My cousin got married a couple of weekends ago. One of my favorite parts of the whole reception was getting to observe my aunt and uncle as they went about their hosting duties. I loved watching them catch up with old friends of theirs, and celebrate with my cousin's friends, whom they had known since childhood. When I read the parable of the wedding banquet that Jesus tells in Matthew 22, I instantly imagine myself in the scene, and it looks a lot like my cousin's wedding, (or other weddings I’ve been to in the past.)
In the parable, Jesus says that a king is throwing a wedding feast for his son, and none of the invited guests show up. The king has spared no expense and asked them several times to attend, but they continue to refuse. So that all of the food doesn’t go to waste, the king tells his servants to go out to the streets to bring in anyone they can find to attend the feast.
Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like - God is a king who invites people of power and influence to his banquet table, but they refuse. Then God goes out and grabs the “least of these” and treats them as honored guests. All of that feels very on-brand for God, right?
But then we get to verses 11-14...
In those verses, it says the king sees one of the guests not in wedding attire, and the king is so angry, he has the guest bound and thrown out into the darkness. Putting it in American wedding terms, it would be like getting kicked out of (or worse) a wedding because I didn’t understand how to dress for a semi-formal, indoor ceremony/outdoor reception in late October in the Pacific Northwest. (Honestly, who knows how to dress for that event?) More importantly, this doesn’t feel on-brand for God. I mean, would God kick me out of the kingdom of heaven because I wasn’t wearing the right clothes? And, what does God expect from someone who just got invited to the wedding today?
Thankfully, that’s not what the parable means.
In the time Jesus was telling this parable, it was customary for the king to also provide wedding attire for the invited guests. This guest that wasn’t wearing the proper attire hadn’t forgotten, or didn’t have anything to wear, but had intentionally refused the king's offer of a wedding garment. This guest was invited in, accepted the invitation, and then chose not to participate.
I’ve read this story multiple times in the years since I accepted Jesus, and I’ve only thought of myself as one of the guests that gets pulled into the banquet when the invited guests refuse. I imagine that I’m eating a charcuterie plate (obviously) while the guy who refuses the clothes is making a scene. It’s a comfy place to imagine myself. However, the longer that I’ve been a believer, I realize that if Jesus was telling this story today, that probably wouldn’t be the case.
I know there are times that I am more like the invited guests, who RSVP'd yes, and then refused to come on the day of the wedding (and not just because I’m an introvert who changed my mind.) I know that there have been times in my life where it was more important to me that people know that I had been invited into the Kingdom than my actions aligning with those of the King.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I feel more like the guest who accepts the invitation, attends the event, but isn’t dressed properly. And that’s where this parable trips me up. If I imagine myself standing at this wedding reception, I desperately want to put on the wedding clothes that the king is providing. To do that, I need to shrug off the layers of clothing that I came in with- like patriarchy, colonialism, bias, and nationalism. I’ve realized that I picked up a lot of those clothes from my time in the American evangelical church, from church people, so I hear their voices shouting at me that if I take them off, I’m at the wrong wedding reception, and I’m not welcome with them anymore.
So I’m standing at the door of the wedding, with the king handing me wedding attire and welcoming me to the party, with the shouts of other people at my back, and I have to pick a side. If this whole parable is about clothing yourself appropriately for the kingdom of heaven, what do I believe the kingdom is like? Or, in American wedding terms, what kind of reception is this going to be? Am I free to do the electric slide with people from different races, tribes, and genders? Am I entering a joyful celebration, in the presence of the king? If the kingdom is built on Christian nationalism, and all the aforementioned "layers of clothing" I'm determined to shed for good, I don’t want to attend that party. In fact, that doesn’t sound much like a party at all… it sounds a lot like our world right now, and this doesn’t feel like the kingdom of heaven to me.