Religio Philologi: Why Did the Wedding Guest Remain Silent?

Today’s gospel lesson, in the traditional calendar, is the familiar parable of the King’s wedding feast. found in Matthew 22:

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.  Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise:  And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.

But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.

So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.  And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:  And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.  Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

For many are called, but few are chosen.

Our young priest gave a straightforward homily on the passage, making the orthodox points one hears too infrequently.  The King, in this allegory, is clearly God, who has invited his chosen people to the feast, but, since the chosen ones of the Old Covenant have abused and killed his servants—the prophets and Our Lord Himself in the near future, the King has them put to death (that is, suffer damnation) and their city or commonwealth destroyed—a reference both to Titus’ devastation of Jerusalem and to the end of the old order in which Israel was the vehicle for prophecy and the object of divine love.

The King then sends out his invitation to chance strangers, both good and bad, clearly a reference to the Gentiles who would soon be converted.  However, when he sees one of them attending without a wedding garment, he first asks him why has he come in this fashion and, then, receiving no answer, casts him into the darkness, that is Hell.

This much is pretty transparent, but the very ending requires a word or two.  Why, for example, does the improperly attired wedding guest say nothing for himself?  Most of us, caught in a secular embarrassment, would say something like, “I got the invitation at the last minute and did not want to miss this important event.”  Or, my wife was sick, and could not do the laundry.”  

The passage does not specify—and perhaps with good reason, to avoid confusion—but the guest would have even less excuse, if the garments were provided by the host, in this case the King.  He says nothing, because there is nothing he can say.  He has no excuse, because he has not conformed to the required custom and prefigures, therefore, those who hear the call to Christ but refuse to do what is required, such as seek baptism, go to Church, lead a life in accordance with the moral law He taught.

The very last words, which appear to sum up the lesson,  are variously interpreted.  A plain reading of the text appears to say that while our Creator has invited all of us, good and bad, to accept the gift of salvation, many—if not most of us—refuse that gift and prefer to stick to our own ways.  In the Greek text, the distinction is between those who are called, invited (some form of the verb καλέω) and those who are chosen (ἐκλεκτοί).

Some Catholic writers  have overemphasized the ritual aspect of the parable.  The wedding garment stands for the baptismal gown, and so the condemnation is aimed at people who do not conform to the rules laid down by the Roman Church.  There is something in this interpretation, but not much.  Christ did not tell his disciples and listeners that he had come to force them into ritual conformity, either with the Jewish establishment or with the Church that would be developed by his future followers.  I am far from suggesting that the ecclesiastical rituals are of little or no importance, but in this case the gownless guest is parallel to the invitees who killed the King's servants.  His sin lies in rejecting the substance of the invitation, not for being too casual in his attire.

Strict Calvinists are naturally disturbed by the plain meaning of the text and insist on imposing their own interpretation of Paul upon the simple words.  In this series, I have frequently had occasion to warn against theological preconceptions and technical jargon that can obscure a plain text and distract us from its teaching.  Most of the Calvinists I have known are good and sincere Christians, and, if they insist on pushing what seems to me an impossible interpretation of Paul’s interpretation of Christ’s teachings, I do not wish to quarrel with them, but I would suggest that this passage ought to be left alone and grappled with, rather than shoe-horned into a tight-fighting boot it does not and cannot be made to fit.

By the way, the Calvinists I know seem blithely unaffected by their master’s theory of predestination:  They act as if we are responsible for our moral actions, and that is good enough for someone who is no theologian, but only a philologist plying his humble trade.

So, sticking to the language of the parable without sectarian prejudices, we are being told it is not enough merely to hear and feel the call to salvation, but we must act in accordance with Christ's requirements.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Curtis says:

    It is unfortunate how often priests ignore the day’s scripture readings to ramble about something vague and irrelevant in their homily. I wonder if in the past a priest was expected to make his homily an exegesis on the scripture readings. Catholics should not be attempting to understand scripture without the guidance of an expert, but they should understand scripture, and the priest has the ability to provide a little bit of expert understanding to them at every Mass. What a shame that Priests often lack the discipline to do so in the contemporary Church.

    “For many are called, but few are chosen.” The more I experience this world, the more I am willing to accept that most people are not saved. I do not think Hell is all fire and pitchforks; I suspect that for most inhabitants it is like the classical underworld: a dreary place full of people with gradations of sadness and regret that they are eternally separated from God after a squandered life.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Curtis, I agree with all your points. There are ages in which the Christian imagination was powerfully stirred by the imagery of Hell and Purgatory, but imagery, metaphors, paintings are merely aids to meditation, prayer, and virtuous living. If too much literalism is a stumbling block, as it can be for many people, then ignorance is preferable.

  3. Harry Colin says:

    I suspect much of the reluctance to explain scriptural readings is based on the discomfort many of them cause the modern mind. It can be difficult to forcefully encourage the laity to comport behavior to Christian doctrine when one is skeptical or dismissive themselves.

  4. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    I recently read William Wells Brown’s My Southern Home. There are many problems with the book, but one thing I took from it was Brown’s observation that Southerners, black and white, viewed the Devil as a tangible being who would inflict torture on them if they went that direction, while Northerners might have had some vague notions of the Devil, but thought the Southern view to be superstition.

  5. Khater M says:

    I get a thorough exposition of the Scripture reading every Sunday at my Traditional chapel( my priest is a professor at the seminary, so that might explain part of it)

    The Fathers and St. Thomas are my go-to for Scriptural exposition. Whenever I encounter a difficult verse, I always try and see if St. Thomas has commented on it. His commentaries on Paul’s letters are superb