I believe that most people would agree with me that a parable about a wedding feast is a difficult one to understand. How do we make sense of a story where all the invited guests refuse to come? Because the invited guests refuse to come their city is destroyed. Some street people then find themselves invited to a wedding party they never dreamed of attending. Furthermore, one of the guests who the king calls “friend” but who really isn’t a friend is singled out, confronted, bound, and thrown into the darkness for not wearing a wedding garment. At first, it is a very peculiar parable.
Scripture scholars tell us that the writer of Matthew’s gospel adapted this parable to speak to the circumstances of his community. To do this, several allegorical features not spoken by Jesus were added. If you remember you high-school English class, an allegory is a metaphor in which people are given meanings that lie outside the story itself. Therefore an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. If we concentrate on the literal meaning, as most readers do, it is likely we will overlook the symbolic meaning.
A good example of an allegorical story whose symbolic meaning is explained is in the gospel of Luke. When a large crowd gathered, Jesus told them the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Then after withdrawing, his disciples asked Jesus what the meaning of the parable might be. Jesus responds, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God . . . .,” so on and so forth.
When we look at the symbolic meaning of the parable about being dressed for a wedding feast, God is the king who sent out servants. The first servants sent are the Old Testament prophets who called the guests to get ready for the celebration. The invited guests are the Israelites, God’s chosen people. Some of them mistreated and even killed the servants. This mistreatment corresponds to the rejection of the prophets and their message. The destruction of the city probably represents the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD.
But the parable does not end here. After the king destroys the city, he sent servants out a second time to invite whomever they could find. These servants are the disciples of Jesus who without any discrimination invite people to follow Jesus. Scholars suggest that this shift in the guest list represents the extension of the church’s mission to include not only gentiles but also the poor, the sinners and the disenfranchised as equals at God’s great feast.
But the parable does not end here either. The part about the “friend” not wearing a wedding garment was like a separate parable told by itself at first. This explains the lack of continuity with the first parable. It is logical that a person called in from the streets would not have a wedding garment to wear. Some scripture scholars suggest that wedding hosts in the ancient world offered wedding garments to invited guests but this person refused it. It is suggested that the “friend” in the parable represented the people who were baptized but who did not truly put on Christ and live out their baptismal promises. Consequently, they were thrown out of the Christian community. Through the harsh treatment of the incorrectly dressed guest, the writer of Matthew’s gospel warned against becoming lazy in living out the Christian life or taking the invitations of God for granted.
I believe that the challenge of today’s readings is not to try to understand God but to be aware that God is real and speaks to us in the world that surrounds us. In his book Theology of Culture (1964), Paul Tillich describes human beings as creatures who orient our lives with meaning through our relationship with symbols. For Tillich, religion is the “dimension of depth” in all aspects of human life—a dimension expressed and opened up for us through religious symbols. In other words, our world is filled with the visual and the verbal presence of God, but nothing physical will ever give us a total grasp of the love, acceptance, forgiveness, and future that exists in the divine life of God.
Fr. Bob Kelly