Remember, this parable we are about to read is the last in a series of three, all aimed at the religious establishment. All three illustrate the unbelief of the religious leaders and predict divine judgment as a result of that unbelief and the spiritual fruitlessness that resulted from it. If you remember, the series of parables began with the Lord saying that while the religious leaders, in their pride, were refusing to enter the kingdom of God by believing in Jesus, the outcasts of society, the tax collectors and the prostitutes were entering the kingdom. This parable of the wedding banquet, as we will see, will return to that theme.
v.2 As elsewhere in Matthew (8:11; 25:10) the banquet or wedding banquet stands for the blessings of salvation and eternal life. In this case it is a banquet the king prepared for his son. Sons figure prominently in all three of the parables in this series.
v.3 This presupposes a previous invitation that had been accepted. Of course we would expect that citizens would be honored to be invited to the king’s son’s wedding banquet. The Lord obviously regards the posture of the religious leaders as unnatural and inexplicable. The outward profession of these men was utterly inconsistent with their refusal gladly to accept the invitation of God.
v.5 The invited guests have now refused at least twice, perhaps three times. Remember that the first parable, that of the two sons, featured a son who refused to do what his father demanded of him, even after promising to do so, and the second parable, that of the tenants, featured repeated refusals to pay the landlord what was due. All three parables are aimed at the religious, those to whom God has addressed himself many times, those who have been invited to the banquet many times. But, incredibly, they considered other things more pressing, more important than the king’s banquet for his son. For these things they were willing to risk the king’s wrath. There was no urgency to their business, they simply didn’t care. Their shallow, pedestrian, excuses revealed that they were dead at the top. They had no taste for the things of God or eternal life.
v.6 While some responded to the invitations with studied indifference, others reacted violently. Jesus is fully aware of what the religious leaders intend for him! The mistreatment of the king’s servants recalls the tenants mistreatment of the landlord’s servants in 21:35ff. Clearly the parables are dealing with the same themes. There is no respect for the king among these people and no fear of his wrath.
v.7 The judgment of God’s people for their repeated rejection of the prophets God sent to them and, at last, for the rejection of his son – also the theme of the parable of the tenants – is a frequent theme in this last section of the Gospel of Matthew.
v.8 The celebration will not be cancelled because the invited guests refuse to come.
v.10 The theme of the kingdom being repopulated by unexpected people when the citizens of the kingdom failed to respond and were cast out also concludes the previous two parables.
v.12 The previous verse indicated that the king’s servants had gathered all the people they could find both good and bad. The presence of the bad in the new group requires this further clarification. The new tenants of the kingdom of God, those outcasts that the Jews despised and thought themselves better than, those tax collectors and prostitutes who were replacing the sons of the kingdom who repeatedly refused the Lord’s invitation, they must themselves bear fruit or their fate will be no better than that of those rejected before them.
We might wonder how anyone so invited could have had time to go home to dress properly, but this is a parable and we are not to worry about such a detail. Fact is, the other guests were properly dressed, so this man could have been as well.
v.13 As elsewhere in Matthew, it will only be the final judgment that will reveal in every case who are the true guests of the king at his banquet.
v.14 The summary reminds us that many religious people who had been summoned repeatedly, that is those who had been originally invited to the feast, did not respond in faith and obedience; but even some called from the street did not meet the demands of Christian discipleship and ultimately failed the test. As in the parable of the sower, or the soils, there is often a slip between an initial response to the gospel invitation and the ultimate fruitfulness that is the sign and mark of true faith and eternal life.
As we have noted in our consideration of the previous paragraphs of Matthew’s Gospel, as the Lord’s ministry drew to a close, and all the more in its last few days, his teaching became more and more solemn. The great issue of eternal life or damnation more and more preoccupied him and so found a way into his teaching. The three parables he told in this set during that last passion week are devoted to this theme and are among the most somber specimens of his teaching preserved for us in the four Gospels.
This is not the teaching the Jews wished to hear. Far from it. They were deeply offended by it. It is not the part of the Lord’s teaching that many find interesting, important, or relevant in our day. But it was most certainly the teaching that the Lord Jesus, a few days before his crucifixion, with the weight of the world upon him, and conscious of the burden of his divine summons to bring salvation to the world as he had never been before, felt constrained to give with a terrible emphasis. Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, speaking to men about what mattered most to him. Far more perfectly than Richard Baxter, the 17th century English Puritan, Jesus could have said of himself those days,
I preached as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men.
It would be well for us to try to imagine the Lord’s tone of voice, the penetration of his eye, the look on his face as he uttered the words we have read and the still more solemn words we are still to hear as we make our way to the end of his teaching in chapter 25.
Yea, this man’s brow, like to a title-leaf,
Foretells the nature of a tragic volume.
Thou tremblest, and the whiteness of thy cheek
Is apter than thy tongue to tell thine errand.
That the Lord concentrated on these terrible warnings in the last few days of his ministry was certainly due to the fact that, there in the city of Jerusalem, he found himself addressing not his disciples, as so often before in Galilee, but the church of his day in general and, especially, its leadership. The Lord saw so clearly that the multitudes around him in that crowded city, and the religious people who came to talk to him – usually with some hostile agenda – were unsaved and utterly unaware of the fact. These were people who, as the prophets of the OT would have describe them, were “at ease in Zion.” They were religious, moral in their own terms, but had so far departed from the faith taught in Holy Scripture, the faith of Moses and the prophets, that they couldn’t recognize the Messiah, the Son of God, when he came among them. No better illustration of the power of the proud, self-satisfied, rebellious human heart to blind and darken the human mind has ever been furnished than the intransigent resistance to Jesus on the part of those Jewish folk who had, by their own testimony, been for so long waiting for the appearance of the Messiah. It should send a shiver down every Christian spine that such people could have so easily and confidently made such a ghastly mistake; could have been so self-deceived; could be so sure of themselves that even Christ’s miracles could not convince them that they had wandered from God’s way.
Of all people on earth they were sure that they would sit down to eat at the banquet of God. But, though often invited, they had not in fact come. They had refused to come and were unaware of the fact.
How trans-temporal and trans-cultural this parable! People do the very same thing today. Multitudes of people. Some churches are full of them; others have some; scarcely a congregation has none. Some are indifferent, others, even in the churches, are hostile to the biblical gospel, just like the invitees in the Lord’s parable. But they are alike in their refusal to come, to accept the Lord’s invitation and come to him. They are as blind to the Lord’s meaning here and as deaf to his words as were the folk to whom the Lord was speaking that day in the temple courts. When they hear these parables and other teaching like them, they walk away blithely sure that whatever the minister was talking about, he must have been speaking to others and not to them. They cannot see themselves in the Lord’s teaching in the same way the priests and elders could not see themselves in it.
The real believers feel a shiver go through them at the thought that it might be they the Lord is talking about. “Is it I?” they ask, as did the disciples in the upper room when they learned that one of them was a traitor. But those whom the Lord has described – those invited who have not come; and those who have seemed to come but without the proper attire – they remain unconcerned, unmoved, untouched by the Lord’s straight speaking. Unmoved, uninterested, that is, until it’s too late; until the King confronts them and they have nothing to say.
There has been a good bit of teaching in this Gospel to this point and there will be some more before we reach the end to the effect that, like the poor, we will always have such people with us. The church will always find among her number these who are invited repeatedly but who spiritually and personally have not and will not come. They will not truly believe in Jesus, will not truly follow him, will not truly bear fruit for his namesake. They imagine that they will sit down at the banquet, but not because they have loved the King who have invited them, not because they have rejoiced to receive an invitation that they did not deserve, not because at that banquet they will be pleased to sit down with many others who like them have spent their lives serving the Lord. They will sit down at the banquet, so they think, well because they just will. God will not refuse them. They’ve been good enough. So they think. It is important that we know that. It is important that we learn not to take our view of the faith or of its practice from many in the church who are false sons and are an example of those who are to be judged not those who are to be saved. It is important that we know that the church will always have such people in its membership so that we are not surprised or confused or unsettled to find in the church people who do not revere the Bible – that is, the writings of all those servants that the King sent to invite his guests – who do not love the King – who are perfectly happy not to do his will – and who do not love the King’s son – and trust him and him only absolutely for their salvation.
When we see people putting other things – not only the farm and the business – before the Lord, before living for him and before rejoicing in his love and grace – when we see them cavalierly dismissing the Lord’s invitation all the while thinking themselves his followers, we will understand why the Lord says such stern and unyielding things about them.
But there is in this parable also a description of the true believer. There are here not only the tenants who beat the servants and kill the son, but the guests who were gathered from the street corners and invited to the banquet. If the focus of the parable, as the two before it, is on those who are rejected for their failure genuinely to accept the gracious invitation of the King and the punishment that must come to them as a result, there is also the contrast with those who are glad to be given a seat at the King’s table, a seat that they never imagined would be theirs, a seat they know they are not worthy to occupy. The Lord often does this. We will see him do this several more times in the teaching that remains to be given during the passion week. He will show us both the saved and the lost at the same time. He will compare them and contrast them so that it will be still clearer to us why the lost are lost and how the saved come to be saved. No wonder. Nothing is more important to understand in all the world than that single distinction. Nothing is more essential for us to know and to know well than what it is that explains the difference between the saved and the lost, between those who sit down at the banquet and those who are bound hand and foot and thrown outside.
How did it happen that they came to sit down at that great feast and enjoy that joyful celebration of the King’s joy over his son? He sent his servants out to invite them and gather them. In a somewhat similar parable – not the same parable but a similar one – Luke speaks of the servants being told to compel the people to come in and take their seats at the banquet. Here there is not that emphasis. But it is clear that the servants of the king went looking for the banquet guests and invited them and when they were invited, they couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. The king went looking for these guests and found them and gave them an invitation they couldn’t refuse.
All through Christian history the story of salvation has been told in these terms: that the Lord went looking for guests, found them, and called them to his banquet table. Verse 14, short and simple as it is, indicates that the Lord stands behind the invitation and ensures that it will be received and accepted by those whom he has chosen. It is an invitation, to be sure; but it does not fail of its purpose for those whom the Lord has chosen.
This is the theme of Francis Thompson’s great poem The Hound of Heaven. He thinks of the Lord pursuing him until he is caught. Another 20th century convert speaks in the same way.
“Yes, You were there, I know…. How ever far and fast I’ve run, still over my shoulder I’d catch a glimpse of You on the horizon, and then run faster and farther than ever, thinking triumphantly: Now I have escaped. But no, there You were, coming after me…. One shivers as the divine beast of prey gets ready for the final spring…. There is no escape.” [Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, 32,41 cited in Stott, Why I Am a Christian, 26-27]
No escape from what? Here is the irony! No escape from the banquet, from the feast, from the joyful celebration of eternal life! C.S. Lewis sometimes speaks of the Lord’s coming for him as if God were a fisherman and he the fish. “I never dreamed that the hook was in my tongue.” Or he likened God to a cat chasing a mouse. “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me…they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” [Stott, 27]
In the parable itself there is none of this psychological reflection on why those in the street corners responded to the invitation that the pious refused to accept. We have only the Lord’s closing observation: “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” God’s grace, his powerful wooing of the heart, his illumination of the mind, his bending of the will, all of that is meant in those four words, “but few are chosen.” The Lord leaves us thinking about how it is that some respond and others will not and assures us that he holds all of that in his hand and his heart.
But what is perfectly and emphatically clear is that at the last the invitation seemed worthless to some and priceless to others. That is the distinction. And no matter the vicissitudes of any individual life, that is the difference and always the difference between the saved and the lost, those who sit down at the banquet and those who are cast out of the banquet hall. To some the invitation is worthless and to others it is priceless. The one thinks a lot of things more valuable than a seat at the King’s banquet table; the other thinks nothing, literally nothing compares to receiving such an invitation. This is the difference whether the person never comes, or sits down without proper clothing. He didn’t value the invitation. It meant little or nothing to him. Not so the others.
I remember some years ago listening to a tape of an address at a Christian college given by Helen Roseveare, an English doctor and missionary to Central Africa – what was then the Congo – for some 30 years. When civil war broke out in the Congo in the 1960s she and her hospital were engulfed in it. In that address she said this – these are the words of a speaker, as you will see, not a writer who has polished her prose for publication –
When I came to know Jesus as Savior, I’d asked God for the privilege of being a missionary. Twenty years later, October 29th 1964, I was taken one night by wicked and cruel soldiers. It was a terrible night; I was very cruelly beaten up; flung on the ground, beaten with the butt end of a gun, …kicked by the boot of a rebel soldier, dragged to my feet, beaten with a rubber truncheon. It’s a cruel, cruel weapon. It sears into your flesh. There were times when [I] prayed for death. It would have been easier to die than to live. There were times I [was] so scared I would let the Lord down, scared that I would fail him. I would say, “God, if he hits me again, I shall say anything he asks me to say, I’ll do anything he asks me to do.” I was scared stiff I would fail him. And God would move in and stop it. That night I lost my back teeth. I don’t know whether it was through a rubber truncheon or the boot of a rebel soldier; it was a cruel night.
And there came a moment when I just felt that the price was too high. I felt that God had failed me. I never doubted God; I never doubted his Word; but I did doubt for a moment his relationship to me. I felt he’d failed me; I felt he’d walked out on me, left me alone. If I had prayed any prayer, I would have prayed, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And then, suddenly, in the middle of all the wickedness and cruelty and darkness and fear, suddenly there was God. I didn’t see a vision; I didn’t hear a voice; I just knew with all my being that God was there – overwhelmingly there; vitally, really, tremendously there. He was in charge, no rebel could touch me, but God allowed it.
And it was though he said to me, “Listen. Twenty years ago, you asked me for the privilege of being a missionary. This is it. Don’t you want it? And as I was driven down the short corridor of my home, the Lord said so clearly to me, “These aren’t your sufferings, they’re not beating you. These are my sufferings. All I ask of you is the loan of your body. It was a fantastic moment for me! For twenty years anything I’d wanted I’d asked of God. But that night, the Almighty Creator stooped to ask of me. Something he wanted. Something, it seemed that I had to give. And suddenly, overwhelmingly, I realized the privilege.
…that night one word became real: it was the word “privilege.” The fantastic, inestimable privilege he was offering me, of sharing with him, in some little way, just the edge of the fellowship of his sufferings. He didn’t take away the fear or the wickedness or the cruelty or the brutality, but it was altogether different. It was with him, in him, for him, and Jesus was overwhelmingly real. And I just offer to you, that this wonderful business of being called, to be saved, being sent to serve…yes it will involve you in everything, you will have to count all you got, give it all to him. But what he gives back is greater than anything you can ever give to him. So far Helen Roseveare. [Transcribed from a tape of her address at Columbia Bible College]
The church of the Lord’s own day, the people crowding Jerusalem that Passover week, and especially the religious leadership, had no thought that Jesus was offering them something priceless. Many in the church today are of the same mind. They are content to offer him lip service, to conform to certain outward expectations, but they will not devote their lives to bearing fruit for his sake. They have other things that come first, second, and third. They too have their fields and their businesses here in the 21st century. These things are much more valuable to them.
But to others, to the Helen Roseveares of this world, and to the multitude gathered from the street corners a place at that banquet table is worth anything and everything he might ever ask, anything I might ever offer. Indeed that he should ask anything of me, including that I should come to his banquet, is privilege indeed.
The same invitation, but how differently men and women respond. To some it is the privilege of all privileges and to others it is nothing of any great importance. But there is a king and there is a banquet and those who do not sit down to eat are bound and cast outside. This is not an invitation one can refuse with impunity.
For those of you who have accepted the King’s invitation with joy and consider it an indescribable privilege to have a place at that banquet table, offer your thanks again to God and Christ for the invitation and the banquet itself, which is eternal life in the world of joy.
And for those – are there some here? – who are among those Jesus has described in this parable, who must admit, if only you will carefully consider the question, that you have put all manner of things before Christ and have thought so many things more important than his invitation, you take heed to the Lord’s solemn teaching. What reason will you give for refusing to come to the banquet? Will you use the same one you’ve often used before: all that you have to do at home, at work, these other interests of yours that must be served first, these other problems that must be resolved before you can attend to higher things?
It is just as if there were an angel from the Lord with an invitation in his hand standing there at the end of your pew. It is not the first time I have seen him standing there, waiting impatiently. But, for all that I know, it may be the last time I will ever see him waiting at the end of your pew. When he returns to the palace today his Master, the King, may well be so angry that he will tell his servant that he has carried his last invitation to you. “That fellow, that woman” he will tell his servant, “will never let go of his field or his business – or whatever it is in your case – let him go. He has made his choice. He cares not for my banquet.
You say to him, “No! Do not go! Wait one moment longer, impatient angel. I have been a fool. I have thought a burden and an obligation what is, I see now, the greatest privilege in the world. Wait one moment longer and take back to the palace my acceptance of my Lord’s kind and unspeakably generous invitation. I will come to his banquet. He can seat me wherever he pleases, if only after all my ingratitude and stupidity he can still find a place for me.”