In the week before his crucifixion Jesus spent the days in the temple, speaking to the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people. These leaders resented the impact Jesus was having on the people and feared that their position was being assailed. They believed themselves to be standards of worthiness before God, and from that role they “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13).
In today’s reading Jesus speaks directly to the leaders. He tells a story of guests invited to a king’s wedding feast, the earthly image of the kingdom of heaven. The chosen guests dismiss the king’s invitation, preferring not to take a break from their striving after worldly power and prestige—one goes to tend his farm, one his business, and the rest kill the king’s servants. The king does what kings do when confronted with treason: he burns their city.
And then he does something very surprising: he invites everyone from the roads—the highways and byways and street corners—“both bad and good.” How could such a motley crew find themselves welcomed into the banquet? Everyone is given a robe by the king! The purpose of the robe is foretold by Isaiah: “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10).
Recognizing themselves in this story, the Jewish leaders are appalled, but repentance is not in their vocabulary. They know from Holy Scripture about robes of righteousness, but they show no interest in receiving such garments. The robes are an ancient metaphor for God’s gift of grace, worthy of much further questioning and learning, but it would mean humbling themselves to ask Jesus to say more about this idea. Better, they believe, to find a way to make Jesus look foolish.
They purport to be asking serious questions, but really the challenges are designed to manipulate Jesus into an answer that will get him in trouble with Rome, confuse his followers, and while they are at it, embarrass their rivals within the temple leadership. In doing so the leaders demonstrate the hard heartedness that Jesus has described in his parable.
I am sorry to say that I understand this mode of relating only too well. When I know I am wrong, it is very tempting to remind the messenger of his past wrongs, or change the subject, or bring up inconsequential questions—anything to avoid facing the truth of what I have just heard. The Pharisees and Sadducees are real people in a real time who depict the machinations of the human ego rebelling against God.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees each take a turn, and Jesus gives answers that rise above their traps. Each of his responses is another window into the kingdom of heaven. “Render to God the things that are God’s,” he says when questioned by the Pharisees about taxation, thereby reminding the hearers that God desires our whole hearts and is not interested in self-serving trick questions.
Likewise, when the Sadducees attempt to prove the impossibility of heaven by citing a provision of inheritance law, Jesus soundly refutes them with a perfect argument from Scriptures. Jesus anticipates his own resurrection for his hearers, then and now: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).
The third challenge comes from the Pharisees, who spend their lives trying to appear to obey the whole law. “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” one of them asks. And the answer blows away any further attempt to use the law to bolster ourselves, while showing how the law can be a light on our path: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind . . . and a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). Here is God’s word to his people, the essence and truth of how we relate to him. Jesus sees into our hearts and knows that this is what we truly need—hearts opened to love God and his people.
Thank God that he has provided his wedding garment for us, the robe of salvation that shows how much we are loved, and thus frees us from fear and striving to be able to love him with open-hearted trust, and to receive his love and pour it out to one another.