Defying the Dress Code
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
The parable we find in today’s passage from Matthew 22 is one that many of us who have some familiarity with church and the Bible have a hard time hearing. I mean this in two ways. For one thing, Matthew’s version of the wedding banquet story, when interpreted the way it usually is by preachers and teachers, is a dark, violent parable that paints a portrait of God that can be described as difficult at best. But the story is hard to hear for another reason. Like many other episodes in the Gospels, this parable appears in a slightly different form in more than one place—in this case, in Luke 14 and here in Matthew 22. Our tendency in such cases is to smooth out the kinks of the different versions and create a hybrid that harmonizes them all but is ultimately faithful to none of them. We do this every year at Christmas, blending two distinct nativity stories into a mushy concoction that neither Matthew nor Luke would recognize.
In relation to today’s parable, the upshot of this tendency is that we usually recall the benign circumstances of Luke’s version and ignore the more ominous elements of Matthew’s. This is easy to understand and sympathize with, but in doing it we may be missing out on some important insights from this more unsavory telling of the parable. As with the Christmas stories, it is in our interest to delay the mash-up at least long enough to find out why the two writers told the story in different ways, and what we can learn from those parts we usually neglect.
In Luke’s version of the parable, for instance, we find a “certain man” who decides to hold a banquet and sends out invitations to his guests, each of whom comes back with one excuse after another, most of them pretty lame, for why they cannot or will not attend. When the man’s servants return with this distressing news, he sends them out again twice, with instructions to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” until his house is full. Luke concludes the parable by having the host declare that none of the originally invited guests will get a taste of his banquet.
Despite this note of judgment, which we understand to be directed at the religious leaders who have in essence rejected God’s gracious invitation by resisting Jesus and his mission, on the whole Luke’s version of the story comes across as a positive declaration of God’s inclusive love. The “certain man” seems quite obviously to represent God, and the banquet attended by the blind, poor, and lame squares with one of Luke’s favorite themes: God’s grace to the outcasts.
When we look at the story in Matthew’s gospel, however, we come away with a much less positive feeling. Instead of a depiction of God’s grace, we get a picture of petty tyrants, political unrest, violence, and what seems to be a pretty arbitrary and unfair judgment against a guy whose only crime is that he wore the wrong outfit to the party. The same basic storyline that Luke used to reinforce his message of inclusion Matthew uses for something else entirely—something much darker and more ominous. But what exactly? Where is Matthew going with his telling of this parable? To find out, we need to take a closer look.
When we consider Matthew’s version to the exclusion, as much as possible, of what we know from Luke’s, we begin to notice elements that our harmonizing impulse usually obscures. For one thing, the host is not just a “certain man,” but a king, and the banquet is no ordinary party, but a royal wedding feast for the king’s son. That changes how we understand the story right from the top. As soon as kings get involved, politics and messy issues of state come into play. Notice that, unlike in Luke’s telling, the guests don’t offer excuses; they simply refuse to attend the prince’s wedding banquet: verse 3 says bluntly, “They would not come.” We have here not just the rejection of a dinner invitation, but a deliberate thumbing of the nose at an apparently unpopular monarch.
After this first rebuff, the king persists, sending more slaves to the guests, with a detailed description of the preparations for the feast: “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet” (v. 4). But the guests respond with contempt—“They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business” (v. 5)—and even violence—“The rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them” (v. 6). The king is understandably enraged, and Jesus says, “He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (v. 7). As William Bendix or Daffy Duck might say, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
There’s more to this cheery parable, but it would be worth our while to linger here for a moment. We have a tendency, in reading Jesus’s parables and stories in the gospels, to assign roles to the characters. In this case, guided by the more familiar and positive telling by Luke, we automatically assume that the king represents God. It doesn’t help that in many translations Jesus introduces the parable by saying something along the lines of, “This is what the reign of heaven is like…” (v. 2).
But what Jesus actually says is not quite so straightforward. Without getting too technical, the Greek word translated as “is like” is in the passive voice and means, roughly, “to be made like.” The New Revised Standard Version captures this nuance by translating the line, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to….” Another way of saying that is, “The kingdom, or reign, of God has been, or often is, comparedto….” When the introduction is worded this way, we could reasonably infer that Jesus is not entirely on board with the depiction of the reign of God that follows. When we consider the context of the parable in Matthew’s gospel, that inference grows stronger.
Jesus tells this parable in the temple during Passover, just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion, and his audience includes the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees. These “usual suspects” confront him after he enters Jerusalem and drives the moneychangers out of the temple. They call him on the carpet, demanding to know just who he thinks he is, and Jesus responds by launching into a series of very pointed stories quite obviously intended to turn their question back on them. He rebukes these religious leaders for their disobedience, hypocrisy, and failure to care for God’s people. He accuses them of preying on the people to enrich themselves, and of treating with contempt and violence the prophets God has sent to show them the error of their ways. He says to them, in essence, “Who do I think I am? I know who I am. Who do you think you are?”
When we understand the wedding banquet story in this context of confrontation with religious leaders who have been misrepresenting God, that subtle difference in translation starts to loom large. “The reign of heaven is often compared to aking…” becomes, “You—the predatory priests and scribes and elders—have compared the kingdom of heaven to a king….” Jesus’s unspoken but crystal clear judgment is, “But you are wrong.”
They are wrong to compare God to a vindictive, petty tyrant who tries to gain his subjects’ allegiance through strong-arm tactics or bribery and who reacts with ruthless violence when he doesn’t get the desired response. They are wrong to say the reign of God operates on principles of power politics and oppression. They are wrong—dead wrong, blasphemously wrong—to try to implicate God in their bad behavior. They want to baptize their violence, injustice, and rapacious greed; they want to depict God as one who operates according to the same rules as King Herod and the Roman emperors; and Jesus is having none of it.
Unfortunately, we in the church have been doing the same thing for a very long time. One of the earliest and most persistent interpretations of this parable is that the king does indeed stand for God, and the guests who refuse the king’s invitation to come to the feast represent not just the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day, but the Jews as a whole. God punishes the Jews for rejecting Jesus by sending the Roman legions to utterly lay waste Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE. The first-century historian Josephus estimated that more than a million people died during the siege of Jerusalem; to me that sounds like a pretty disproportionate response to the rejection of one messiah and the killing of a few prophets. When we add to the body count all the persecutions, pogroms, and anti-semitic violence that has hounded the Jewish people down the ages, capped by the inconceivable horrors of the Holocaust, we cannot help but conclude that this way of reading the parable is irresponsible on the grandest scale possible. Those who insist on this brutal interpretation betray an utter lack of compassion. They look at its 2,000 years of victims and say, “Huh. Serves you right.”
The king, having wiped out his original guests in a fit of rage, realizes that he still has the problem of a bunch of empty seats at his banquet. He sends out more slaves, this time with the instruction to go out to the streets and scatter his invitation indiscriminately to the masses. The slaves take his advice to heart and practically force people to come. Matthew tells us they “went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests” (v. 10). Not necessarily the right kind of guests, from the king’s perspective, but in situations like this you have to take what you can get.
He still has standards, however, so he becomes upset when he sees a man who is not wearing the proper garment. He says to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (v. 12). We might expect the man to defend himself: “Hey, I was just minding my own business out in the marketplace when these slaves of yours abducted me and dragged me here! How can you ask me why I’m not wearing the proper clothes?” But the text says only, “He was speechless” (v. 12). So the king orders his attendant to tie up the man and cast him out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 13).
Sensible modern people that we are, we may be wondering what on earth is going on here. Is this guy schizophrenic? How can he force someone off the streets to come to the party and then punish him for not having on a tuxedo? It may help us to learn that the custom of the time was for hosts to provide garments for their guests at events such as this one. That puts a different spin on the situation. What we have here is not a completely unhinged host making an irrational demand on his guest; we have a guest who has refused to play by the rules. Who has defied the dress code.
This all starts to make sense when we get away from the standard interpretation of the parable and see the king not as representing God but rather the religious leaders who have allied themselves with the political heavyweights—the Herods and Caesars of the world. If that is the case, then we also have to reevaluate the identity of the improperly dressed guest. It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to see him as Jesus himself.
Look at it this way: a king who represents the forces of empire slaughters the guests who refused his original invitation and then compels others to come to his banquet. One of those others, although forced to attend, rejects the king’s ideology and refuses to endorse his imperial pretensions by playing along. Left with few alternatives for expressing his disapproval, he does what he can. He refuses to wear the wedding garment that would tag him as a loyal subject. He defies the dress code, and sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of a banquet full of conformists. He’s one of the three people refusing to bow to the king’s golden idol. He’s the one guy kneeling on the sidelines while everyone else stands for the national anthem.
This subversive behavior naturally draws the attention of the king, who questions him about his refusal to wear the garments of empire. And notice what comes next: “He [is] speechless” (v. 12). In the space of a few days, Jesus will find himself standing before the high priest, accused of all sorts of activities that have run afoul of the powers that be. When the high priest demands that Jesus answer the charges, Matthew says simply, “But Jesus [is] silent” (Matt 26:63). He is … speechless.
Sometimes we face similar choices. We may never find ourselves in a life-or-death situation, but we often face the choice of whether to conform to the expectations of the system—don’t make waves; go along to get along—or to rock the boat by refusing to play the game. When the culture of our workplace tempts us to engage in unethical practices for the benefit of the company, what choice will we make? When we overhear a coworker or superior making a sexist or racist comment and we can either voice our objections or else protect ourselves by remaining silent, what choice will we make? When society pressures us to support violence and war as the best means of meeting our nation’s ends, but we see in Jesus an example of nonviolent resistance and a command to love our enemies, what choice will we make? When the king demands that we put on the clothes of empire or else get kicked out of the party, what choice will we make?
The good news we find in this dark, challenging parable is that, just like Jesus, we can find the strength to resist the enticements of the powers. We can summon the courage to flout the wishes of those who want us to shut up and do what we’re told. When we see and understand that the world’s standards are opposed to God’s will, guided by the example of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit we can defy the dress code, taking our stand on the side of justice, righteousness, and the reign of God. We can do this because we know that no act of defiance to the kings and tyrants of the world is without value, and no act of obedience to God, no matter how small, ever escapes God’s notice.
I have decided to follow Jesus. Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back. Regardless the cost, no turning back.