What are we to make of Jesus when he starts telling horror stories – stories where there is blood all over the floor and burned villages and people bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this? Whatever happened to God’s extravagant grace, to mercy and forgiveness and God’s desire that all would be saved? What happened to Jesus the comforter, the Jesus we know and love?
Well, let’s have a closer look at this story and see whether we can work out how it relates to the message of grace and welcome.
One of the things I remember from gospel studies with Athol Gill is that one of the key indicators to what’s going on in a particular version of a story is to look at the things that are unique in that version of it. This story doesn’t only appear in Matthew’s gospel. There is another version in Luke 14:15-24, and there are other versions in the Gospel of Thomas and a few other such writings that didn’t make it into the official Bible. Whatever the original form of the story was, this one in Matthew appears to be the one that has had the most editorial alterations. It is the most different from the others and it’s got Matthew’s pet topics stamped all over it.
In the other versions it is just a certain man holding a feast. In Matthew it is the King holding a wedding feast for his son – a much more overt reference to the image of God’s heavenly banquet for his son, Jesus and his bride, the church. In the other versions the servant go out once to tell the guests that the feast is ready. In Matthew they go out twice. The first time they are ignored and the second time they are even beaten and killed. It is a frequent theme in Matthew’s writings that God has repeatedly invited his people, Israel, to come into the Kingdom, but that they have rejected and even killed God’s messengers. Only Matthew adds the King dispatching his army to destroy the cities of those rejecting his invitation – a parallel to Israel’s cities being destroyed when the people reject God’s prophets. It had happened at the hands of the Babylonians and it happened again at the hands of the Romans in 70 a.d. about the time that Matthew wrote. And just in case you thought this was supposed to be a realistic story rather than a cartoon-like black comedy, they wage war and destroy cities while dinner is waiting!
The next detail is common to all the versions. The servants are dispatched to gather in anyone and everyone, especially those who would previously have been excluded. To the Jewish listeners of Matthew’s church, the meaning would have been in-your-face obvious. God has invited Israel to respond to his love. Israel has repeatedly ignored God’s messengers and even killed them. So God has allowed them to be destroyed and instead opened the banqueting room of heaven to anyone who would come, even the gentiles.
But then comes Matthew’s most unique addition to the story. The bit about the bloke who gets thrown out for not wearing the right clothes appears only in Matthew’s version. What on earth could this be about? Surely it’s over the top. The King has just invited in anyone and everyone, good and bad alike, but now he loses his temper with this poor bloke for not having the right clothes. How are you supposed to have the right clothes for a King’s wedding banquet when you got pulled in off the streets at the last possible moment? And it’s one thing to be ejected by the bouncers for not having your jacket on, but this guy is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. What on earth is Matthew saying that Jesus was on about? Is Matthew trying to establish a dress code for church attendance or something? Well no, I don’t think so. Remember this is still a parable or an allegory. It’s not telling you to burn the cities of those who turn down your party invitations either!
Throughout the scriptures and especially in the New Testament writings, clothes and especially wedding clothes are used as an image of something else. “Clothe yourselves in Christ.” “Put on the garments of righteousness.” “You who are baptised into Christ have put on Christ,” and in the baptism rite it is traditional for this to be symbolised by the newly baptised person literally putting on a new white robe, their baptismal robe. In some churches the baptised continue to wear this robe each time they come to worship round the Lord’s table as a symbol of their having clothed themselves in Christ.
So what we’ve got here in the story is the bloke who’s come in the door when everyone was invited but who has then refused to put on the garment of righteousness. Some historians say that it would have been customary for the King to hand out the appropriate wedding robes at the door on an occasion like this, so you really had only yourself to blame if you weren’t wearing the right gear. But let’s not get hung up on the literal details or we’ll be worrying about how he had time to burn cities without burning dinner too! What Matthew is telling us is that there are some people who go through the motions of responding to the call – they’re always in the right places and associating with the right people – but they’re only going through the motions. They don’t actually make any real attempt to reclothe themselves, to put off the old ways of living and acting and clothe themselves in the ways of Christ.
This is a classic Matthew twist. He tells several parables in a row, this is the third, which all condemn those who have rejected Christ and stoned the prophets, and then just when his hearers are all nodding along with him and thinking, “Yeah, they’re terrible, those people,” he suddenly turns on them and says, “And don’t you lot go getting complacent. If God can destroy them he can chuck you out too! Don’t go thinking that you’re in and now you can just rest on your laurels. If you accept the call, you accept it on God’s terms and if you don’t get serious about following through on the commitment you’ve made, you could just as easily be out on your ear again!”
It would certainly be possible and quite understandable for people to hear this as a very threatening kind of message; even as the opposite of grace, the sort of things that makes it sound like God is the cosmic headmaster always looking for an excuse to expel someone. I think that would be a mistake though. I think it is important to remember that Matthew is prone to saying these kind of things whenever he’s worried that, because of what he’s just been saying, his listeners might be prone to taking pleasure in the message of judgement directed at some other group. It’s akin to saying “Judge not, lest you yourselves be judged.”
It is nevertheless an important teaching for how we understand the nature of grace. Matthew is emphasising to us that the grace offered in Jesus is not something we can presume upon. It is a free gift in that there are no preconditions that you have to meet before you are eligible for grace, but that doesn’t mean that you can just take what’s on offer, enjoy the goodies, and continue to live a life that is entirely unrelated to the grace you have been given. Perhaps we could say that there are no pre-conditions, but there are some post-conditions.
Matthew’s analogy breaks down if you think of the garment of righteousness as something you can just put on over your other clothes and then take off at will. While it is fair to say that it is a clean white garment that we are given without having to earn it, it is still our responsibility to keep it clean. Righteousness is something we grow in as we follow Jesus and continue to strive to become like him and continue to allow him to transform us inwardly so that we are enabled to do so. Grace is the free gift given to us to enable us to follow Jesus like that. Grace can’t just be taken when its handed out at the door and used for some other purpose of our own choosing. Grace is ours as a gift, but it is a gift that crumbles and slides through your fingers if you try to hold it without beginning to live it.
When the Kings says, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes?” it’s no use saying, “Well I got them, but I folded them up and put them in my bag.” We’ve been given our wedding clothes, our garments of righteousness, as a free gift. Now it’s up to us to wear them with integrity, to wear them and live appropriately to what we’re wearing until eventually we couldn’t imagine wearing anything else.