Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The marriage feast

"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 treated 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 it 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" (Matthew 22:2-14).
A proper wedding feast has much light, joy, and merriment in the presence of the groom and bride. Of old, it has been a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, as in The Proverbs of King Solomon, 9:1-6.

The Pharisees taught that the Jews alone are God's chosen people and that God meant His Kingdom of God only for them. The Jewish people got so used to this prejudice that the parable offended them because it appeared to threaten them: "the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43). The Lord understood their confusion, so His newer parable of those called to the marriage feast shows them what they need to become a genuinely chosen.

"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." The guests had been invited earlier to the king's wedding feast at a certain time, so they knew that they would have to get ready. Some of them were indifferent to the royal invitation indifferently and did not want to come. The king good-heartedly excused the guests, who perhaps delayed on account of some misunderstanding. In his goodness, he wanted those invited not miss a festival, so he sent the servants a second time to call them to the feast. They were indifferent again because mercenary, worldly calculations were dearer to them than the honor of guests at the marriage feast of the king's son. To add injury to insult, "the remnant took his servants, and treated them spitefully, and slew them." By offending the royal messengers, the subjects insulted the king himself. Their error offended the king's dignity, who, able to endure no more, sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Meanwhile, the time of the feast arrived, and the king wanted to share his feast with his subjects. He ordered his servants to invite everyone to the marriage whom they would meet, without distinction. The royal servants called everyone, both the worthy and the unworthy, leaving to the king whether to seat them at the royal table or to remove them from the banquet. And quickly the festive table was occupied by guests. Everything was ready. Then the king came out to gladden the banqueters by his presence; but he saw something that upset him: "he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment."

One must know eastern customs to understand why this man upset the king and why he cast him out of the marriage feast. The fact is that anyone at a feast who did not have his own festive garments took garments at the household entryway from the steward of the house. Anyone who refused to put on such a garment showed contempt for the master of the house, as if saying: "I shall eat and drink with thee, but I want nothing to do with thee." The king asked the man who had not put on a wedding garment: "Friend, how camest thou in hither?" He was silent, that is, he had no justification whatsoever; he had a full opportunity to have this garment, but he disdained it. His silence told of the depravity of his heart, and he himself passed sentence on himself. He was expelled forever from the royal feast.

The Lord concluded His parable with the words: "many are called, but few are chosen." Many did not come at all, and some few came to the feast, but only one did not want a wedding garment.

The parable of the marriage feast alludes to the chief priests and the Pharisees who were Christ's immediate audience, as well as to all historic leaders of the Hebrews, who insulted and killed the prophets, the "servants of God" sent to them. The words "burning of the city" and "destruction of the murderers" of the prophets foretell the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel because it "did not know the time of its visitation." The Pharisees did not, of course, understand this prophecy.

The parable of the evil vine dressers shows that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews "and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." The parable of the marriage feast shows the baptized pagans will enter into His kingdom. The Word of God calls all mankind to the wedding feast. Modern Christians resemble those who refused to come and that one man him who came without proper clothes to celebrate. He was not baptized.

The Divine Liturgy is a feast to which the Lord invites us constantly with love. What hinders us is whatever cares that held back so many others invited to the feast? Often we may try to cite our unpreparedness. We should remember what awaits those who renounce their place in this marriage feast? "With fear of God, with faith and love draw near!" "Taste and see that the Lord is good."

But if we go to the feast, we must have a wedding garment: "I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no garment that I may enter there" (Expostilarion for Great Monday). So, one must fear, but must be baptized and enter. The wedding garment is the proper spiritual condition of the soul.

In a nonwedding garment, a man outwardly accepts all that the Lord and His Church teach him, and he considers himself already justified by works of outward piety. Most likely he is a Pharisee, hypocrite, or ritualist. He may even look on the Mysteries as magic. These legalists have no inner life. Their lot is terrible. We must struggle but not lose heart; we must repent but also be bold, for "a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise" (Psalm 51).

"Live in such a way," teaches Hierarch Theophan the Recluse, "that the God of love will love thee with eternal love. Go forth to thy commerce, but watch, so as not to sell thy soul to the world through the acquisition of worldly goods. Go forth to thy fields, fertilize thy land, and sow seed in it, so that with its fruits thou mayest strengthen thy body; but especially sow the fruits of eternal life in the field. Preserve the garment received in Holy Baptism pure and spotless until the end of thy life, that thou mayest be a worthy partaker of the heavenly bridal chamber, wherein only those enter who have a pure garment and burning lamps in their hands."

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