The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable?

Reference: Matthew 22:1-14

Original Question:

Could you please explain the end of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13. All the people who were coming to the feast  were wearing wedding clothes, except one. First, how did the guy without the clothes get into the feast? For us the feast means the feast in heaven and the wedding clothes are our new life in Christ. So can I get into heaven without putting on the new clothes?  Or was the reason to throw the man outside not for wearing the wrong clothes but because he couldn’t reply to the King’s question? He calls the man Friend, so he wasn’t mad at the beginning of the conversation.

Modified Question:

How do I interpret this parable (and others)?

A note on interpretation of parables:

The interpretation of parables is not an easy task, and this parable is considered by many to be THE MOST DIFFICULT to interpret.  Unfortunately parable interpretation is a difficult task that scholars have made even more difficult for centuries by ‘over interpreting’ the parables.  The tendency of most people (including historical smarties) is to apply allegory to the parable where it does not belong.  Allegory is a literary device that uses elements of a story to represent elements of real life.  The Wizard of Oz for example, is an allegory.  The Tin Man represents the industrial revolution, the Scarecrow represents the midwest farmer, etc.  Almost every character and setting in the story has some symbolic meaning.  Some parables have allegorical elements, but we must resist the temptation to allegorize the parables.  Usually they are simple stories that have a specific intent.  They are not all-encompassing allegories in which everything has some hidden meaning.  Jesus was not trying to speak in some hidden code.  Thus, in this parable, we should be slow to assign specific allegorical meanings to each element and instead ask the simple question, What is Jesus’ message here?

To do so though there are some things we need to know…

The Parable of the Feast in Matthew (an Explanation)

“Friend, where is your wedding garment” - 14th Century Russian icon of the 'Parable of the Feast'. Note the man on the right being bound and thrown out in the street.

First of all, we need to know WHO Jesus is talking to.  This will help a great deal with our understanding.  Remember, he’s not talking to us, though once we have come to an understanding of Jesus’ intent we can apply it to our lives.  For now though, Jesus is talking to some first century Palestinian audience.  Most likely he is addressing this parable to the religious leaders of Israel.  We can gather this given the context and tone of the previous parable, the immediate transition from the previous parable, and the opening of this parable “Jesus told them”, we can assume that “them” refers the religious leaders that he was already pissing off in chapter 21.

Secondly, we need to understand who this parable is about.  Like the previous parable in chapter 21, it is likely that this parable is also about the priests and Pharisees, though we might be able to apply this to the broader population of Israel.

Lastly, this parable is eschatological (see other posts dealing with eschatology).  It has to do with God’s coming kingdom.  We can gather this from the language of banquet and feast.  These terms would have been synonymous with the end times for first century listeners.  So also is the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which would have been synonymous with judgment and the end.

Even with this little bit of knowledge we can begin to piece together the intent of this parable.  Essentially what Jesus is communicating to his listeners here is that it is often those who we may not expect who will be invited into the Kingdom.  Imagine what this would have been like for the Pharisees and teachers of the law to hear.  They think that they are a shoe-in for heaven, they think that they have lived there lives perfectly and all their ducks are in a row.  Jesus has other ideas though.  He sees a group of people who think that their merit and their Jewish-birth-status will earn them salvation.  They think that they are already there at the feast, but the reality is that they haven’t even responded to the invitation.

For us the message is simple. “The Kingdom is like a prepared banquet, and to refuse its invitation is to encounter judgment” (Snodgrass, 320).  It is a harsh message to be sure.  We would probably like it better if Jesus was more “nice guy” and just let everyone come without the whole destruction and killing part.  But remember that our God of grace and love is also a God of justice and judgment.

At the end of the parable we still need to deal with another part that can be a bit confusing.  The last 3 verses (Matt. 22:11-13) are thought by some to be part of another parable that was added on to this one.  Whether or not that is true, we still need to deal with the intent of what Jesus was trying to say, when he talks about a man who was at the feast without the proper clothes for the wedding feast.

Fortunately we have already dealt with who Jesus is addressing and to what the parable is referring.  In this apparent addendum to the parable we are dealing with a man who has shown up without proper wedding clothes.  Likely his clothes are his every day dirty clothes.  Some of us may be tempted to equate the wedding clothes of the other guests as “being clothed in the righteousness of Christ” or something similar, but that is the kind of allegorizing that we should avoid.  We need to deal with Jesus’ intent toward a first century Jewish audience, not our own external understanding and Christian imagery.  “What is important is that the man made no preparation to wear something fitting to the feast he chose to attend” (321).  Simply put, this man in his dirty clothes represents those unrighteous people who make no preparation for the coming Judgement of God.  Again, these are harsh themes, but they are important for us as we look toward the return of Christ and consider our own preparation and the pursuit of those who are far from God.

Because of the complexity, length, and two-part nature of this parable it has more than one theme.  It has three…

1. The refusal of Israel’s religious leaders to respond to the invitation to the banquet.

2. The gathering of the kingdom of God

3. The separation that takes place at Judgment.

There is no need to assign specific meaning to the man’s non-response at the end, or the king’s initial reference to him as ‘friend’.  The important thing is that he showed up for the banquet unprepared and he was Judged accordingly.  This is a hard teaching for us but the message for our lives should be very clear.  We need to be ready for the banquet.  Christ promised that he would come “and come quickly” (Revelation 22:12 NASB).  Our task is to ready our lives and the lives of others that we meet. Whether we like to hear about God’s Judgement or not does not make its reality any more or less real.  Fortunately, our salvation is based not on our merit but on Christ’s work on the cross.  Our readiness then, is the product of believing in him.  If we believe in him, our lives will reflect the kind of clothes we are supposed to be wearing to the banquet.

See Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass

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8 Responses to “The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable?”

  1. Ronny & Damaris Says:

    Although we understand the interpretation of the parable this way, we’re still wondering about the little word FRIEND. It’s something special in the bible that God calls us friend, because more often he calls us Son or Child. So isn’t this little word important? Just like the post about Matthew 16,28 where Jesus came IN and not INTO his kingdom.

  2. MetroBibleBlog Says:

    When it comes to the importance of any word in scripture the word itself is vitally important to the “exegesis” (extracting the original meaning) of the text, but no more important than its communicative intent. Ultimately the word “Friend” ἑταῖρος (etairos) in the original Greek, is used in the vocative case. In other words this is a simple greeting, no more no less. My personal opinion is that the use of the word “friend” is as simple as a greeting that a host would say to a guest (as in this situation). I don’t think it has any further significance beyond that, If we try to make it mean more than Jesus intended it to mean, then we do a disservice to the parable.

    I completely agree that it is something special in the Bible when God calls us friend (e.g. John 15:12-17), but in this situation it is not God calling us friend, it is the king in the story calling a guest friend. Remember to avoid allegorizing parables. We can’t allegorize the king so that he represents God, only allow the parable to do what it is supposed to do. In this case its purpose is to communicate to the leaders of Israel that judgment is coming and they may not be in as good a position as they think they are. For us it means the same thing, we need to be prepared for judgment. This does not diminish the other instances in scripture where God calls us friend, it simply means that this is not one of those instances.

    The same is true for the garments. There are several instances in scripture where the idea of clothing yourself in Christ is mentioned. Romans 13:14 says, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Galatians 3:27 says, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” But just because this analogy is used elsewhere in scripture does not mean that it applies here.

    In regards to the importance of distinguishing between other ‘little’ words like IN and INTO (like in Matthew 16:28), that is different. It is not the size of the words that is important, it is their communicative intent. Prepositions play a vital role in languages, and ESPECIALLY in Greek. Thus the difference between the words IN and INTO in that particular passage can result in a completely different understanding of what is being communicated by Jesus.

  3. Lauren Says:

    Who needs seminary? I’ve got the Metro Bible Blog!

  4. What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?” « Metro Bible Blog Says:

    […] and last role reversal has everything to do with the parable that precedes it.  I have said in previous posts that parables should not be treated as strict allegories.  In other words, we should avoid […]

  5. JL from Sacramento, cA Says:

    When I read this parable and the analysis, I’m bothered by a few things. Usually, all of Jesus’ parables make sense on the face of it. Yeast makes bread rise. A person searches everywhere for a lost coin. Etc. But this one, regardless of the allegory and all, doesn’t make sense even from a story perspective.

    None of the original invitees come to the wedding. That would mean that the Kingdom of Heaven (KoH) is like a wedding that nobody wants to attend. How strange. Who doesn’t like weddings? The only wedding somebody would intentionally snub would be if it were a wedding between two jerks.

    The invitees kill the messengers. So the KoH is a party that people despise so much that they would wage war against it. I’ve never heard of somebody receiving a wedding invitation and being so enraged that they kill the postman. Very strange.

    The King acts like a tyrant, not a just ruler. He burns down the city. He kills the very people he wanted to invite to the party. The KoH is like a communist nation where disobedience or snubbing the ruler is treated with massacre.

    The King says of the invited guests that he murdered, “They didn’t deserve to come.” So the KoH is like a pouting potentate, who, when his guests don’t show up, says “I didn’t want them anyway.”

    (So far, none of this sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus has described in other parables. In Luke 14:16 Jesus tells a parable about a supper where people are too rich/blessed to make it to dinner. So the host invites the poor instead. But that story makes sense.)

    Then the King has his servants gather a new group of guests. They pull people from the streets, both bad and good. This part makes sense. You don’t want all this food to go to waste. But it’s strange to think of this second group of people as being the gentiles. That would mean that the KoH was never originally intended for gentiles, just Jews. But since not a single one of the invitees came (plus they’re all massacred now anyway), we’ll open the doors to the gentiles. So the KoH is sloppy seconds for losers. Thanks a lot.

    Now the party is in full swing, and the King calls out a guest, and it’s unclear why. He says, “Friend,” but then moments later has the guest bound up and tossed outside. So the KoH is a place where one second I’m a friend of the King, and the next second I’m booted out the door.

    And what’s also strange is that the guest was speechless when asked why he wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. How often are you speechless? I believe that it takes a special situation or a special question to make you speechless. This reminds me of the movie Pulp Fiction where the hit man Jules barges in on a breakfast and interrogates Brad, the business partner of the mob boss, Marcellus Wallace, and asks a rhetorical sort of question, “What does Marcellus Wallace look like?” The only possible response is, “What?” So the KoH is like a King who asks rhetorical condescending sorts of questions.

    The wedding clothes thing is puzzling. Some take this to mean that the guests where all given special garments. Well why would you take off your special garment at a wedding? There’s no good reason for this in the story. Presumably everyone wore street clothes because they were literally pulled off the streets, both bad and good. That means nobody has on make-up or jewelry. Nobody shaved or got their nails done. Probably everybody is pretty stinky. Why would you take off you wedding garment? But what if the King didn’t pass out wedding clothes? Presumably, he didn’t know how many guests were going to come. He had people pulled of the street. How would he know how many robes to provide?

    If people weren’t handed wedding clothes then the story gets worse. That means that this guest is dressed just like everyone else. Nobody is wearing wedding clothes! Have you ever been invited to a party last minute and then been asked why you didn’t bring a side dish? That would be ludicrous. I would be speechless if that happened to me. The KoH is like a cruel teacher giving a pop quiz to student on the first day of class.

    And then the story ends with a strange conclusion. “For many are called but few are chosen.” How would anyone draw that conclusion? It should be, for few are called but many are chosen. Or perhaps, for some were called, but they didn’t come so they were killed and their city burned then a whole bunch more were called last minute, and then one got kicked out for no apparent reason.

    This whole parable sounds like Jesus is lampooning a concept. The last phrase in particular sounds like Jesus is quoting a popular saying at the time and choosing to mock it.

    Is it possible that the first phrase is mistranslated? Could the parable instead be, “People have [mistakenly] made out the Kingdom of Heaven to be like a human king….” Apparently, this parable is the only one where Jesus uses the passive voice for “like” instead of the active voice. Also, Jesus calls the man a “human king” instead of just “king.” And maybe Jesus is describing a recent or current king who behaved this way and his audience would have recognized the similarities.

    That would go a long way to helping explain the mystery of this parable.

    • littlegeozz Says:

      JL from Sacramento – really appreciate your explanation here. Do you have more writing you have shared in some form or another?

      Geoff in Nashville

      • JL from Sacramento Says:

        No. But I’ve been enjoying reading literature that seeks to understand and explain the parables of Jesus through the eyes of the Middle-eastern first century Jewish culture. Kenneth Bailey, Gary M. Burge, and Rob Bell have been pretty enlightening. Check them out.

  6. part time jobs Says:

    part time jobs…

    […]The Parable of the Wedding Feast. How do I interpret this parable? « Metro Bible Blog[…]…

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