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God's Way or the Highway

03/29/2014 11:50 am ET | Updated May 29, 2014

Last week we worked our way through the main body of the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14). But then we came to the surprising finish. How can it be that the king -- or God -- refuses entry into the kingdom of heaven because a person from off the streets is not dressed properly? Surely there must be a misprint here!

First, let's reiterate the basic traits of parables as Jesus used them: (1) you'll find several significant points in the longer literary parables, but all parables of Jesus have one main point; (2) frequently the main point comes as a surprise at the end of the parable; and (3) Jesus used the parable more as a tool to make people think than as a story that is easy to understand.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast has all three traits, and today we concentrate on its surprising conclusion. As we take an in-depth look at the final two verses of the parable (Matthew: 13-14), we need to keep in mind that it is typical of Jewish literature for "king" to be used to mean God.

In the parable the king invites many people to the wedding feast of his son. But they are too busy to attend. This does not deter the king -- he sends his servants out to invite anyone they see, people from the streets, the "bad and the good."

But one of those from the "thoroughfares" comes to the celebration without a wedding garment. "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.'" (Matthew 22:13) This seems like such an unfair thing for a caring king to do -- or, in this instance, for God himself to do! How could a person from off the streets have been expected to have a wedding garment?

Jesus often used veiled language in his parables in order to make people think deeply about their meaning. Here Jesus used symbolism to indicate that we must give up our usual ways of thinking and doing and accept God's ways, even if his ways may seem unfair to us earthly mortals. In other words, the man was not literally thrown out because he was not dressed properly, but symbolically because he was not doing what the king expected. And what does God expect of you and me?

Time and again Jesus taught the necessity of repenting of our sins and wrongdoings. "Repent" is a military term that means "about-face," that is, a command to go 180 degrees in the opposite direction -- a complete reversal of attitude, behavior, and point of view. We cannot come to the wedding feast -- to God's kingdom, to heaven -- as we are. We must be willing to turn our backs on what we think, say, and do in this world and begin to do things God's way -- not what seems fair and just in our way of thinking, but to put asunder our ways and turn to God completely.

We are reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (55:8-9)

Now we come to the puzzling last verse of the parable: "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14) This verse seems so out of keeping for the loving king -- that is, out of character for God -- to invite all of us to participate in the kingdom of heaven and when we get there to be told that only a few of those invited will be allowed to stay. This seems extremely unfair. But remember, Jesus was using veiled language.

Jesus was saying that it is not the king who decides to choose only a few: Jesus was telling us in this parable that God invites all of us to the celebration in the kingdom, but He leaves it up to each of us to decide whether or not we are willing to do what the king -- or God -- expects us to do in order to participate in the celebration. We must truly repent!

This is not a "this-and-that" situation, but an "either-or" situation. In modern terminology, "It's God's way or the highway." There is no tweaking allowed here, no adjustments or revisions, no bargaining with God. It's not life one way on Sundays and another way on weekdays. We can't intentionally continue with our secret sins and expect God's forgiveness time and again. No, that won't work! God expects our allegiance 24/7.

Repentance is more than going astray and saying, "Oh, I'm sorry for what I did." You are not excused from your responsibilities to abide by God's way after conversion and baptism. This is a double-edged parable: what is the kingdom of heaven like? It is an existence of goodness, mercy, forgiveness, joy, happiness, beauty, and love, but it is also an existence of responsibility -- of doing things God's way.

In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that all of us are invited to partake in the kingdom of heaven and that it will be a wonderful existence. But we must be willing to leave our worldly baggage at the gateway and accept God's ways. Whether or not you are chosen depends upon you!

(Biblical quotes from Revised Standard Version.)