And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.
-- Matthew 22:1-14
The king gave a marriage feast for his son. This requires no particular explanation; it is normal for a father to give a marriage feast for his son (the modern American custom of the bride’s family giving the wedding reception is relatively recent). But, when the quests were notified to come, they did not. Even today this would be a shocking insult; no polite person accepts a dinner invitation, even for a less formal occasion than a married feast, and then refuses to attend. And no prudent person would insult the king, of all people, so outrageously.
The king gave the guests a second chance, and sent more servants to tell the guests all the preparations he had made for wonderful feast. Some of the guests offered frivolous excuses; others actually killed the king’s servants! Verse seven does not surprise us: the king responded, since his patience was exhausted, by sending in the army to kill the offenders and burn their city – “scorched earth”, as you might say.
This, however, has only set the stage for the interesting part of the parable. There is still the marriage feast, awaiting participants. So, the king sends more servants to go out in the streets and invite everyone whom they could find, “both bad and good,” and fill the wedding hall with guests.
In these words we may find some hope for ourselves. The king did not make moralistic requirments for this second round of invitation; everybody was welcome! In the same way, even you and I are welcome to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb of God, to the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot “earn” the invitation, and we certainly cannot claim to be “worthy” of the invitation; that is part of the lesson which Our Lord is offering us in this parable. The invitation is God’s free gift of grace; we are welcome. God loves us and welcomes us, even though we may not be doing so well at loving God, and welcoming God into our own lives.
Then, however, there is this affair of the guest who was not wearing a wedding garment. On first hearing these verses, we can be excused for thinking that either this is ridiculous – the king had just sent his servants to drag in anybody from the streets to come to the marriage feast, so how could he possibly have expected these people to have put on their formal clothes such as we would wear to attend an elaborate wedding reception?
The king could expect the guests, even the last-minute guests, to be properly dressed because at that time and in that culture, it was the duty of the king to provide suitable clothes for each of his guests (being a king was an expensive business). And he certainly had these clothes ready for his guests, because he would have prepared them for the original batch of guests, who never showed up.
As each guest was brought into the palace for the marriage feasts the servants would usher the guest into an anteroom and offer the guest the special wedding garments. These would then be given to the guest; he would be permitted to wear them during the ceremony and the banquet and then to keep them as a memento of the wedding feast. It was of course a great honor to have such garments as a gift from the king.
Naturally, then, the king was disagreeably surprised to find one of his guests not wearing these special clothes. Evidently the guest did not think it was worth the bother to put on the garments which the king’s servants had offered him – in other words, he wanted to eat and drink but did not want to show any respect for his host. (In our modern times, one is always shocked by the number of people who cannot be bothered to attend a wedding ceremony but turn up for the reception to eat and drink the food and wines. They resemble this disrespectful guest in the Gospel.) So, the king had the servants put this offending guest out.
What does this have to do with us? The invitation to the feast is God’s free gift of His grace, His love, to us. We must in turn put on the festive wedding garment which God offers us. That wedding garment is not a piece of cloth; that wedding garment is Jesus Christ Himself, Whom we “put on” in Holy Baptism. To abide in the Kingdom of God, at the marriage feast, we must live “in Christ”, so that we may say with Saint Paul “it is no longer I who live; it is Christ Who lives in me!”
We can enter the Kingdom of Heaven only by being clothed in Christ; we enter the Kingdom of Heaven because Christ enters the Kingdom of Heaven. We have received this wedding garment in Baptism, when we were immersed in the water and plunged into Christ’s death and emerged again into Christ’s resurrection. As a sign of this, we received a new white garment from the hands of the priest, but the white garment that matters is Christ Himself. It is up to us to keep ourselves clothed in Christ, so that we should not only be called, be invited, but that the King should recognize us, that we should be chosen.
May the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us!
His Eminence Archbishop Vsevolod
His Eminence is Eparchial Bishop of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA