“Then [the king] said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready … invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness ... ’ ” (Matthew 22:8-14).
Discussion of this parable of the wedding banquet often focuses on what it means that the unwelcome guest is cast “into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” or on the summary statement that “many are invited, but few are chosen.” But a part of the parable that is often overlooked is, in a way, central to what Jesus was teaching in this story: the guest who was expelled was not cast out because he was not recognized or not invited, but because his clothes were somehow not acceptable.
The parable states that the individual cast out of the banquet was not wearing “wedding clothes,” and historically we know that in ancient Judea, as in many other ancient and modern cultures, guests wore their finest clothes to a wedding. This fact showed the guest’s respect for the host and it also honored the host by showing that his or her friends were well dressed and important – and thus legitimate at the banquet of a great person or a king. Throughout Judea and many areas of the ancient Near East it was customary for the host (especially if a king) to present expensive garments as gifts to those attending a wedding or other festival so that they would be suitably attired (see Genesis 45:22; Judges 14:12; 2 Kings 5:22; 2 Kings 10:22). This seems to be the case in Christ's parable as the guests were all gathered, unexpectedly, from the streets without knowledge to prepare themselves.
So, it is clear that the parable's 1st century hearers would understand the fact that the problematic guest would not be accepted at the wedding banquet in his everyday or non-wedding clothes. But what did Christ mean by this aspect of the story? Although, like many parables, the story does not state its point directly, it is clear that the guests’ “clothes” represent their spiritual condition. The problematic guest clearly considered his own clothes amply good enough, for he has nothing to say when challenged, but the king judges by his own standard and renounces the guest for not having suitable wedding clothes. Christ’s words are clearly aimed at those who, like the Pharisees, trusted in their own righteousness. Jesus tells his hearers in this parable that our own “garment” – our own righteousness – is simply not good enough, and we will only attend the banquet of his coming if we are suitably dressed not in our own, but in his righteousness.
Interestingly, Christ’s parable reflects a passage in Isaiah which specifically speaks of festival garments in precisely this way: “... he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness ...” (Isaiah 61:10). Inappropriately dressed guests are doubtless the individuals mentioned in Revelation who are said to be “naked” and counseled to buy garments (Revelation 3:4, 18) in order to join those who are said to wear white robes at the wedding of the Lamb: “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)” (Revelation 19:7-8). Here the fine clothing of the wedding guests is explicitly linked with righteousness – and this clothing is “given to [God’s people] to wear.”
So Christ’s parable should remind us that while we are called to obedience, our own human righteousness will ultimately never be perfect enough by itself. Despite our best efforts our good deeds will sometimes be done for the wrong reasons, and our behavior will not always be perfect. So we are expected to wear better spiritual “clothes” than we could produce ourselves. That is why we are commanded to “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 13:14) for it is God Himself who “is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16. and see also Romans 4:24). Or, as the apostle Paul put it, that we should: “… be found in him, not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). Our “best clothes” are the ones God gives us.