The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 is the final of three parables in which Jesus confronts his religious contemporaries. In the first parable, Jesus concludes, “the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). In the second parable, he depicts the religious leaders as tenants who kill the son of a vineyard owner; when the vineyard owner comes, he puts the wretches to a miserable death (Mt. 21:41). Jesus concludes, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Mt. 21:43). Christ exposed the hypocrisy of the the chief priests and the Pharisees who “perceived that he was speaking about them” and began to plot his murder.
This brings us to chapter 22, The Parable of the Wedding Feast. Keep in mind the mounting tensions. After this parable, the religious leaders attempt to trap Jesus with trick questions. Then, in chapter 23, Christ proclaims seven woes on the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Mt. 23:33). The cross stands tall on the approaching horizon.
22:1 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast 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.” (Mt. 22:1-14)
Verse 14 summarizes the message of Christ’s parable: Many are called, but few are chosen. To be called and to be chosen or elect go hand-in-hand (e.g., 2 Pet. 1:10). Matthew 22 is Christ’s clearest teaching on the nature of calling and election in the kingdom of God. Those who are chosen are first called or invited, but not all who are called become elect.
Those who are chosen are first called or invited; but not all who are called become elect.
The parable begins with a call: the king (God the Father) throws a wedding feast for his son (Jesus the Messiah) and sends his servants to call those who were invited.
Suppose it is 2011, and you stumble outside on Saturday morning in your slippers to check the mail. A piece of wax-sealed cotton stationery catches your eye and you open it immediately. It reads:
The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by The Queen to invite [name] to the Marriage of His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales, K. G. with Miss Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey on Friday, 29th April, 2011 at 11 a.m. A reply is requested to: State Invitations Secretary, Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Buckingham Palace, London.
You’re invited to the royal wedding! This is good news. How would you reply?
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who held a wedding feast for his son. The gospel, the good news of the kingdom, is that God the king has invited people to enter his kingdom. In fact, he urges people to come and gives them every incentive: “I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.” Celebrate my son! “‘Come and dine!’ the master calleth.”
Many are called or invited to the wedding feast. This is good news. But few are chosen. Why are the elect few in number?
Reasons People Are Not Chosen
In this parable, Jesus reveals three reasons why people are not chosen. It is clear that some are not elect because of their own refusal to cooperate with God.
First, people are not chosen because they persistently refuse to come.
In verse 3, the king calls those who were invited, “but they would not come.” Having read the entire parable, we know how violently the king treats those who refuse the invitation. But pay attention to verse 3: “they would not.” The king was willing, but they were not willing. The fault is not the Lord’s. I. H. Marshall notes,
The comment in Matthew 22:14 that many are called but few are chosen has sometimes been thought to mean that, although the gospel may be heard by many, in fact only a few are actually chosen to be saved by it; this interpretation is unlikely, and the thought is rather that although many hear, in fact not all respond and become numbered among God’s people [that is, the elect]. (emphasis mine)
The damnation of sinners is not chargeable to God. 2 Peter 3:9 is clear that “The Lord…is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” In his Compendium, W. B. Pope provides a helpful translation of the Formula Concordiæ:
When it is said that many are called but few are chosen, (Matt. 22:14) it is not to be understood that God is unwilling that all should be saved; but it indicates the cause of the perdition of the ungodly, which is this, that they either fail altogether to hear the Word of God, rebelliously despising it by closing their ears and hardening their hearts, and in this way hindering the ordinary method of the Holy Spirit, so that He cannot effect His work on them, or that they esteem lightly the word they hear and cast it away from them. Their perishing must be ascribed, not to God and His election, but to their own malignity.
Despite the king’s persistent invitation, the Jews of Jesus’s day would not come. The verb “would not” is in the imperfect tense (thelon), which indicates that Matthew is emphasizing their persistent refusal of the king’s invitation. They refused again and again. God patiently pleads with them: “Everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’” (22:4, MSG). But the rebellious Jews resisted. They would not listen.
The woes to the Pharisees in chapter 23 end with Christ lamenting, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (v.37). Jesus grieves in John 5:40, “you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” No one is lost for lack of invitation. No one is lost because God is unwilling. Men are lost because they resist the grace of God that is extended to them (Acts 7:51). Men are not chosen because they persistently reject the gospel call.
Second, people are not chosen because they are distracted by the cares of life.
When the king tried appealing to those who were invited, verse 5 says that “they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” They were too caught up in business as usual to pay attention to the king’s gracious invitation.
In Luke 14, Jesus tells a similar parable of a man who holds a great banquet. The man “sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’” However,
They all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”
Farming. Looking after a small business. Buying property. Caring for property. Tending to family responsibilities. These are the reasons that people missed the kingdom.
Some seized the king’s servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them, like the Jews who put to death the prophets. But notice that only some were caught up in this flagrant sin. Most missed the kingdom because they were distracted by the cares of life. Sometimes we think that it is murderers and thieves—really bad people—whom God rejects. But Jesus teaches that it is farmers, business owners, property owners, and ordinary family men, who miss the kingdom because they are too distracted by the cares of life.
This is a major theme in Matthew’s Gospel. You cannot reach out to touch Jesus when your hands are full of earthly treasures. In Matthew 6, Jesus warns about laying up treasures on earth: greedily amassing things that do not matter in the end. “You cannot serve God and money” (6:24). He warns, “Do not be anxious about your life,” insisting, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Those who were invited to the wedding feast refused because they were not seeking God’s kingdom. They were focused on work, money, family, relationships, vacations, new toys, and other earthly matters.
In Matthew 8, a man asks to follow Jesus, but Jesus says, “I’m worse off than foxes and birds; I have nowhere to lay my head at night.” The man cared more for comfort than the kingdom. Another man asks to bury his father before following, but Jesus says, “Let the spiritually dead bury their dead.” Jesus knew that he wanted to collect his inheritance: he cared more for money than the mission. The message of Jesus is unambiguous: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (16:24-26).
The men in Christ’s parable “paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.” They were not chosen because they were distracted by the cares of life. They were unwilling to lose their lives in this world to gain eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
Men are deemed unworthy to enter the kingdom because they refuse God’s gracious invitation.
The wedding feast was ready, but those invited were not worthy (v.8). They were deemed unworthy because they refused God’s gracious invitation. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas spoke boldly against the unbelieving Jews: “you thrust [the word of God] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46).
Third, people are not chosen because they are unprepared.
When those who were invited refused the call of the king, the king sent his servants to invite everyone—those in highways and byways, both bad and good—to enter his feast. Those of poor social status, the marginalized of society, the oppressed, the sick—all were invited to the wedding supper. Many came, but not all were prepared.
“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.”
On the invitation that I read earlier from the wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate, there is a note in the bottom right hand corner: “Dress: Uniform, Morning Coat or Lounge Suit.” Morning wear is the proper attire for formal day events; tuxedos are evening wear. A morning suit consists of a black or charcoal morning coat—a special kind of tailcoat—and striped trousers. A light grey or palely colored waistcoat, usually double breasted, is required. A tie is acceptable, but an ascot is better. A top hat is optional, except at Royal Ascot, when it is mandatory.
The point is this: there is a strict dress code, and it must not be violated. Imagine waltzing into the wedding of the king’s son wearing jeans and a hoodie. The Queen’s guard would politely escort you off of the premises.
When the king confronted his poorly dressed guest in Christ’s parable, the guest was speechless. He had no excuse. The wedding garment represents something more serious than an English dress code; it represents the preparation necessary to enter the kingdom. As one must carefully prepare his outfit for a royal wedding, one must carefully prepare himself for the wedding supper of the Lamb.
The precise nature of the wedding garment is not explicitly identified in the text. Many think it refers to the righteousness of Christ. Yet, the clear message is this: no one waltzes into the kingdom unprepared. No one gets to heaven by accident. Those who are not ready, are not chosen. Jesus warned in Matthew 5:20, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Consequences for Missing the Kingdom
Running parallel to these three reasons why people miss the kingdom are warnings about the consequences for rejecting the king’s gracious invitation.
In verse 7, “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” He showed no mercy towards those who rejected his messengers. In verse 13, the king called his attendants to seize the man without the wedding garment: “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He is bound so that he cannot return; his fate is irreversible. He is cast into outer darkness to await judgment; his separation from the king’s favor is permanent. He is condemned to a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth; his punishment is literal and horrible.
The fate of those who refuse the king’s invitation, become distracted by the cares of this life, and are unprepared to enter the kingdom is too terrible to imagine. Therefore, no price is too high to escape this end. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Mt. 5:29). We are quick to add, “Jesus didn’t literally mean….” That’s true, but don’t miss the radical nature of his statement. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 20:28).
Do not misunderstand: Matthew’s vision of God is not of a harsh, vindictive, violent tyrant-king. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel gives us the clearest picture in the whole canon of God as a gracious and loving heavenly Father. It is Matthew who tells us that God numbers our hairs and cares for the sparrows (Mt. 10:29-30). No one is more kind than him. But remember why the king in Christ’s parable condemns men to punishment: they refused an invitation to his son’s wedding feast.
The king is jealous for his son, and love hates the enemies of love. God hates when men resist and refuse his beloved Son (Mt. 3:17). The more that you love your family, the more violently you react when someone tries to harm them. God loves his son with an infinite love, and he punishes those who resist him with an infinite punishment. The message of the kingdom is good news: God has invited you to the feast. But for those who resist it, the message is something that rightfully invokes dread. Some day, the gate to the kingdom will be shut forever. That day may be sooner than we think.
Have you accepted the invitation, or have you been persistently refusing the Holy Spirit when he tugs at your heart? Are you dining with the king, or are you caught up in the cares of life? Are you ready for the king to come, or will he find you unprepared?
Don’t wait. Come to the feast. Many are called, but few are chosen.