The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14) starts out by these intriguing words: "The kingdom of heaven is like..." In the Gospels there are several parables that start with these words. Most people are interested in these parables regardless of what they think the hereafter holds in store for them personally. Just think -- learning what heaven is really like! This parable does just that.
Before looking at the parable, let's reiterate the basic traits of parables as Jesus used them:
(1) you'll find several significant points in the longer literary parables, but the parables of Jesus always have one main point; (2) frequently the main point comes as a surprise at the very end of the parable; and (3) Jesus tended to use the parable more as a tool to make you think than as an interesting story that is easy to understand.
With that brief introduction, just what does Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to? The kingdom of heaven is like "a king" -- a single, identifiable being. He does not picture heaven as a place with pearly gates, golden streets, and crystal seas, with harp-playing angels, but like a "king" -- not like a "place," but like a "state of existence." Jesus was reared a Jew, and in much Jewish literature "king" is used to mean God.
What is this king doing? He is preparing for a joyful celebration -- the wedding feast of his son. So the first clue we get is that heaven will be a "joyful" state of existence.
You will note that the king does not order the people to attend the wedding celebration, but issues invitations. He gives the invitees the freedom to accept or reject his invitations, but he does require a response. Hence, heaven is comprised of like-minded people -- beings who have accepted the king's invitation.
In this case, everyone he initially invited rejected his invitation. This does not necessarily mean they were bad people -- some were just too busy, too occupied with their daily lives and responsibilities, to take the time to come to the king's party. They'll just take a "rain check." Next time! We can understand that, can't we? We are sooooooo busy these days. Luke makes this very clear in his version of this parable. (Luke 14:18-20)
But these weren't invitations from just anyone -- these were from the king. In the United States it would be like rejecting a personal invitation from the President of the United States. I, as an ordinary citizen, can't imagine telling any president, regardless of his/her party affiliation: "I'm too busy -- I'll just skip this invitation to attend a celebratory dinner at the White House and attend the next time."
Ah, there's a catch to this! What makes one think there'll be a next time? After all, these invitations came as a surprise. There may not be more invitations from the king -- there may not be another opportunity to celebrate with the king and those who accepted his invitation -- there may not be another invitation from the President of the United States to eat dinner with his/her family members and their guests.
Some of the initial invitees are portrayed as not only rejecting the invitation, but also as murdering the servants who brought them the invitations. Many people who reject Christianity cannot just take a passive attitude about the matter -- cannot just say "not for me" and let it pass. No! They find it necessary to lash out in verbal and physical attacks against those who proclaim a belief in Christianity. We see that happening today not only in the United States, but worldwide.
The king responded in a way that surprises some people. "The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." (Matthew 22:7) So many people question if there is really a hell and believe that there are no consequences for rejecting the king's invitation. Reading this parable makes it quite clear what Jesus taught: ". . . those invited were not worthy." (Matthew 22:8) Luke is more direct: "None of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet." (Luke 14:24)
The king, however, was not discouraged. He sent his servants to the thoroughfares and the streets to gather "all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests." (Matthew 22:10)
This parable makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven is for all people, regardless of their past history, their class in society, their ethnicity, which side of the tracks they live on, whether they have someplace to live or are homeless. People from the thoroughfares and streets, the good and the bad, are invited; they must, however, accept the king's invitation. And many do accept.
But then the parable takes a very surprising turn. One person who was invited at random from off the streets came to the celebration without appropriate party clothes, and he was bound and cast out. How can this be? A person invited at random from off the streets wouldn't be expected to have party clothes! Why would a loving king -- God himself -- treat the guest this way?
As I said earlier, the main point of a parable may come as a surprise at the end of the parable. And so it does with this parable.
We have seen significant teachings throughout this parable, but what is the main point of the parable? Space does not permit addressing it here. So next week we will look at the concluding two verses of the Parable of the Marriage Feast. (Matthew 22:13-14) Between now and then I encourage you to see what you can make of the puzzling conclusion to this parable.
(Biblical quotes from Revised Standard Version.)