From The Waiting Father: Sermons on the Parables of Jesus, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by John W. Doberstein (Harper & Row, ©1957)
The Parable of the Marriage Feast
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, `Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.' But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, `The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
This parable strikes a note and presents to our imagination a picture that immediately commands our attention.
It was not only the listeners in the long past who pricked up their ears because they were intensely expectant of the end of the world and the coming of the messianic kingdom. On the contrary, the dream of the kingdom of God has moved men's minds in every age. It extends all the way from the thought of the millennial kingdom in the last book of the Bible to Karl Marx's classless society and workers' paradise.
And always it is the same deep yearning that is reflected in it: Some day the mystery of suffering, the mystery of madhouses, mass graves, the mystery of widows and orphans must be illuminated. Someday must come the "hereafter," when we shall learn all the answers. Someday the paralyzing contradiction between justice, on the one hand, and life's blind game of chance, on the other, must be reconciled. Someday the tension between rich and poor, between the sunny side of life and the gloomy zones of horror, must be equalized. Every great political and cultural ideal has in it something of the hope and the light of this final fulfillment.
No man could ever fairly arrive at this idea by himself. For this God has no reason whatsoever to take us seriously or even to "love" us. The very fact that this God should invite us to his table is in itself a great miracle. It is something that needs to be told to us by those who have experienced it. For there are no indications whatsoever that would give us reason to imagine such a monstrous thing (for it is nothing less than that). Actually, the indications would point to an altogether different conclusion.
Nietzsche once characterized humanity as "vermin on the crust of the earth." This may be a bit strong but nevertheless it does express the pitiful diminutiveness of the human being who presents a picture of childish pathos standing there with his high claims and pretensions. And God should interest himself in such a thing? Frederick the Great was capable of saying-and this statement was not among the least of his insights into life-that men are canaille, a pack of dogs. And we are to believe that God would lavish anything so magnificent as his plan of salvation upon such a dubious species? Stage the drama of Calvary and trouble his head about the idea of divine grace for such as that?
I have expressed all this in somewhat extreme language. But this way of putting it may point up a deep and fundamental problem.
One of the most puzzling questions with which our Christian education confronts us from our youth up is the fact that it is constantly depriving us of this sense of wonder and amazement. The longer we are Christians the more commonplace does this unheard-of thing become; the miracle is taken for granted and the supernatural becomes "second nature." We are even a bit spoiled and coddled with this grace that is so easily piped into us by way of baptism and confirmation in the midst of our respectable Christian lives. And therefore we can hardly appreciate the tremendous blessedness of that invitation. But Christian satiation is worse than hungry heathenism. It is not for nothing that the saying about those who hunger and thirst appears in the Sermon on the Mount. And if there are any among us who have this hunger and do not know how to satisfy it and yet would be glad to know how to begin becoming a Christian, they should be glad at any rate that they even feel this hunger. For those who hunger are promised that they shall be filled and not be the least in the kingdom of God. "Blessed are those who are homesick, for they shall come home" (Jean Paul).
It is very important, then, to see what this unhoped-for invitation really means. In the first place we must see that it is a real "invitation" and by no means an order to report for service. The message does not come as a "thou shalt," a categorical imperative. It does not come to us as a duty and a law. Rather, God addresses us as a friend and host. He comes to us as a royal donor, the giver of every good gift and joy. For this is an invitation to a wedding feast.
Perhaps it is just at this point that we Christians always get the thing wrong. When, in a pause in our work or an evening conversation, somebody asks us, actually plucks up the courage to ask us: "Tell me, how does one really get that inner steadiness that you have, so that a man can have some kind of peace and be able to face this dirty business of life with cheerfulness and confidence?" We often give a very wrong answer. All too frequently we say something like this: "Now first you must do this and stop doing that. Dancing and amusements are out. And, besides, there are some dark spots in your life; first you will have to set this straight. And you must really want to change and then make a complete about-face."
None of us who have given or received such a miserable answer has ever been helped one bit by this kind of moralizing appeal. It only breaks a man down and takes away from him the last spark of courage he may have left. When we are facing the worst things and wrestling with the most secret bondages in our lives the real menace by no means lies only in the fact that our will is too weak to achieve our goal but rather that we cannot even will to do it with our whole heart. This is undoubtedly what Luther meant when he said that the Law may well point the way but that it is far from being the strength in one's legs. Therefore the Law only makes us more miserable.
In any case, God proceeds quite differently. True, he demands of us obedience. We must even turn our whole life around, and pay for our Christianity with all that we are. But first he gives us something, first he simply invites us to come. heralds that the job of a disciple of Jesus is to attract and invite and the royal banquet and the peace and security of the Father's house, whose joy he has himself been permitted to taste. Then later, when the guest is inside the bright halls of that house, when he has really entered the joy and festivity of being a Christian, he will see how great was the darkness and gloom from which he has been so mercifully rescued and he will be sorry and repent.
Shall I say something that sounds altogether heretical?
Repentance and remorse always come soon enough, but joy can never too soon. We who know Jesus Christ have only to proclaim joy. We need only to remember how the King does it. He invites and calls and gives. Or let us remember how the Sermon on the Mount begins. Nowhere else in all the Scriptures are we so called into question at the innermost core of our existence. Nowhere else are such piercingly radical demands made upon us. Nowhere else are we exposed to a light so consuming that we are ruthlessly compelled to see ourselves at the absolute end of our tether. And yet that chapter begins with the words, many times repeated, "Blessed are ..."
Jesus can mean nothing but this: Come unto me, all of you; I have something to tell you. And what I have to say is certainly very hard. It will expose the innermost crisis of your life and your absolute helplessness before God. But first, before I speak of that, you must know that I am among you as your Saviour and that, because I am with you, nothing can snatch you out of the Father's hand, not even that utter darkness and that absolute shortcoming of which I am about to speak to you. First I can say to you: Blessed are those in whose midst I am; blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are those who are poor in spirit and those whom I may call my brothers. And now that you have been given this blessedness, now that you know this imperishable peace with the Father, now listen to what is required of you; now hear what it is that may bring you to shipwreck.
And then, when the messengers of the king had delivered the joyful message of that invitation, the response of those who were invited was nothing less than monstrous: they rejected it.
It is easy enough to understand why someone may reject an excessive demand. Many of us have burdensome demands made upon us. How many there are who are always wanting something from us; wanting us to give money, wanting us to support this cause or that, wanting us to provide dwellings and jobs and so forth. We can understand, then, why a person who has excessive demands made upon him sometimes loses his temper and finally says, "That's the end of it; let me alone!"
But here the situation is different. Here an invitation is being refused. Have we ever known what it is like to try to do something for somebody and be given the cold shoulder? It is just this kind of hurt that was inflicted when these people brusquely dismissed the messengers of the king and "made light" of the invitation.
This is very hard to understand. Why did they react so strangely?
In the Lucan parallel of our text other expressions are used. There it says not that "they made light of it" but that they"began to make excuses" (Luke 14:18 ff.). One has bought a field, another a yoke of oxen, and a third has married a wife. In other words, these people are putting the everyday concerns of their life, whatever happens to be immediately at hand-the business letter they have to write, the important transaction they have to settle, the cocktail party they have attend, the garden work they do for their pleasure-they are putting all this before the call from eternity, before the great joy that is being offered to them.
In themselves none of these things and activities are bad. After all, writing business letters and settling transactions are part of our duty. Actually, there is not the slightest objection that can be made to these things. But this is just the trouble. As a rule, the road to hell is paved not with crimes and great scandals but with things that are quite harmless, with pure proprieties, and simply because these harmless proprieties acquire a false importance in our life, because they suddenly get in our light. The people, in our parable certainly had within them that hunger and expectancy of which we have spoken; otherwise they would not have been human beings. They too wished to get away from the everlasting routine of life and work and yearned for fulfillment and peace. They too dreamed the dream of light. But now, at the moment when all this was at hand, ready to touch their life, they failed.
But is all this really so utterly incomprehensible as it may seem at first glance? It is incomprehensible only to those who do not have enough love to put themselves in their shoes or who no longer remember how they themselves felt before they had accepted the Lord Christ. That was the time when they still refused to take the risk of accepting that great joy and giving up their own indulgences and ties in order to have it. And they refused to risk it simply because they still did not know the promised joy, because it was impossible to judge beforehand to what extent each sacrifice and each departure from the past would be rewarded. They did not understand, and at that point they could not possibly have understood, that this, which they, with their natural eyes, considered to be letting themselves in for a binding and therefore burdensome allegiance, is actually the greatest freedom of all. They had no idea that what they considered a state of renunciation, in which one is always having to say no, in which never again can there be any joy and youthful exuberance, is actually peace, is actually the abundant life.
Haven't all of us at some time had an associate or friend who honestly regretted that we were Christians, since, after all, we were quite decent chaps, humorous, lively fellows, real guys?
I fear, however, that in this respect we Christians often represent our Lord very badly. The glum, sour faces of many Christians, who frequently enough look as if they had gallstones (all those who really have them will excuse me!) are poor proclaimers of that wedding joy. They rather give the impression that, instead of coming from the Father's joyful banquet, they have just come from the sheriff who has auctioned off their sins and now are sorry they can't get them back again. Nietzsche made a true observation when he said, "You will have to look more redeemed if I am to believe in your Redeemer."
The reason why many refuse the invitation is just that they do not know and also that we Christians all too often withhold from them what it is that is being given to them. For probably everybody has regretted almost everything once in his life, but never yet has anybody regretted having become a disciple of this Lord. It is really a pity that the theme of that rather mawkish hymn verse,
people only knew
The joy of Jesus' way,
Then surely more than few
Would Christians be today ...
has not found a greater poet who would help people to see that not only would their skepticism vanish but also that their boldest expectations would be surpassed once they crossed the threshold of that royal house in which the Father awaits them and welcomes them to a happy Christian life. There must be something festive and happy in our whole Christian life, otherwise people will not believe that we are the messengers of the King. When a person has to struggle with inferiority feelings when he is obliged to talk to his neighbor about Jesus, he may speak like an angel from heaven but a certain tone of voice belies him. And then he ought not to talk himself out of it by saying that it is the message that is offensive. He found no faith only because he himself was not convincing, not worthy of being believed.
In any case, the better people refuse. They have more important things to do than to jump up forthwith and forsake their business to go chasing after some hypothetical bird in the bush. After all, every one of us has certain areas in his life which he will not give up and hand over. It may be my ambition in my job, which brings me into a bad relationship with my colleagues and competitors and makes it impossible for me to sit down with them at the King's table. It may be the jealousy or the prejudice that exists between me and my neighbor and therefore also between me and the King. Perhaps it is my business practices, which the King must not know about and which, quite rightly, cannot bear the light of the festal hall. Perhaps what I hold back lies in the area of sex: God can have everything else, but not this! At some other point in my life I'm willing to let him in, but not here, not at this point. After all, I am good-natured; I don't wish anybody any harm; I have a tender heart; I have many good qualifications, and so he can have my brotherly love. I am idealistic, I have enthusiasm and a great willingness to work; so he can have my activity. But this one thing he cannot have!
And now the very strange thing is that God is not interested in getting into my life at any other point, that he has taken it into his head to come into my life only by way of this most difficult terrain. It is characteristic of the kingdom of God that it never follows the path of least resistance, but always seeks out the thickest concrete walls in my life in order to enter there and only there. If I do not allow it entrance there, it turns away from me altogether, and this most assuredly. Do we know where in our lives the thickest walls have been built up? It is worth thinking about.
Presumably this is just what the invited guests in our parable said."Some other time we will be glad to accept your invitation; but not right now. I have no use for you in what I plan to do today; here you simply cannot butt in and get in the way."
But here too the rule applies: If they do not open the door to him today, at the point where it is hardest for them to do so, God turns away and goes elsewhere. True enough, it is perhaps much simpler to become religious after the "second heart attack," since then, as Wilhelm Busch said, you have "everything behind you" (though even in old age and in this condition people may be crotchety). But the point is that God wants me now, when I am on the rise or at the high point of life, and where my work and my struggles and my passions will clash with much that God commands and demands of me. I have no promise that God will come to me again if I make an appointment to meet him later in the pleasant pastures of retirement; and who knows whether they will be so pleasant after all?
There is still another important feature of our parable that must be noted at this point.
These invited guests did not stop at mere refusal to come along. The parable says that they seized the messengers of the king, treated them shamefully, and killed them. And this touches upon a profound mystery of the kingdom of God and that is that one can never take a passive attitude toward the message of Christ. Eventually one must actively oppose it. Here is the root of all Israel's hostility to prophets and too fanaticism radicalism modern Christians. One must simply get Christ and his followers out of sight because they are a permanent reproach and because they make it so obvious to us that we want our own life. One cannot live in continuing tension with the message of Christ. One cannot be exposed indefinitely to the necessity of having to prove that it is valid and at the same time prove to oneself that one has no need for it. To say no to Christ in the attitude of tolerance (which means rejecting him as far as we ourselves are concerned but letting other people keep their faith), the kind of tolerance which is cultivated by those who advocate a so-called democratic freedom of religious confession is merely a passing calm. Anybody who knows the secret of the kingdom of God knows that one day the storm will break loose again. One need not even conjure up the example of the Third Reich (which also began so tolerantly!) to know the course these things take.
But then, when the better people failed and rejected the invitation,the messengers of the king were sent out again. This time they went out to the people in the highways and hedges. And among them are good people and bad ones, honest people and rascals. So God carried out his plan — no matter what happened. The great antagonists from Nebuchadnezzar to Judas and the modem representatives of anti-Christianity cannot queer God's plans, for they themselves are part of the plan.
So his banquet did not fall through. When the geniuses fail, God turns to the nobodies. When the bearers of the Christian tradition, the church Christians, walk out and descend into dogmatic hairsplitting or church politics, he turns to the neopagans and rejoices in the freshness of their new-found Christianity. For God has no prejudices. A man can come as he is, even as an utterly poor, utterly sinful, and utterly unlovable person who cannot understand what God can see in him. The fact is that he cannot see anything in him, but he makes something of him; he makes him his beloved child.
So there they were, all seated around the table: the beggars and the prostitutes, swindling bankrupts and broken-down geniuses, poor wretches whom nobody takes seriously, and artful dodgers-all in all a nice gang of people.
And then the king appeared.
This is the main thing — to see him and to be able to speak to him.This is the real end and aim of the invitation — to be with him — not the heavenly crowns and the palms and the golden streets or the crystal sea or any kind of pious or half-pious talk of kingdom come.
When the father of Adolf Schlatter, the great theologian, lay dying a friend consoled him, telling him that he would soon be tarrying in the golden streets of the heavenly Jerusalem and gazing upon the crystal sea. Thereupon the dying man turned upon him in anger and cried out, "Away with such rubbish! All I want is to be in the Father's bosom." In other words, heaven does not consist in what we "get" but in what we shall "be." Then we shall no longer be limited to faith and hope, and therefore subject to temptation and doubt. Then we shall live in love alone, and in loving will be permitted to see what once we believed.
Then at its close our parable takes a dramatic turn. One of the guests got into the worst kind of trouble because he was not wearing a wedding garment and was thrown out of the banquet hall. What is the meaning of this wedding garment?
To be sure, we can accept the call to come into the Father's house just as we are. We need not be ashamed of the highways and hedges from which we have come. It is our very pitiableness that proves the Father's pity. We can come just as we are.
But this by no means implies that we can enter the Father's house as we are. And this is precisely what the parable means by this metaphor of the wedding garment. We seat ourselves at the banquet table without a wedding garment when we allow our sins to be forgiven but still want to hang on to them. We do this, in other words, when we say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, "This is great stuff; a man can remain in his sins without worrying, since this God of love can never be really angry; he shuts both eyes; he will let it pass." Thus in all artful innocence I can apply for forgiveness every day without having to abstain from a single dubious thing to which my heart clings. Did not Heine say of God's forgiving, "Cest son metier," this is God's business. Report at the service department and God's grace will be supplied. Even the church has its service department.
And right here is where God's warning comes in: the person who comes without the wedding garment, the person who permits the fact that he can come as he is to make him shame less instead of humble, who, instead of being concerned with sanctification and discipline, allows himself to play a frivolous game with the grace of God, that person is just as badly off as the people who refuse altogether, who, indeed, kill the messengers of the king.
Even Christians, not only pagans, can be cast into outer darkness. Even the grace of God can become our doom. This is why there is such great sense in the custom of making confession and setting various things to rights before going to Holy Communion. This is comparable to our putting on the wedding garment.
But even in this grievous thought, which we cannot contemplate without anxiety, the message of joy still breaks through. And this is the last point that we shall consider. For joy remains the real theme of our parable, despite all its dark and somber features.
How, then, can even the analogy of the wedding garment constitute a message of joy? When Jesus speaks here in these figurative terms of sanctifying and preparing oneself, he is by no means thinking of somber penitential exercises and agonizing starvation cures. On the contrary, the very imagery he uses for all this is the festive image of the wedding garment, the image of joy. Who ever thought it a sacrifice and a burden to change his clothes and put on festive garments in order to go to a banquet he has looked forward to for weeks? This dressing up and preparing for the occasion is itself a part of the celebration and is full of joy and anticipated excitement. It is the joy of the bride who is waiting expectantly. She knows for whom it is she is adorning herself. And this lends joy to the preparations and the dressing up, even though it takes time and effort.
And that, in plain and practical terms, means that when I make an effort to establish a new relationship with my neighbor, when I combat the spirit of care within myself or the vagaries of my imagination, or jealousy and envy, this is not morose rigor ism, but rather joy, because I know for whom I am doing all this, and because the joy of heaven over one sinner who repents simply communicates itself infectiously and makes this act of repentance itself a thing of joy.
Repentance is not a woebegone renunciation of things that mean a lot to me; it is a joyful homecoming to the place where certain things no longer have any importance to me
After all, the prodigal son did not moan over the fact that now he would have to leave that interesting, fascinating far country, the great adventure of his life. On the contrary, he saw the lighted windows of his father's house, where a fervent welcome awaited him, and suddenly the far country became a gloomy dream that dissolved behind him.
My answer would be this: We shall enter it only if we start out by simply allowing someone to tell us that there is One who rules the world with a father's heart; that he is interested in me; that I am not too paltry or too vile for him to love; and that he wants to love me out of the terrible loneliness and alien ness and guilt of my life and bring me to the Father's house.
Perhaps someone will reply, "I hear the message but I lack the faith; it's all too good to be true." And there may well be such a thing as a voice of inner scruple that warns a person to be on guard against such siren songs.
Jesus would certainly understand such hesitation. One day there came to Jesus a young man (he became known as "the rich young ruler," one of the classical figures of Christianity). He too gave an account of his fruitless efforts to find peace and get straight with God. And the record says that "Jesus looking upon him loved him" (Mark 10:21). It is a comfort to know that he knows me and is looking at me, even though I go helplessly searching for him. He has seen me and loved me long since-even in my doubt and despair.
So, if anyone is too honest to give credence to the message of divine joy at first go, if he is afraid of himself and afraid that he may slip because of weakness, then he ought at least to be willing to make an experiment with Jesus. Even the most strict intellectual honesty is capable of this. Even the scientist who is dedicated to hard-boiled realism does this.
So I challenge you to start with this working hypothesis — "as if" there were something to this Jesus and "as if" that invitation to come to the table of the King actually existed. And then in the name of this working hypothesis venture for once to be confident and joyful in everything that happens to you today and tomorrow because it is designed for you by a higher hand. Just talk to God — about your sin and that difficulty in your life which you cannot manage — "as if" he existed. Say a good word to that colleague who gets on your nerves or that person in your house who annoys you, but do it in his name and at his behest, "as if" he existed. Just make an experiment with this working hypothesis, Jesus, and see whether you are met with silence or whether he actually shows you that you can count on him. But do something.
God is no piker [i.e., no stingy person]; and he has said that he who comes to him will not be cast out. But you must come to him, you must beseech and besiege him and find out whether you meet with any resistance.
Why shouldn't you try this for once? This is not a Faust-like search for meaning that carries you down endless unknown roads; what is at stake is the joy of homecoming.
You understand and catch the secret of the Christian life only in so far as you understand and catch its joy. And it is not at all as if it were only you who were always waiting and longing. There is another who is waiting for you, and he is already standing at the door, ready to come to meet you.
The deepest mystery of the world is that God is waiting for us, for the near and the far, for the homeless waif and the settled townsman. The person who understands this and takes it in is near to the blessedness of the royal wedding feast. Already there shines about him the flooding light of the festal hall even though he still walks in the midst of the valley of the shadow. He may be sorrowful, and yet he is always rejoicing; he may be poor, and yet he makes many rich; he may have nothing, and yet he possesses all things.