' And the young woman replied 'We haven't thought that far ahead yet'.
So the Jewish marriage custom makes sense of the parable at an organisational level. It was the father of the groom who made all the arrangements including setting the date. In our society it is mostly the bride to be who takes charge and her mother if she is allowed to. The role of the father of the groom is incidental if not anonymous until the walk down the isle. Even grooms today have little say in wedding arrangements apart from nodding submissively.
We can assume for the parable's understanding that there had been a betrothal, a bride price paid, a year's wait, a home prepared, the wedding ceremony completed and now the wedding feast invitations were sent out. There was a peculiarity. Those invited received an invitation in advance but the date was not set at that point in time. So future guests knew that they were expected to attend a wedding feast some time in the near future. This allowed for preparations, new clothes perhaps, cover at work – you could be off for a week. You were expected to be ready at a few hour's notice. Above all – it was considered a gross insult not to attend. Verse 3 reads that the king sent the servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come. That was the custom – that was what happened. Servants personally visited those invited to say 'The Wedding Feast begins this afternoon'. In Jesus' parable some who had received invitations decided not to attend. The king sent more servants to ask again that the guests come to the feast indicating that the cattle had already been slaughtered and the meat was being cooked. It wasn't just meat though. A king would offer up a lavish spread for his son's wedding feast. There would be breads, fruits and wines. Even those who were not royalty offered as generous provision as they could on such occasions.
In Matthew's Gospel the text says that the invited guests simply ignored this second request. Luke however gives more detail. But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ 'Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ 'Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ These were not convincing nor sufficient reasons to ignore a wedding feast invitation. They were weak. Excuses, excuses. We might say ' Oh I have some business matters to attend to today, I'm sorry I can't come after all'. The person just married actually had a more valid reason. Newlyweds were allowed time and privacy for the first year of their marriage. Men did not need to serve in the army, for example.
The king then sent out his servants to ask anyone they could find to come and enjoy the wedding feast. They were to go to the streets and alleyways of the town. Good people and bad people. Luke adds with his doctor's detail and compassion, 'the crippled, the blind and the lame' – as indeed, some of those loitering about the streets would be - begging for alms. In Luke's Gospel there are still some empty places to be filled and so the father of the groom sent his servants out further into the countryside and along the trade routes near the town to invite anyone they could find so that none of the places would be left empty and none of the expensive provisions would be wasted. Luke 14:23 has caused a lot of grief in the Christian Church. Older translations had it 'compel them to come in so that my house may be full'. Matthew does not have this detail. Some commentators think that this instruction of forcing people to attend gave rise to terrible things in the history of Christianity such as the Inquisition, the excesses of the Reformation period and the forced conversions of non-Christians in the time of European expansion to newly discovered continents.
Matthew's Gospel then adds a twist. The king went round to greet his guests and came upon one who was not wearing a wedding guest's garment. The king is initially gracious. 'Friend', he calls him. How did you get in here without wedding clothes? The guest did not reply 'I have been begging on the streets all day – I have no money for fancy clothes'. The guest, says Matthew, was speechless. We may presume – with embarrassment and guilt. It may be that this was an uninvited guest, someone who had sneaked in. We had an organist here years ago and he and his wife used to attend every funeral meal even though they had no connection whatsoever with the families concerned. On one occasion they even sat outside the house of the bereaved family until they returned from Falkirk Crematorium and invited themselves to what was in effect a private family occasion. I am told that some people scan the funeral notices in The Courier and go along for free meals where they can. It is possible that wedding clothes were provided at the door and for some reason this guest did not have any. He represents those not invited who had no right to be there. And the king is ruthless in having him ejected from the marriage feast. Verse 14 says 'For many are invited but few are chosen'. The Reverend I M Jolly had a different take on this text. 'The pies were cauld and some were frozen'.
Many evangelists have used the image of the uninvited guest to inspire the response of faith. Are you wearing wedding clothes? Are you spiritually naked in God's sight? Paul advised new converts to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Elsewhere Paul says that the spiritual clothes Christians should wear are forgiveness, peace, kindness, patience, humility, joy and compassion. These keep us warm in Scotland's cold spiritual climate for Christians today.
Those listening to Jesus would have grasped the meaning of this parable because the image of the marriage feast was well known in Judaism as a sign of God's inbreaking into the human community in a saving way. Christianity also speaks of the 'marriage feast of the Lamb' being the joys and festivities of heaven. Our Holy Communion is a symbolic acting out of that future feast. However, Jesus used the parable to make the point that the invited guests are the Jews of His day who have rejected Him as their Messiah. They received gracious invitations and could not be bothered to attend. Excuses, excuses. The crippled, blind and lame represent the outcastes of Jewish society at the time, those whom Jesus ministered to, healed, included and befriended. St Paul wrote to the new converts in the Church at Corinth saying that among them there were 'not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong'. That has been Christianity's story throughout its 2000 years.
It is for us still however a great mystery as to how faith comes to some and not to others. Why within families one person is a Christian and others are not. Do people resist God's invitation within them throughout their lives? Are most people just like these invited guests who did not take the invitation seriously and never followed it through? Nearly every human being has a sense of God at some time in their lives. It is the person who acts on that prompting and follows it through who ends up with a strong living Christian faith. It begins as a mustard seed and ends up as a tree.
As a parish minister I cannot count the number of excuses I have listened to for people not coming to Church. Asking people to become more involved and take on some task or calling results in more excuses than acceptances. Not many people these days have just bought five yoke of oxen and are on their way to try them out but lots are going to Almondvale to do their shopping on a Sunday mornings or just sitting at home watching television. Don't reject the inner call of God. Don't pretend you didn't hear. It is a feast you are being invited to, something splendid and wonderful, something joyous and long lasting, the company of our Living Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.