Let us call it like it is. This is not a comforting parable. While the setting of a wedding feast evokes happy images, and while the king’s insistence on filling the wedding hall appeals to our desire for inclusion, you cannot read this parable without being disturbed. The behavior of the king just does not seem right, which suggests this parable may teach us something important. After all, when Jesus says things that do not seem right, you can count on the problem being with us.
Context is always important. This parable is no exception. The tension between Jesus and the religious authorities has been rising for a while. In the preceding parable, Jesus described God as a master who sent his servants and son to wicked tenants. The religious leaders recognized the parable was against them and they made plans to arrest Jesus. But they did not, so Jesus kept teaching.
In the parable for this Sunday, Jesus continues on the same theme with a different setting. This time it is a wedding feast. Like those tenants who had rejected the master’s servants and killed his son, the invitees to the wedding rejected the king’s “call” (which better reflects κεκλημένους in verse 3). Some of them mistreated his servants and killed them. In the previous parable Jesus let the hearers conclude for themselves what should be done (21:41). In this parable, Jesus describes the king’s response.
Here is where the discomfort with this parable starts. The king’s response was harsh. He responded to those who refused his call and murdered his servants by sending out troops, killing those who killed his servants, and burning their city. This response was justified. They killed his servants, after all: An eye for an eye. But this does not seem quite right for a king who is supposed to represent a merciful God. While most Christians do not wince at the justice of God punishing those who killed Jesus, Jesus Himself seems more gracious (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”). Justice may be fair, but it does not seem loving.
The wedding feast must go on, however, so the king sends his servants to call others (again, the Greek καλέω more precisely denotes calling). The servants proceed to call all sorts of people, both “bad and good” (πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς). Apparently, some of both show up. This is the second action of the king that seems a little strange. Why did he invite the evil ones? While there is magnanimity in calling those who do not belong, this also seems odd, especially when one of those evil ones is about to get the boot.
While there is magnanimity in calling those who do not belong, this also seems odd, especially when one of those evil ones is about to get the boot.
Which brings us to the third and most disturbing action of the king. He notices a man at the feast who is not dressed properly. He confronts the man. The man gives no response, he is neither belligerent nor dishonest. Unlike the original invitees who spurned the call and killed the servants, this man is not causing any trouble. You might expect the king to show some grace, to look the other way, or to provide proper clothing after the fact. But no, the king will not tolerate the presence of this man at his son’s wedding, neither will he usher him out quietly. He binds the man hand and foot and throws him into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The king in this parable seems reckless and fickle. He responds in-kind and refuses to show mercy, and that is not even the hardest part of the text. Jesus saves the most difficult for the last verse. After finishing the parable, Jesus comes to this conclusion: “Many are called, but few are chosen” (at least the English translation has finally moved from “inviting” to “calling” in this last verse). And there is the rub. This parable is about election. Many are called, in the parable and today, but few are chosen. Jesus is making it crystal clear that the master, the king, God Himself decides who is and who is not welcome in His Kingdom.
Election is a difficult teaching, especially for people like us who value such things as freedom, personal autonomy, and the right to choose one’s own way. But notice why it is difficult. It allows for only one conclusion: God is in charge and we are not. Somehow you need to convey this truth clearly.
Election allows for only one conclusion: God is in charge and we are not.
In itself, this is not good news. It is quite terrifying. Which is why you, the preacher of the Gospel, have such an important role to play. The good news you are called to proclaim is that God has not only called your hearers, but He has also chosen them. He has clothed them with Christ through faith. That is the promise of their baptism (Galatians 3:26-27). They have been dressed in the only acceptable and the only necessary garment for participation in the feast. No matter what they are wearing this Sunday, they need not wonder if they belong or if they are welcome. In Christ they have a king who IS generous, who IS forgiving, who fills the wedding hall with all who believe.
The heart of this sermon, then, would be this promise. At first glance, it may seem insufficient. But do not forget the promise is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). This promise is enough to create and strengthen faith in those who hear it (for more, see the Augsburg Confession, article V). It is also enough to fill your hearers with hope and joy. Once they have given up their need to be in charge, they can rejoice that God has included them. We are talking about a royal wedding feast, after all! What is more, the feast has not yet begun. This is encouraging for those who have a heart for people who are not yet in Christ. Servants (including your hearers) are still being sent out, still calling all people to come and join the feast—to come and put on Christ—who fits them perfectly for a celebration that never ends.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 22:1-14.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 22:1-14.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 22:1-14.