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An Old Parable

Matthew 22:1-14

Lesson audio

The Parable of the Wedding Feast is a familiar one, but the classic interpretation of it might be a bit strange to modern ears. So, please hear an old parable in a “new” way.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Mat 22:1-14 NASB Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, (2) "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. (3) "And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. (4) "Again he sent out other slaves saying, 'Tell those who have been invited, "Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast."' (5) "But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, (6) and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. (7) "But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. (8) "Then he *said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. (9) 'Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.' (10) "Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests. (11) "But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, (12) and he *said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?' And the man was speechless. (13) "Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (14) "For many are called, but few are chosen."

Customs of the time

In our world lives are run by the clock – right down to the second. In the small town of old the bus driver might have waited for you; no more. We use the phrase, “ran like clockwork,” to mean something which performed flawlessly. But it was not always so.

In those days there were only three fixed times; sunrise, noon and sunset. These were the only three that everyone could determine. So it was not uncommon to receive an invitation to a feast for a particular day, but no particular time. Those invited lived in the same town; it was a simple matter to send the slaves out to say that all was ready. Refrigeration has altered much.

The concept of “wedding clothes” hasn’t changed that much, though. We still hold to the idea that wearing a particular type of clothing is a token of respect. But they would also have been attuned to the idea that such a phrase had a double meaning – not just physical clothing, but a metaphor. We still speak of someone “wrapping himself in the flag,” for example. Paul uses the whole armor of God; the Old Testament speaks of a man clothing himself with violence.[1] We shall see later that Christ picks up this metaphor and gives it in prophecy, where white linen represents the righteous acts of the saints.[2]

The transition from small town to big city has changed something else: the sense of social obligation. Social obligations were much stronger – especially when they involved a king. Christ’s hearers would have recognized the refusal to come to the supper as being intentionally offensive.


The parable is not hard to interpret:

  • The original invited guests are the Jews. The servants sent to them are the prophets; their destruction would occur in AD 70.
  • The “go therefore” represents the church and her evangelism – the Good News taken to every place on earth.
  • The feast is yet to come. It is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” spoken of in Revelation.[3] This will happen at the return of our Lord.

Despite recent musings, this has been the simple interpretation of this parable from the earliest days of the church. As we shall see, things have changed.

The wrong clothes

The most sensitive part of the parable concerns the wedding guest who was not wearing wedding clothes. Taken at face value (wrong clothes) the reaction of the king seems harsh. But if we understand this to be the return of our Lord for His church, the matter makes sense. A little.

  • It throws some light on the question of predestination, for example. Was this man predestined to be cast into hell – or is he himself at fault? The classic interpretation is simply this: many are called – all we can reach. Of them, some respond.[4] Of these, a fair portion go through the motions but ultimately do not become solid Christians. Only those who wear the fine linen of righteousness will be at the wedding supper of the Lamb.
  • So how would I know? Easy. Look in the mirror – do you see the righteous acts, or someone going through the motions doing just enough to feel self-satisfied?
  • We may note, therefore, the surprise of this guest. He thought all was well. Didn’t he go to church often? How stunning to find that God wanted devotion, not lip service and habit.
  • Finally, we may note his destination: hell. As we shall see, this is not a popular destination these days.

Reaction in our Teaching

This parable may serve as a landmark for us. By looking to it, we may determine where our teaching has gone astray.

Teaching about prophecy

Our teaching about prophecy has changed greatly since the early days of the church; it is instructive to ask if all such change is for the good.

  • The ancients saw a mystery of God. We see a certainty. (Recall, a mystery in Scripture might be better translated “top secret.”) Our teaching includes much more detail that we read into matters – and much less reverence for the mysteries of God.[5]
  • The old interpretation of prophecy held so much unknown – but this is compatible with the soft and tender invitation of Jesus Christ. “You never know” might have been the motto of the early interpreters; “Draw a line in the sand” is ours. The ancients saw in the mystery a form of God’s compassion.
  • In older times prophecy was viewed as difficult, and therefore less likely to be a topic for sermons. In our time it is the most socially acceptable kind of sermon; it exudes confidence.
Teaching on predestination, election and grace

If our views on prophecy seem to have varied, our views on predestination, election and grace have also changed.

  • In the older views, there were those who saw this as consistent with predestination (the man was fated to wear the wrong clothes). Others saw it as part of the election of God (the man was invited despite his failings). The most common view was that time, being the creation of God, was at his command, and therefore there is no contradiction between free will and prophecy. These views were much argued.
  • Today, the ill dressed man is seen as a Christian – but a hypocrite. But even this is fading, as no one wants to admit that there might be a hypocrite in our congregation. Hypocrisy is strictly reserved for other denominations.
  • The most common view taught today is that all that are in the church are saved; the line in the sand is at the sanctuary door. “We” are the favored; “they” are not. Crossing the line is all that is really required.
Teaching on hell

All this, of course, leads to the alternate destinations of heaven and hell.

  • “Hell” is an almost unused word (outside of angry obscenities). The preferred term is “Christless eternity.” It is preferred, I think, because we really don’t believe in hell. We acknowledge it, but it’s not a major player in our thoughts.
  • Hellfire and brimstone? We don’t even like to mention the words, let alone preach in that style. All is sweetness and light in the kingdom.
  • But one must ask: are we really doing the sinner any favors in this? If there is no hell, or hell is reserved only for Satan and his angels, then our modern method is fine. But it is good to note that almost all the references to hell come from our Lord himself.

Attitudes and Actions

Our attitudes and actions have changed as well.

Attitude towards the Jews

In no area has Christian teaching undergone a more profound sea change than in our thoughts concerning the Jews.

  • Throughout most of Christian history, it has been a common believe that the Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion – and that their failure to repent and become Christians means that they embrace what their ancestors did.[6]
  • Remember Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? It was branded as “anti-Semitic” for the simple cause that it told the truth. Jews are now heroic. A goodly portion of the attitude change is due to our shift in method of prophetic interpretation.
  • A very positive development has been the arrival of Messianic Jews as a part of the church. This has been a blessing to the church if for no other reason that to separate the history of the Jews from the people around us.
Attitudes towards evangelism
  • Evangelism is viewed as someone else’s responsibility. That person is usually in a foreign country. Even in our own country, it’s a problem for other people to solve. This is changing, however, as cheap travel makes the short term mission trip more feasible.
  • “Hearing the call” to evangelism – a commonplace concept to the ancient church – is now rare. The call is now introspective, not a public thing.
  • Most curious enough is the demise of the sense of urgency in evangelism. The ancient church thought of it this way: the Gospel must be preached, for everyday men die without Christ. We now view it that the return of Christ is very near; hence we must reach to our unsaved loved ones now.
Wedding clothes

The acts of righteousness – detailed in Scripture[7] - are still with us. But there are some changes here, too.

  • In the days when there was only one church, that church made such things as hospitals, giving to the poor, feeding and clothing the poverty stricken, functions of the church as a whole. That is, the church officials organized these things and ran them. (This is still a major virtue of the Catholic church, for example.) We see these as things that arise from the pew, not the pulpit.[8] This perhaps reflects the change in doctrine concerning “social Gospel.”
  • Our teaching tends more and more to “faith, not works.” The early church saw “faith and works”; later came “works, not faith” followed by the Reformation giving rise to “faith, not works.”

May I point out one particular difficulty? Did you notice what the king said to the man without wedding clothes? His first word is “friend.” This is not talking about those who do not know the Gospel. It’s talking about those who are friends, but do not produce the fruit of righteousness. It is a warning to us all.

[1] Malachi 2:16

[2] Revelation 19:8

[3] Revelation 19:9

[4] See Matthew 13

[5] A feature of pre-millennialism. One good example is J. Vernon McGee’s angel broadcasting from a satellite.

[6] Which, by the way, is not grounds for their persecution.

[7] Matthew 25:31-46

[8] Celebrate Recover, the prison ministry, Men on a Mission

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