In the opening sentence of today’s Gospel reading, we learn that Jesus was once more going to speak to the chief priests and elders in parables. The purpose of the parables was to teach of the kingdom of heaven by way of comparison or illustration for those who could not understand the teaching. This is confirmed by Jesus in an earlier chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when he informs his disciples that he will speak in parables to the people because ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’. He goes on to affirm that many prophets and righteous people longed for this sight and hearing but were unable to possess it.
The disciples, then, are blessed in their ability to see and hear the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. They have, so to speak, the inside story denied to others, many of whom would consider themselves to be righteous and therefore worthy of this knowledge. Thus it is that the chief priests and elders addressed by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, who would consider themselves to be righteous, are taught of the kingdom of heaven in the form of a parable, in this instance the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.
What emerges here are themes of inclusion and exclusion. Some are included in the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven, others not so readily. For them it will be a question of grasping the inner meaning of what they hear and so interpretation is required. For the chosen few the secret of the kingdom of heaven is laid bare.
Why should this be so? If we are all equal in the sight of God and the promise of the kingdom is given to us all, why the need to make division between those who can have the inner story directly and those who must work it out by means of comparison and illustration? I believe the answer can be found if we read on through the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. In this parable, the kingdom of God is given as a Messianic banquet. God invites us to this banquet freely, as an act of kindness. He is under no obligation to do so. Everything is well prepared and there is an eschatological urgency in the words of the king: ’everything is ready’. Yet in spite of this loving preparation, the invitees, who have status in society, make light of it and ignore the call to the feast. Enraged, the king destroys them and their city. The invitation is then sent out again, this time to the outcasts of Israel, saints and sinners all, and they all accept the invitation. One such guest is condemned to being thrown out by failure to wear the wedding garment that represents conversion to a life of good deeds but the rest remain. What we learn from this story is that if people do not turn to God in faith they will not be amongst the first to enter the kingdom of heaven, whatever their status in society may be. Those who do accept the invitation, whether they be saints or sinners, attend the banquet.
So within this parable we can find a reason for the distinction in what is revealed and to whom it is revealed. Your position in society, and your perception of yourself as a righteous person, does not mean that you have priority in entering the kingdom of heaven. What accords you entry is being open to the love of God and accepting him into your life.
If this is so, then we find within a parable itself, in this case the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, the reason why some are chosen to receive the inner story of the kingdom of heaven, while others are given the secret of the kingdom in the form of a parable.
There is a harsh note in today’s Gospel reading: the rage of the king, the destruction of people and property and the ‘wailing and nashing of teeth’ in utter darkness. This is, as Ian Boxall describes it in his book ‘Discovering
Matthew’ the apocalyptic atmosphere that pervades Matthew’s Gospel. Where Matthew differs from this apocalyptic tradition is that the true revelation of heavenly secrets has been made not to ‘the wise and intelligent’ but to ‘infants’.
In spite of this division and severity, I believe that we can in faith have trust in the loving purpose of God for us all and that in the end we can all participate in the heavenly kingdom. All that is required of us is to respond to his freely given invitation to be with him, now and to come.